Monday, April 05, 2010

Why Fantasy?

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!


Katy Cooper said...

What great, thought-provoking questions. The only answer I could come up with applies to reading and writing fantasy, from my perspective, anyway: Fantasy lets you explore the truth in a way "realistic" fiction doesn't. The real world comes with a whole lot of baggage in terms of understanding and expectation, and I think you apply that to the world in the story when it's apparently in our world.

When you're dealing with an imaginary world, you can't use those expectations as shortcuts to understanding, not in the same way, anyway, because a fantasy world isn't this world. The expectations you bring are going to bump against one or many things that are different. It's like a tuna salad sandwich: if you make it with cranberries*, it's not the same thing as one made with celery, so your expectations of tuna salad sandwich are going to be confounded. I find illumination in that.

* I've had tuna salad with cranberries and it's surprisingly fabulous--it's the only time I haven't needed potato chips to go along with it.

andalucy said...

I recently saw a documentary on Arthur Henry King who was a British poet and educator. One of his former students talked about the story King once told of having seen fairies skating on the pond behind his house when he was about 6. He ran into the house and told his Quaker father, who wouldn't let him do anything until he admitted to having told a lie. When King was asked by his students what it was he thought he saw behind his house that night he said, "I have no reason to believe they weren't fairies." The former student said he could tell King believed that, and what's more, his conviction made others believe it, too.

I don't think the belief was necessarily in fairies, but in possibilities. That there is so much out there left to discover. That we are not so distanced from our myth-creating ancestors as we sometimes think.

Robin L said...

Wow Katy, I love your point about the baggage the real world carries. (And am now craving tuna salad, thankyouverymuch!)

Lucy, I love that anecdote, and that he still had no reason to believe it wasn't fairies, all those years later. I totally agree with you that the belief is really about possibilities. Very well said!

Icarus said...

I am going to piggy back on your comment about realistic fiction being too real. When the Hollywood version of "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" came out, I was just itching to take him to see it. Concerned that it might be too scary/violent I showed him the trailer and he said it wasn't scary at all. However, at the theater, the opening scene of the London Blitz terrified him to the point that I picked him up to leave the theater. (The scene ended before I got to the door, and then he wanted to stay.) His young mind was able to accept the fictionality of a battle with dwarves, minotaurs, centaurs, etc., but not the "fiction" of a house that looked like his being bombed.

The obviously fictional world is a 'safe' place to deal with what is too frightening in our own world. Fantasy worlds are a great place for a child to have a "hero journey" (a la Joseph Campbell) without having to give up the true safety of their real world.

@Lucy I read an interview with Guillermo del Toro (director and scriptwriter of "Pan's Labyrinth") in which he got a good bit of the material from his childhood. He moved to live with his grandmother at a fairly young age and says in all seriousness that a faun came out from behind his wardrobe to talk to him at night and comforted him. How fantastic (in every sense of the word) is that?

One last anecdote, I have a close friend who lived in a tribal environment in the Phillipines as a child. He told me once about an ostracized woman who came into their village one time. He and the other children were running behind her taunting her and throwing pebbles and sticks at her. He says that she transformed into a werewolfish creature right there in broad day light, and ran away. I asked him how he reconciled that memory with what he thinks really happened. He gave me a perplexed look, shrugged and said something like "Here in the US i can say that things like that cannot happen, but in my childhood in the Phillipines werewolves were a part of our "reality," so I can't look at that experience through any other lens. I have to tell you that it happened just as I told you."

Speaking of stories, it is time for me to read to my kids. Got to go.

Story Weaver said...

Great insight on the dark tidbits of a book. I'm not content unless my characters stand to lose their lives or the lives of someone they love. That's why it helps to have a fantasy setting to soften the harsh reality.

But to answer your question, I prefer fantasy because there's NO RULES. The world is clay in your hands and you can throw characters into the craziest conflicts.

When you think about it, writers get PAID to lie.

AvDB said...

Fantasy is based entirely upon the question, "What if?" As children discover the world, they also are beginning the process of discovering their place in it. Children are told from an early age anything is possible, but soon it becomes apparent that many barriers--among them the educational system, their parents, culture, and socioeconomic status--stand in the way of what could be.

Fantasy is like a pressure valve. It removes the intensity from the process of "becoming." It gives children the room to fully explore that "What if?" scenario, giving them a vast, open plain of make-believe in which to safely assess themselves and their dreams, to fully realize their potential. Fantasy is both a haven from reality, and a foundation for living.

Robin L said...

Wow Icarus, what a great illustration of that "too close to home" point! And I agree; fiction is such a wonderful, safe place to try out all sorts of situations! LOVE the story about Guillermo and the faun, and your friend from the Phillipines. LOVE. THEM.

Story Weaver, which is exactly why I love being a writer--I get paid to daydream and lie! What could be better? And interesting that you need your characters to have such high stakes.

Welcome Avery! What if, are two of my favorite words EVER. What if just opens so many worlds of possibility. I love the idea that fantasy is a pressure valve. A resounding YES. I also love your comment that fantasy is both a haven and a foundation. Another big, fat resounding YES.

MJReed09 said...

I write fantasy for two reasons. The more important to me is that it gives me free reign in my universe. It allows me the liberty to forgo pesky concepts like "physics" when I need to.
I would imagine that the lure of playing god in your own little world is a appealing to a lot of people.

On the other hand, fantasy is the perfect vehicle to address topics as I see fit. In fantasy I can craft characters, societies, personalities, and conflicts in any way. And by doing so I can write to any theme or topic I want to discuss.

You can move beyond traditional boy-meet-girl or boy-is-destined-to-save-the-world plotting to argue moral relativists vs absolutists, or the merits of oligarchy.

I really, relish the opportunity to mold situations to discuss situations that aren't possible (or believable) in real life...but that's just me.