Why Read Fantasy?
Even if you’ve never picked up a fantasy book, you’ve probably heard of Harry Potter. And you probably grew up with fairy tales like Snow White and Cinderella. You’ve got some idea what fantasy is. But, unless you are a reader of fantasy (like yours truly) you probably don’t have more than a cursory knowledge of it. There are those who don’t particularly like to read fantasy and probably wonder what others see in it. As a children’s librarian I’ve had a wide range of kids seeking books, and some of them will gravitate to all things magical, while others stick firmly to the familiar world. If you don’t like fantasy, I won’t try to cure you. But I hope this blog post may give you an appreciation for what others can see in it.
A lot of times I’ll get anxious parents and or even just the occasional opinionated adult with the following questions: “Why have kids read any of this fantasy stuff? It’s not real. It doesn’t prepare them for the real world, and it’s just a bunch of fairies and dragons and wizards and other impossible things. What good does it do them?”
I suppose it’s a fair question.
And while the fan girl that is me would like to just like to be able to exclaim how great fantasy is, hand them a wonderful book and have that be the end of it, I admit that it’s hardly a convincing argument for the skeptics. They’ll imply that fantasy just isn’t as “good” as realistic fiction–the stories and settings are often not only made up out of whole cloth, but simply impossible. And it’s true that you won’t find giant trolls, knights in shining armor and fire-breathing lizards on your regular street corner. You aren’t likely to be handed a book of spells or a quest for a magical artifact anytime soon. And you probably won’t find a way through the rabbit hole into another world.
In the reality we live in, things aren’t perfect. And most kids have discovered this early on. Facing real life can be a daunting and, at times, overwhelming task. Kids need practice dealing with big fears, big tragedies, and big challenges in their lives. They need to learn what it takes not only to survive them, but to prevail. Sometimes that need is met by realistic fiction. But if an issue is too big, too raw or too close to home for the reader, realistic fiction can backfire. Back when I was 8 years old and dealing with bullies, some well meaning individual handed me Blubber by Judy Blume. Can I tell you I hated that book at the time? I didn’t want to hear about some other kid being bullied. I didn’t want to be thrown back into the school world I was forced to inhabit daily.
Some kids want their stories divorced from their actual lives, in a place that’s safe to imagine and read about because it’s not what they face at home or at school. That was me. Through fantasy stories, kids get a mental toolkit to take back with them into their own lives. They get practice tackling issues and being brave and making the right choices. The best fantasies feel real. The best fantasies reach right into you, make you believe in that world and characters . In the midst of impossibility, readers find themselves dealing with very familiar issues and emotions.
Look at many of the themes and issues in fantasy stories and you’ll find they’re very similar to the ones you’d find in many works of fiction: Friendship, courage, determination, fear of failure, not fitting in, finding your own purpose in life, making hard choices, winning love and acceptance and risking rejection. It’s a hefty little mental toolkit even if it’s constructed with help from dragons and magic and adventure. And that toolkit will help kids survive their real life journeys, personal struggles and the darknesses that do exist in our world. Kids need to learn that monsters can be defeated. That the journey and struggle might not be easy, it might even mean a lot of hardship and sacrifice, but they can face their problems and succeed, despite how dark it looks at the outset.
And besides, everyone can use a little spark of magic in their lives. Part of the fun of the human imagination is that we can create the impossible, it’s a skill that’s well worth embracing. Whether we’re reading about the orphan boy who lived under the stairs until his letter from Hogwarts arrived, the literary spider with a crusade, the girl from Kansas trying to get home, or the young man climbing a giant beanstalk, fantasy is a vivid part of our stories and story telling.