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Fantasy as a Reading Rite of Passage

Adam Gopnik’s review of the newest addition to the Eragon series in last week’s New Yorker caught my eye (not because I’ve read these books, though as my sons gets older, I look forward to reading them together) but because Gopnik writes about the always-interesting relationship between kids and fantasy.  He writes “Of all the unexpected things in contemporary literature, this is among the oddest: that kids have an inordinate appetite for very long, very tricky, very strange books about places that don’t exist, fights that never happened, all set against a medieval background.” I’m not sure it’s so odd, and indeed, I remember a time in my own reading life when I had an insatiable taste for magical books, almost to the exclusion of all else. That I outgrew it, or that my tastes broadened, or that I found less fantastical settings equally appealing might argue for my emergent Muggledom. Or perhaps, like Susan in C.S. Lewis’s Narnia series, I became interested in nothing “except nylons and lipstick and invitations” though as a girl, I hated this aspect of the final book, and could think of no worse fate.  In any case, Gopnik’s point is that it is not the otherworldliness that draws young readers. “Kids go to fantasy not for escape but for organization, and a little elevation, ” that it offers “familiar experience in intensified form.” He describes the Twilight books as representative “not so much the life that a teenage girl would wish to have, but the one she already has, rearranged with heightened symbols.”

What do you think? Did you go through a fantasy phase? What drew you to it then? Do you read it still?

9 Responses to Fantasy as a Reading Rite of Passage

  1. Fantasy doesn’t strike me as kid-specific, any more than any other subgenre of SF/F does. I will quite happily devour a well-written fantasy novel along with anything else!

  2. Hillsy says:

    I was astonishingly lucky. We read The Hobbit in our English lessons when I was about 13 and the next day I was down the library for the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Then it was Narnia Chronicles (Which I never got past the Silver Chair) and so on.

    I took a detour through Dean Koontz and Stephen Kings back catalogue through my late teens, and my Dad’s love of old SF/horror (HG Wells, John Windham, Herbert). Cue the Wheel Of Time, which I picked started early 2001, and Fantasy has been the majority of my literary diet ever since.

    I think Gopnik is talking a lot of sense, and I think the established tropes, the good Vs evil, the exaggeration of the familiar, looking back on it, was a huge factor in falling in love with fantasy in the first place. It did help that during my youth comic books were bursting all over childrens saturday morning TV (also – Knightmare anyone?).

    Fantasy has to be inclusive, has to explain structure and worldbuilding, and to make this interesting it has to be fantastical by nature. I mean I’m sure John Grisham’s deconstruction of legal machinations is ever bit as thorough, but it won’t be as fun to a 13 year old as explaining how the dragonriders of Pern bond with their dragons. Because of that, in its way, its more narrow. You can’t take more detours because those roads of knowledge haven’t been built yet, and so any deviations have to be built and structured and explained as the reader takes them. And how to avoid this being dry? Dragons, Orcs, Magic, werewolves etc etc etc. It’s a perfect fit between the strange and the familiar.

    Well, I think so anyway….=0)

  3. Andrea says:

    I´m 33 and still in it… I read other books as well and enjoy them, but fantasy appeals a little more to my imagination and that´s what I like about it.

    I wouldn´t like to describe the genre as a phase you go through while growing up. (Or otherwise I just refuse to grow up) I think of fantasy as a genre that explores humanity, the world and life even more by giving more opportunity for symbolism, ´what if´ situations and looking at the bigger picture. I think it is closely connected to mythology and my favorite fantasy novels are those in which the writer has obviously thought about the basic questions of life and has something to say about it. Maybe that´s also the attaction it has on teenagers, but that´s just a wild guess.

  4. Lance Parkin says:

    It was science fiction for me, not fantasy. I think the appeal is that they’re immersive; that they present an opportunity to explore and learn exotic ideas; that they represent a power fantasy. I think those tend to be things teenagers want and need more than adults. Add to that the tribalism – knowing the shibboleths, so that you can discuss what you’ve read with likeminded people and create a community for yourself.

    I’m a big believer in the balanced diet with reading (and other entertainment). I think anyone, adult or teenager, who only *ever* read fantasy and science fiction would be pretty stunted, but I doubt such a person actually exists. Likewise, I doubt adult readers of Twilight are approaching it from the same angle as young teenagers. Rather the opposite. The appeal for a thirteen year old must be that it’s very raunchy and dangerous, for an adult that it’s all oddly quaint and escapist.

  5. Clix says:

    I’ve always tended to prefer stories that revealed magic (or sometimes just the fantastic) hiding in THIS world. L’Engle’s Murry & Austin books, John Bellairs, Edward Eager, Roald Dahl; more recently, Harry Potter (of course), and Julie Kagawa’s ‘Iron’ series.

  6. Lance Parkin says:

    Last year, I wrote something about ‘the Problem of Susan’, and that generated a long and eloquent discussion, with a number of people setting out Lewis’ case very well:

    https://lanceparkin.wordpress.com/2010/12/01/the-last-battle/

    The lipstick and nylon thing does seem to be one of those lines that everyone remembers and reacts to.

  7. Megan B. says:

    I think one of the appeals of fantasy is that it presents a world where it’s okay to be an assassin, a thief, etc. Where it’s okay to carry around a weapon and use it. These things are often accepted in fantasy worlds. So it allows the reader to explore some of the darker sides of life in a safe manner, and this must surely have a special appeal for the young.

    Besides that, think of the dragons, orcs, and other monstrous creatures. Kids love animals, especially things like dinosaurs, so I think the leap to mythical creatures is quite easy to make.

    And maybe kids are just better able to appreciate fantasy than adults. I still love fantasy, and so do millions of other people, but my point is that kids are used to using their imaginations. Many adults sort of lose that ability, or at least get out of the habit.

    Finally, kids are by nature constantly learning new things about the world around them. Everything seems a little more magical when you have seen only a small slice of the world. I remember finding an ordinary office to be completely fun and fascinating! New experiences hold a special appeal for kids, and fantasy offers some very new experiences.

  8. jseliger says:

    You can take your description, change the feminine pronouns to masculine ones, and basically describe me. I wrote about the experience in Robert Jordan, the Wheel of Time, and the world around him and elsewhere.

  9. Lance Parkin says:

    Thinking about it, and having read the New Yorker article, now, I think the relationship with ‘rules’ is interesting. Kids like knowing what the rules are, and fantasy/SF stories often depend on understanding the rules, the loopholes in rules, when a rule isn’t really a rule, when it’s OK to break a rule. Even when a rule is made to be broken, it’s usually replaced with a new set of rules or certainties.

    For adults, who hopefully have noticed that we live in postmodern, shifting, morally relative times, I guess the appeal is that a world of rules is comforting. If only you could really divide the world into good and bad, and make the bad things go away by dropping item X into volcano Y.

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