How a gothic horror novel can teach kids

A Journey with Strange Bedfellows: An Interview with Jan C J Jones

"A Journey with Strange Bedfellows":
An Interview with Jan C J Jones
How a gothic horror graphic novel can be used to teach kids

It may seem unorthodox to some but I have long held the belief that the genre of horror in various popular culture forms can be used as pedagogical tools for young students. When I first started graduate school so many years ago (erm, no need to mention years or dates here), popular culture studies as an academic discipline was new and lacked the same respect afforded to its more conventional counterparts. Times have changed since then and though some may argue that not much has changed at all, one cannot deny that the study of popular culture has already infiltrated various disciplines within academia. Particularly, the study of horror in literature, film, and various media forms isn’t anything new among college and university students. When it comes to the educational tools offered to the younger crowd, however, the study of popular culture particularly in reference to the horror genre is practically non-existent.

Circus Living's "Kids can learn from monsters too" series

So I made it my quest to find individuals, organizations, and groups who share my vision that elements of the unknown can be used to educate the younger crowd as part of Circus Living’s ongoing series ‘Kids can learn from monsters too’.

In that vein, I am happy to write that beautifully illustrated gothic horror novel “A Journey with Strange Bedfellows” will start off our series in what I hope will only flourish in the future. To give you a little bit of a background, "A Journey with Strange Bedfellows" is a Victorian gothic horror story set in the late 1800s. The novel adapts Classic horror short stories originally penned by authors Nathaniel Hawthorne, Wilkie Collins, Jack London, Bram Stoker, Jerome K. Jerome and Hector H. Munro (aka 'Saki') into a single, continuous adventure.

It only seems fitting that "A Journey with Strange Bedfellows" serves as an introduction to folks who already share our vision as well as to ones who are still doubtful that entertainment can be successfully interspersed with education. “A Journey With Strange Bedfellows” provides all the necessary tools in order to make use of the graphic novel in a classroom or home setting. There is no guessing game here. Everything is nicely laid out for educators in the form of a comprehensive guide. Designed as an educational tool for ages 12 years and up, "A Journey with Strange Bedfellows" is accompanied by an audio drama and educators’ guide which work as a “listen, look, learn” literacy education bundle structured to align with public, private and home-school programs in both secular and non-secular environments (including English-as-a-second-language applications). The bundle is based on a S.T.E.A.M core curriculum.

I had the opportunity to interview Jan, founder of "A Journey with Strange Bedfellows", to find out more about the creative process involved in making the gothic horror graphic novel, its accompanying educational components, her thoughts on using gothic horror to educate, as well as her future plans involving an upcoming educational board game.

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What inspired you to create "A Journey with Strange Bedfellows"?

I was inspired to write “A Journey With Strange Bedfellows” when I wondered what it would take to re-introduce classic literature in a unique way. After watching episodes of Disney’s ABC’s “Once Upon a Time” where numerous classic fairytales and their characters were “mashed up” to produce a more epic tale, I pondered how that story-telling technique might be employed to incorporate other classic works of literature.

Can you tell me a bit about the process you followed when developing this project? 

Having studied and written scripts for film & video, commercials, and theatrical presentations as projects through my company, Forest Rose Productions LLC, the conventional “box office smash” story structure is patently familiar. Even if one strays from that “formula,” it’s a good place to start in structuring a story. The first challenge was to locate public domain short stories whose motifs would satisfy the “beats” that comprise popular, successful stories. Their themes would be both timeless and timely. It took more than a year to pin-down the short stories written by six different “strange” authors; Nathaniel Hawthorne, Bram Stoker, Jack London, Jerome K. Jerome, Wilkie Collins, and Hector H. “Saki” Munro. With a smidgeon of sci-fi, a splash of romance, a skoosh of mystery, a dash of “steampunk” and a huge dollop of adventure, the overall tone screamed, “Gothic horror!”. Setting the story in the Victorian era was a given.

As parents, we would be remiss not to prepare our children for “darkly” difficult or adverse situations; failure, loss, disappointment, pain, deceit, illness, prejudice, death. As much as I would have preferred to keep my children locked safely away in a pretty pearlescent protective bubble, I realize how destructive and dangerous that would ultimately be for them.

Countless details were modified so the stories would merge to form a continuous journey. Although modifying public domain stories is an acceptable practice, I tried to maintain the original author’s voice and stay true to original themes. While other messages are delivered along the way, “Journey” presents the value, importance and dangers of “self-sacrifice.”

Readers glean lessons regarding karma, innocence versus ignorance, misplaced trust, and hypocrisy.

What do you aim to accomplish with this project?

What I hoped to accomplish evolved as I just wanted to see if I could string together classic short stories using smooth transitions. Then I wondered, Does this story ‘have legs?’ I handed the story to other creatives to see what might happen; how they might react or what they might do with it. Of the many paths possible, I adapted the story to an audio drama script which posed a set of challenges. The audio drama was produced and directed by Fred Greenhalgh (FinalRune Productions) and performed by a multi-talented ensemble cast. Sound F/X were added and Belgium composer, Peter Van Riet created the original music score that sets the perfect tone throughout.

Life was breathed into the story and I couldn’t have been more pleased to watch (hear) it transform into something far richer than I originally imagined. The two (2) hour long audio drama received a Mark Time Ogle Award for excellence in audio storytelling (horror category) and was featured as an “Official Listening Selection” at the HEAR Now: The Audio Fiction and Audio Arts Festival.

