I had a teacher, when I was in 8th grade--this is true, her name was Ms. Reeder *laughter* yes, she's now a professor in California-- and I was what we call in the industry a reluctant reader, that is a fancy term for "me no like-y books" and she couldn't get me to read. I was one of these boys-- it happens to a lot, more boys than girls, but it happens to a lot of kids between about 5th and 7th grade, they fall out of reading. And for me I suddenly found books boring during that era. I joke about it in one of my books actually, these books with the awards on the cover with the boy who has a pet dog and then the dog dies and that's your story. And I thought these were boring. I did try Tolkien, but if you're not a good reader trying The Lord of the Rings, I bounced off that so hard, had no idea what's going on. I got to like the barrow-wights scene, like "Euhhh what's going on? This is boring..."
That was a few years before my 8th grade year where my teacher, she realized I was struggling. And she realized that I was faking my way through book reports. And so she called me up after class and she said "The next book report is going to be a book that I have read and then you are going to read and we are going to talk about it." So she took me to the back of the room and teachers have these racks of ratty paperbacks… it's like a hundred kids have read these books, they're stained with school lunch spaghetti sauce and things like that. But these were some of her favorite books that she loaned out to students, and I browsed through those and I found a book called Dragonsbane, Barbara Hambly. Nowadays kind of a lesser known classic of the genre, it's fantastic, I love it. It has this gorgeous Michael Whelan cover on it. And it was longer than books I had tried before but it also looked more interesting. So I dove into that book, and you know the weird thing about this book is that it should not have worked, right? If you've read Dragonsbane it's about a middle-aged woman who has been told that if she would just dedicate herself to her magic-craft she could be one of the greatest practitioners ever. Her teacher keeps saying to her "Look you just need to dedicate yourself more". And at the same time she has a family, several children and a husband who in the book is called to go and slay a dragon. He's like in his fifties now, he killed one once when he was twenty, he's the only living dragonslayer and the story is sort of about him going "Oh I've got to go and kill this dragon" and her saying "Uh… You're in your fifties, you're going to get killed." It's a really interesting story, told through this woman's eyes and it's basically a middle-aged woman having a mid-life crisis, having to choose between her career and her family. Not normally what you would give to a 14-year-old boy and expect him to absolutely love it. But this is the power of fantasy, it's why I love the genre, it's why I came to love it.
It's the answer to your question, because I feel that in fantasy and science fiction we can blend the sense of the fantastic with the sense of the familiar and we can learn about people around us while having an awesome story at the same time. I remember a few years ago there were books that would come out, it was for parents to fool their kids into eating vegetables, they would say "You can mix this vegetable with this food and they won't taste it". I kind of view fantasy a little like that. You can have this awesome adventure that's really fun and exciting and at the same time you can deal with lots of interesting real-world issues but not be pretentious. You know there are a lot of great books in a lot of genres, but I'll read some that are "realistic" fiction and they just hit you with this moral so much that you are sick of it after the third chapter. Whatever the reason-- I know what the reason is that this book connected with me. My mother graduated first of her class in accounting in a year where she was the only woman in the accounting department. After doing that she had received a scholarship to go get a CPA and she had made the decision that "You know what I'm pregnant, I'm going to stay home with my son while he's a little kid until he goes back to school and then I'll go back to a job." And as a kid, you know, when I heard this story as a teenager I was "Well of course she did, it's me". Right? When you're a teen everything is about you, "Well obviously that's the right decision". In reading this book and seeing where it wasn't accounting it was magic I was like "Woooh that's how my mom feels about accounting and she gave that up, it's not an easy decision, it's not the obvious decision. Both decisions are right, she just picked one of the two and she did it for me". And so I get out of this book, this goofy fantasy novel about killing a dragon, and I understand my mother better. And that blew my mind as a kid. I ran back to my teacher, "there have to be more books like this" and so she took me to the library, which I had not spent much time in, and I just went to the card catalogue… the cards in a line, you read them by title and the next book in line was Dragon Prince by Melanie Rawn so I got into those books, and then the next book after that in line was Dragonflight by Anne McCaffrey. That was my introduction to fantasy. I spent the next months reading every Anne McCaffrey, Barbara Hambly, and Melanie Rawn book I could get my hands on, to the point that when someone handed me David Eddings that summer I said "I don't think guys can write this genre." *laughter* I was really skeptical. That was my mentorship, those three ladies.