I’m going to be speaking on a panel at TLA next week, and the topic will be Fantasy for Young Readers, which has me thinking a lot about fantasy and writing and (duh!) young readers. One of the questions I come back to time and again is, Why fantasy? Why does fantasy speak to some young readers so much more loudly that realistic fiction? And why am I so drawn to that genre?
As a writer, probably the simplest answer to this question is that fantasy is closer to my worldview than realistic fiction. (And how much do I love having a profession where I can say that and not risk getting locked up!) I have always looked for and found small magics and mysteries in my life, which makes the world a much more interesting place.
For me, all the emotions I felt as a kid were so much bigger than the real world seemed to justify, or the adults in my life seemed to think were warranted. What I sensed in the world around me, what I perceived, how I reacted, all of that seemed totally different from others I knew. Of course, being a child, one does not have a whole lot of perspective or context for one’s emotions.
Fantasy is also the story form most closely related to myths and legends, another type of story that I simply could not get enough of as a child, for in those stories, big things happened; beautiful unexpected things or surprising and terrifying things, but in those stories, my emotional responses seemed to fit.
Although of course there is always the chicken/egg aspect as well. Did those stories create a love of fantasy, or merely cement an already strong preference?
Another question I’ve been asking myself a lot lately is why is fantasy important for young readers? What do fantasy stories bring to the body of children’s literature? Here are some of the answers I came up with.
Growing the Imagination
We forget that imagination isn’t simply about being able to escape into a world where fairies and ogres and wizards exist. Imagination is so much, much more. As Einstein said:
When I examine myself and my methods of thought, I come to the conclusion that the gift of fantasy has meant more to me than any talent for abstract, positive thinking. [I know, I promise I'll quit flogging you with this quote after today.]
And I think that we as a modern society forget just how many truly great strides in non-artistic fields are made by leaps of imagination. Science, technology, mathematics, physics, astronomy, all of those have been fueled by people’s imaginations. If, as children, we are only exposed to what actually exists, are only told about the limits of our world, we will never learn to strive beyond those—we will never learn that joy of believing in something improbable, whether it be a new way of looking at string theory or of reaching for a dream that only someone not tethered to reality would dare to reach for.
Think outside the box, innovations, none of that stuff could happen without imagination.
Sure, we’re born hardwired for certain types of thought, but we can also learn to branch out from our natural preferences. Analytical and critical thinking can absolutely be taught, so can imagination. It can be strengthened like any muscle.
I also think that imagination is closely tied to empathy. It is hard to put yourself in someone elses' shoes without using your imagination to try to understand how they might feel.
Many readers read in order to experience catharsis, that emotionally wringing, satisfied yet exhausted feeling of having come through some great physical or emotional ordeal and survived.
Children seem to be drawn to more black and white conflicts than adult readers, they like to see evil defeated, bad guys get their comeuppance. The truth is, in realistic fiction, there are only a handful of behaviors that qualify a person as truly evil, and few of those are suitable for kids books.
By its nature, Fantasy deals with huge stakes and conflicts: good vs evil, triumphing over enormous odds, bone crushing stakes. It is a wonderful theater for kids to observe the impossible odds being beaten. No, that doesn’t always happen in life, but it happens often enough that it warrants codifying that in our values. If a young child has never read a story of someone triumphing over such odds, how will they know it is possible?
Sure, realistic fiction can do some of this. There are reaslistic stories that include good triumphing over evil or a kid exceeding in spite of almost overwhelming odds. But in realistic fiction, those scenarios are filled with the weight of a lot of pain and must go to a lot of dark, dark places that are often more suited to YA than MG. And sometimes, when stories are too close, too dark, they are too disturbing for the reader.
I heard somewhere, and I can’t for the life of me remember where, that for a reader to be able to get comfortable enough to fully enter a dark story, no more than two of the three elements of the story (plot, character, setting) should be too close to home. If you’re writing about hugely disturbing elements, it can be too intense for readers if something horrible happens to a character like them, in their own world. But if there’s a little distance, a historical or fantasy setting say, then that extra bit of space creates a safety buffer that allows them the distance needed to
Fantasy is also great for teaching the concept of subtext to young readers. Fantasy IS subtext, really. Magical power standing in for personal power, strange forces and magicks taking over our bodies, coming to terms with Others.
What about you? If you’re an avid fantasy reader, what draws you to this genre? If you’re a writer, what compels you to write fantasy?
And, because I haz author copies! everyone who responds to one of those questions in the comments will be entered in a drawing for a copy of Theodosia and the Eyes of Horus, hot off the press!