Around the same time as the audio drama was completed, I became a volunteer for the Denver Comic Convention founded by Pop Culture Classroom, “a nonprofit organization that educates in the areas of literacy and arts through alternative approaches to learning and character development. The organization creates educational programs for underserved youths, schools and communities by using comic books, graphic novels and related media to inspire passion for reading, art, and learning.”

I became convinced that “Journey” could be used as a literacy tool especially if paired with a really good graphic novel. It took a couple of years to find the ideal illustrator to adapt the story to graphic novel form. David Stoll occupied a table in “Artist Alley” at the 2015 Denver Comic-Con. With his having a Masters of Fine Arts in sequential art, David’s portfolio demonstrated incredible cinematic illustration expertise, meaning he draws a scene from every possible angle to create flow from panel to panel, page to page. If after reading “Journey” (the graphic novel), young readers want to become an illustrator, David’s path would definitely be a prime example to follow. The graphic novel took two (2) years to complete. Every panel is a work of art and there are approximately 600 panels in the book. Tasks ordinarily shared by a team of artists, David sketched, inked, colored, and lettered the entire book. The best sequential artists / illustrators also have an innate understanding of story structure and pacing. To create a “page turner,” each page needs to end on a little (or large) cliffhanger that compels the reader to keep turning pages and reading.

Where do you see it going in the future?

Although the “Journey” audio drama and graphic novel are stand-alone products, I’d very much like to see the “Journey” education bundle migrate into a variety of literacy education applications and programs. Libraries have found that adding graphic novels to their shelves has reinvigorated patron visits, attracting young readers as well as young artists and spurring the demand for comic-centric events. We’re currently querying literary agents / agencies for consideration of representation with the end-goal of attracting an established publisher who understands “edu-tainment.” I believe “Journey” has the potential to expand into multiple delivery platforms, domestically and abroad. So much thought and work has gone into “Journey” provided by so many incredibly talented individuals, this quality project deserves an agent / agency and publisher with ability to move the project to success.

Can you share your future plans regarding the upcoming board game?

I’m SO excited about the “Strange Journey” board game! As a kid I enjoyed playing table-top games but lost interest, desiring more than just buying property to “win by greatest wealth” or rolling dice to “get there first.” Structured not unlike a story, the game “Strange Journey” incorporates elements that require players to give and take (as people must do in real life) to progress, to survive and win. For example, at the start of the game each player has a “Benevolence Card” that is their most important card but having the least monetary value. A player cannot win if they have the card in their possession; they must award it to another player and, conversely, they must gain a Benevolence Card from another player. Players can elect to move around the board, in any direction (with some limitations, of course). They can play singularly, with temporary alliances or as teams that can be formed at any time. What other game instructs a player to “Go to Laboratory - Get Lobotomy” and it’s a good thing? (The tongue-in-cheek message is that it’s okay to seek help.) Many messages are delivered throughout play that educate in many ways. Players have a Hero Marker, paired with a Companion Marker. There are instances where having a companion is beneficial yet times when a player must decide to abandon, sacrifice, or rescue their companion. The game weighs heavily on player interaction and communication.

Obviously, you feel there is a place for horror/gothic literature in children's education. Can you share your thoughts on why you chose to focus on horror/gothic literature for this project?

Advanced communication technology has revealed the world to be an especially dark place filled with unimaginable horrors, hasn’t it? Throughout history, every culture has used various means to teach their children how to survive. As parents, we would be remiss not to prepare our children for “darkly” difficult or adverse situations; failure, loss, disappointment, pain, deceit, illness, prejudice, death. As much as I would have preferred to keep my children locked safely away in a pretty pearlescent protective bubble, I realize how destructive and dangerous that would ultimately be for them. I want all children to be strong, resilient, wise, caring, empathetic and appreciative of all that is good in the world. I’ve often said, “How do we know the light if not for the dark?” How can anyone know “good” without contrasting it with… evil? Therefore, it’s our responsibility to provide thoughtful, and thought-filled, examples for our children facilitated with perceptive guidance. After all, throwing a non-swimming child into a pool is not a judicious way for them to learn to swim. That’s where “age-appropriate” dark literature and open discussion come into play. What “age-appropriate” means may be debatable and certainly rests with the sensibilities of a child’s parents (or guardians). Discussion is the key ingredient.

Children are amazingly clever and tuned-in. They learn from situations presented in literature, movies, song lyrics and art; good and bad. They mimic actions and reactions. Unreasonable fear and foolhardiness passed from a parent are a disservice to the child and all too frequently, to society. Empathetic children usually learn empathy from their parents. Stories that are too “fluffy” or “violent” skew a child’s concept of the world and their place in it. More prudent are stories that provide a middle ground that instills healthy levels of curiosity and wariness. To read a cautionary Grimm’s Fairytale to young children then leaving them to “figure it out” can be dangerous without distinguishing for them what aspects are noble, moral, acceptable and honorable. Negative deeds and situations need to be identified. Discussing the lessons that characters learned is invaluable. Asking them about how various characters may have felt at certain points in the story, or encouraging kids to reenact the story can produce some enlightening discussions about desirable versus inappropriate behaviors or attitudes. Stories should provoke thought, stimulate imaginations and motivate innovation in positive ways.

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