Musings on children's and YA literature, the academy, and the relationship between them, from an English professor and mother.

Monday, October 02, 2006


I love fantasy literature, but I think it's a relatively recent passion with me. Oh, I read the Tolkien books and the Chronicles of Narnia and Madeleine L'Engle's books as a child, but I really spent more time with the Little House books and other domestic realism. Or that's how I remember it now. I was slightly embarrassed in my teenage years by my pre-adolescent love of the Tolkien books, in particular: how could I have spent so many hours in obsessive fantasy-play with those characters, when there weren't even any girls? And what was the point of all that sword-and-sorcery stuff, anyway?

I re-encountered fantasy, after a hiatus of at least twenty years, when my daughter was small. We read the Narnia books, and I didn't much care for them any more. I read her the Tolkien trilogy, ditto. (I did, and do, love The Hobbit, but the trilogy, with its faux-medievalism and its high seriousness, not so much.) I rediscovered Susan Cooper and Lloyd Alexander, and those went considerably better for me than the earlier ones. Then we discovered, nearly simultaneously, Harry Potter and His Dark Materials. And somehow the floodgates opened, and I began teaching children's lit, and I read The Giver and A Wizard of Earthsea and The Neverending Story (that one I do remember from late adolescence) and, more recently, Skellig and the Chrestomanci books and some Terry Pratchett.

We are living, it seems, in a golden age of children's fantasy, perhaps the third one ever. The first was of course inaugurated by the Alice books and followed up by George MacDonald and a host of other writers; the second, by Lewis and Tolkien. Now we have Gaiman and Pratchett, Pullman and Rowling. Notice the connections? I've got one woman on that list, and not one American. Even if I add LeGuin and L'Engle and Cooper, still it's a list dominated by white British men. And, as a student of mine noted today, it's white British men writing about little (white British) girls--just as in the first "golden age."

Things are, of course, more complicated than that. Many of the books I mentioned are about boys, in fact, and their gender politics are more complicated than mere protagonist-identification could suggest. Britain now isn't Britain then, and the same could be said for little girls.

But this has gone on too long and I haven't even gotten to my point, which is how much bad fantasy is out there now. Has it always been, and I just didn't notice? And how do I distinguish between bad fantasy and good? Here's a start:

The best children’s novels are those that make the real magical and the magical real.

(from a review by Amanda Craig in the Times)

So, the question for the day is: how do children's fantasies make "the real magical and the magical real"? And can domestic realism do the same?

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