The Octavia Project, and Top SF/F Recommendations for Young Women

mermaidsThe Octavia Project might be the coolest thing I’ve ever heard of. Starting this summer, girls from underserved neighborhoods in Brooklyn will have the chance to combine an interest in science fiction with hands-on STEM education, honing their SF writing and world-building skills while simultaneously working with guest experts to learn about programming, architecture, electronics, or game design. The program’s founders say their goal is, “to encourage Brooklyn girls to dream big and empower them to design their own futures.”

There’s something else exciting about The Octavia Project, named for barrier-breaking genre writer Octavia Butler: it’s free. They’re currently in the process of raising funds for the project on Indiegogo, and while it’s going well—at the time of this writing, they’ve raised 28% of their goal—they’re not there yet, and still need donations to pay for everything from electronics kits to guest experts.

I recently talked with co-founder Chana Porter about the project’s conception and goals, and why it is such a worthy effort. Following the interview, you can also find her recommendations for SF books to inspire young women in the 13- to- 18-year-old age range the project is targeting.

Tell me a little bit more about why you decided to start this project. What do you find most exciting about it? Why now?

The idea for the Octavia Project grew out of a series of world-building workshops I led last summer through Girls Write Now, an amazing organization in NYC that I’ve been volunteering at as a writing mentor for the last three years. I was stunned and delighted by the response of eight dedicated girls who wanted to spend their summer days with me, writing, reading, dissecting, and discussing popular culture. Some of the girls had already completed first drafts of novels, while all had compelling, complex narratives bubbling inside of them. As a writer, I know how much support, time, and energy it takes to complete a novel. Without the space and encouragement to set their great ideas to the page, I was scared these fledging books would never have the chance to be on a Barnes & Noble bookshelf.

When Meghan McNamara, who is a robotics and science teacher, but also has years of experience directing programs for teens, observed one of our workshops, she immediately recognized that this could be a very special space where girls, through their love and interest in science fiction and fantasy, could learn STEM skills through joy, rather than obligation.

What would a typical day at the summer program look like?

Girls will come in around midday, and after helping themselves to some healthy and hearty snacks, will get started on a writing exercise. Today’s exercise is about developing the world of her story. Or, if a girl prefers, the writing exercise can be about the world her favorite sci-fi book is set in. There will be a series of questions to frame the exploration, and after about 20 minutes or so, there will be a discussion on what is important to include when developing a fictional world. Next, we’ll move into the drawing portion of the workshop. Led by a professional architect, girls will draw maps of a section of their fictional worlds—a city or a town will be mapped out, including locations important to the storyline. Girls will be given direction and tools, but will also be given space to approach the exercise as each sees fit.

After a stretch (or dance) and snack break, we’ll move into the engineering portion of the day, where girls begin to construct a 3-D model of their mapped city, again guided by our [guest] architect. This project will continue for the duration of the week, spending a significant portion of each workshop on developing their model. The writing exercises and discussions will evolve, but they will remain linked to our models.  Eventually, some of the models will be displayed at our end-of-summer gallery showcase alongside passages of the girls’ writing.

Who will participate in this program? How will you select your first class?

Brooklyn girls ages 13 to 18, with the desire and time to commit to the program, are eligible.  Twelve to 15 girls will be selected for this summer, in order to keep the program small and intimate.  This program isn’t just for writers or teens interested in tech—gamers, anime lovers, fan fiction aficionados, anyone with a passionate spirit and a willingness to try new things, is welcome.

We’re gearing up to send out applications to local high schools. They will also be available soon on our website to download, octaviaproject.org.  In the meantime, girls, parents, or teachers can email info@octaviaproject.org.

Why combine science education with creative storytelling?

There are so many ways, especially in this digital age, to tell a story.  A story can be told in the form of a game, as a comic, in a video or animation.  And a lot of these forms require skills in areas beyond creative writing.  Telling a story in the form of an online game requires coding skills; telling a story in the form of an animation requires design and video editing skills; and sharing your story requires digital and web literacy.

