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Engaging Methuen Readers


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When Children’s Fantasy Became A Reality

Fantasy isn’t new. The Brothers Grimm recorded fantastical stories back in the 19th century, and prior to that time, tales of dragons and warriors of stunning prowess dominated ancient literature and mythology. Originally, however, there was no distinction between fantasy for adults and fantasy for children. In fact, when the Grimms originally published the fairy and folk tales they collected from the hardworking people of far-flung corners of Europe, they were stunned to realize that well-off city people were reading them to their children. These were dark, gory tales, replete with violence and rape, that expressed complicated adult topics in metaphorical language. The Grimms had never dreamed that people would try to use them as bedtime stories.

Needless to say, they hastily printed a more kid-friendly “small edition” of their fairy tales, filing down some of the grittier details and adding a lot of pictures and Christian imagery.

The whole idea of kid-friendly stories was relatively new to the 1800s. Prior to that, kids were, at best, little adults. At worst, they could be put to work on a farm or in a factory. Childhood wasn’t considered a special time until industrialization generated a middle class, which then advocated against child labor and for education. We have an 1800s reform movement, which arose in reaction to the Industrial Revolution, to thank for the idea that people should spend their early years being educated.

Once people decided to start teaching kids instead of exploiting them, they quickly realized the value of letting kids read. Already, public libraries had caught on as a way to improve the masses and make them content in their social stations, although the reality of libraries often skewed toward entertaining the masses and making them question the status quo.

Thus it was with the development of children’s fantasy. Brothers Grimm stories painted over with Christian morality paved the way for Victorian fables like Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies, an 1863 morality story so mawkish and racist that it’s a little shocking that it was ever considered a mainstay of children’s literature. Nevertheless, it was an entertaining way to force moral and social education down the throats of children. Speaking Likenesses by Christina Rosetti (1874) fell along the same moral themes. Even Oscar Wilde’s fables usually imparted a lesson of some kind. However, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, published just two years after The Water Babies, moved away from moral education and proved much more enduringly popular with both adults and children. Despite its wacky, nonsensical veneer, Alice was essentially about growing up in a world that often seemed distressingly random and absurd.

Subsequent fantasies for children, like J.M. Barrie’s early 20th-century novelization of his popular play, Peter Pan, explored territory that the Grimms might have recognized. Barrie’s titular hero, Peter, wore dead leaves, kidnapped children, never aged, and flew – all traits of a ghost in a story that grappled with mortality. The Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum, which debuted in 1900, also opted to entertain rather than preach and tapped themes of responsibility and friendship.

The 20th century would see a boom in children’s fantasy literature. In 1950, The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe sought to revive the Christian allegory couched in an entertaining fantasy novel for children, while The Fellowship of the Ring generated a British mythology in 1954. Children’s fantasy continued to flourish in the 1960s, when books by Madeline L’Engle would follow in the religiously overt footsteps of C.S. Lewis, while others by Ursula LeGuin would seek to express more primal, mythologically inspired themes.

Since the 1960s, children’s fantasy has burgeoned to include works as diverse as Roald Dahl’s Matilda and J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. They run the gamut of themes and serve a vast array of audiences. Recently, fantasy for children has begun to focus on authors and characters of marginalized demographics, who haven’t generally historically experienced a great deal of representation in this genre. Female authors, authors of color, and LGBTQ authors are all experiencing an increase in representation among children’s fantasy.

As children’s fantasy continues to grow in popularity, it will continue to evolve to suit new generations of reading children. Where it goes next is anybody’s guess. However, wherever that is, both kids and adults will avidly follow.

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One Minute Book Review: Warriors by Erin Hunter

Cover image for Into the WildAs a child, I’ve grown up reading Warriors since the third grade. I’m now in my second year of college, and I continue to keep updated with the series. I just can’t bear to leave these characters and their intricate plots behind. In my opinion, Warriors may be simply written but the ideas and the themes are definitely complex. After all, what’s so childish about politics, murder, and forbidden love?
Characters are pushed to their breaking point, and if the series were written for an older audience, I think we would see even more turmoil. However, as it’s marketed for children, most scenes are limited to the true gore and turmoil it could’ve portrayed. The authors could’ve gone further and beyond if they targeted an older audience. Personally, I believe targeting the books to an older audience would have allowed the authors freedom to expand their horizons on more “adult” topics. And as the series carries on, it loses the edge and spunk that the first mini-series held.  Are the ideas underdeveloped? Yes, truthfully, they are. Is Warriors worth the read then? It definitely still is.

                                                                                                                                     ∼ Samm, Library Page
Warriors Series by Erin Hunter
(first title in series:  Warriors:  Into the Wild)
New York : HarperCollins, 2003


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Bookish Confessions: The Bedtime Book

Everyone seems to have their own special ritual that they use to unwind before going to sleep at night.  Some folks turn off their computers and phones, watch TV, take a bath, sniff lavender, or sip chamomile tea. As for me, I like to read children’s books. Full disclosure: I am an adult with no children at home, and I am not a children’s librarian.

Like many people who read to relax, I take some time before going to sleep to forget about the day’s minutiae and just concentrate on my book. To accomplish this soothing nighttime ritual, I need to have the right book for this very special time. I love mysteries, but then I want to keep reading to find out what happens next – the suspense of it all will keep my mind churning. Likewise, Young Adult books can sometimes be too angst-filled and fretful for bedtime. So, I turn to children’s novels, specifically those for grades 5-8. Such books are often sophisticated enough to hold my interest. Moreover, no matter what the story is about, these stories seem to strike the right balance of struggle, humor, poignancy, and hope.  It is with this promise, that there is hope for tomorrow, that I can be lulled to sleep.

Recent children’s books that I have enjoyed include The Perfect Place by Teresa Harris, Moonpenny Island by Tricia Springstubb, and Dear Hank Williams by Kimberly Willis Holt.