While recently reading an essay on writing for children I ran once again into a common misconception: that children read fantasy because they're not yet mature enough to put away a primitive, ignorant view of the world. (And of course this says nothing good about adults who read fantasy! Clearly we are somehow in denial of reality, or merely looking wistfully backward, as this particular essayist opined. There's definitely something wrong with such arrested development.) The idea is that reading fantasy is shallow escapism, while presumably reading realistic fiction is all about engaging with the world in a mature and meaningful way. I would argue that there's certainly an element of escapism in all recreational reading. After all, even if you're reading biographies or scholarly history, for example, you're still immersing yourself in a different time or place, in lives and experiences other than your own. And I honestly don't see why such escapism is always mentioned with a sneer, as though walking a mile in someone else's shoes, even if they're fictional shoes, is only for those infants and madmen with a dubious grasp on how Real and Earnest life actually is.
But beyond that, I reject the very idea that speculative fiction is primarily about escapism at all, or that it's somehow fodder for the immature, just to amuse them until they grow out of it. I think it's explained well by James Gurney, the author and illustrator of the Dinotopia books.
If there is one age or time of life that embraces the book [Dinotopia] most heartily, it is the moment after the horizons open from childhood into youth, and before the limits are set by adulthood… I've come to realize that this audience… [is] more logical, intelligent and vocal than their adult counterparts. Utopian literature gives them a chance to inhabit the dreams that fuel their growth into independent life. They read not exactly to escape their world, but rather to engage more fully with it, for only through fantasy can they try on an identity and live as actors in their own dreams.
There are a few pieces of Gurney's statement that I especially want to emphasize.
1. Adulthood (and the Real and Earnest attitudes that go with it) tends to set limits. It is fantasy that can give both children and adults a road map around those limits, into an attitude of greater possibility and greater creativity. The ability to ask "What if" - that ability fostered by speculative fiction - is one that can only benefit us all individually, as well as humanity as a whole. We need our creativity encouraged, not sneered at as immature, or dismissed as head-in-the-clouds escapism.
2. Speculative fiction, especially Utopian literature or stories depicting integrity and heroism, allows children to try on positive identities as they grapple with what kind of people they want to be. Just as younger children may play house, doctor, firefighter, teacher, to try out and practice their ideas of what it's like to be an adult, so older children use reading to imagine themselves in different situations and with different ways of responding to life. All fiction gives readers the opportunity to feel themselves in different identities, but fantasy has an additional edge over realistic fiction. That is, it does not necessarily limit the responses to those that authors and editors feel are "realistic" - those that are likely, trendy, or have already happened. With speculative fiction anything is possible… if…
3. This creativity and this practice in visualizing different ways of living life are not escapism. They are, on the contrary, a way of engaging more fully with the world. That's something that's healthy not only for children of all ages, but for adults, too. And that's another reason why fantasy is so important!
[Picture: Steep Street, oil on board from Dinotopia: The World Beneath by James Gurney, 1996.]
(Quotation from James Gurney, "Terrible-Lizard-Happy-Dream Kingdom: The Origins of Dinotopia," Phi Beta Kappa Key Reporter, Fall 2010.)