We see STEM not as separate from storytelling, but as a tool to enhance storytelling. Often when STEM is taught in school, it is completely separated from students’ interests and passions.  In our program, learning will begin with students’ interests, and from there we will explore new skills through projects of our own design.

What are your hopes for The Octavia Project? What comes next?

Right now we’re busy with preparations for this summer’s program, developing workshop curriculum, booking guest artists, beginning to reach out to schools.  So much of what this summer’s program will be able to do depends on getting the funding we need.  We’re in the thick of our online crowdsourcing campaign, the funds from which will go to paying teaching artists and for workshop space. Launching this summer’s program will also coincide with me finishing my debut novel, Seep, an alien infiltration story, the germ of which was planted in a library almost fifteen years ago by stumbling across Octavia Butler’s Dawn.

We hope to be able to expand the program next year, offering more workshops per week for a longer period.  Sustainability and growth of the program will involve things like paying part-time admin staff and growing our volunteer base.  We also have a really great Advisory Board, who we couldn’t have gotten this far without, that will continue to grow as our program does.

Finally, teenage girls aren’t necessarily a well-served demographic in science fiction. What SFF do you recommend for this age group?

When I was about 16, I pulled Octavia Butler’s Dawn off a bookshelf, the first book in the Lilith’s Brood series. In Dawn, alien beings have come to Earth to essentially mate with us after a nuclear disaster has wreaked havoc on our planet. I remember being a little breathless at these wild configurations of romantic love and family in this newly forming society.

Fledging, also by Octavia Butler, is a wonderfully compelling novel which follows Shori, a vampire who looks like a child (but is much older and very powerful) who wakes up one day having lost her memory. Fans of anything vampire will eat this one up.

Robin Hobb’s Farseer Trilogy is a beautiful fantasy series, for lovers of sword and sorcery, dragons, psychic powers, speaking with animals, the list goes on! It’s all the court intrigue and magical wonder of Game of Thrones without people getting their heads chopped off. (Which is a win, in my opinion.)

We all should be reading everything by Nnedi Okorafor, but I’m partial to her Akata Witch series for younger readers. A fresh coming-of-age story about a magical young woman, set in Nigeria.

N.K. Jemisin’s terrific The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms series is deeply romantic yet action-packed, drawing on mythology (a subject which fascinated me as a young Chana) to create a lush three-dimensional world. Older teen fans of a fierce female protagonist, journeys of personal power, and well-written love stories are going to devour this trilogy.

Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon is a must for older teens who love classic adventure stories with big doses of mystery and action. A great combination of weary reluctant heroes, gory supernatural murders, ghuls, and a mysterious master thief. Also there’s a girl who can transform into a tiger, which makes it a must-read to me.

Zetta Elliot’s A Wish After Midnight starts off in current-day Brooklyn, following 15-year-old Genna. When Genna makes a wish one fateful evening, she is transported back in time to Civil War-era Brooklyn, a trip that changes how she looks at herself and the world around her in a permanent way. This book is a must-read for anyone who enjoys a mixing of history and fantasy and for anyone who cautiously believes wishes can come true.

Michelle Tea captures a teenager’s voice perfectly in Mermaid in Chelsea Creek, while creating at once a poetic, grittily naturalistic while fantastical story. It’s a bold YA debut, focusing around a girl named Sophie who, through visions of a mermaid in a creek, begins to understand that she is meant to save the world.

This list would be incomplete with Ursula K. Le Guin. For younger teens, her Earthsea series is a classic for a reason, growing in maturity and nuance book after book. For slightly older teens, Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven is a gorgeous little novel about a man whose dreams change his physical reality. It’s also a love story at the core!

Any book recommendations for teenagers who love science but hate reading?

Why not try Carl Sagan’s classic ContactA fascinating exploration of human first contact with a much more advanced alien life form, written by an astronomer.  There are also some fun STEM-themed graphic novels out there, like T-Minus: The Race to the MoonThe Stuff of Life: A Graphic Guide to Genetics and DNA, and The Manga Guide to Calculus.

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