My first love is historical fiction, but my first three novels were historical fantasy. I love fantasy and read all types. Today, though, many schools are moving toward curriculums that emphasize reading nonfiction. While I agree that puzzling meaning out of text is a critical skill for students, I bemoan the loss of time reading fantasy. Fiction, and fantasy in particular, gives students the opportunity to escape daily life, enhance their creativity, and build valuable life skills.
Everyone’s life is stressful, no matter how old you are. If it’s not completing homework and studying for tests, it’s making a deadline or pushing for promotion. Fantasy literature allows readers to escape to a place where the good guy always wins, although it may take seven really long books. C.S. Lewis, author of the Chronicles of Narnia, said, “Since it is so likely they will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage.” He goes on to point out that fantasy teaches children that enemies can be overcome. Sometimes we all need to be reminded of that, whether the bad guy is a sorcerer with a magic wand or that huge research paper that is due next week.
Fantasy, however, is not all escapist. By showcasing real emotions and relationships in a fantasy setting, these stories can take a reader’s imagination and creativity to new heights. Thomas Gruber, director-general of the Bavarian Broadcasting Corporation, wrote an article titled, “How Much Fantasy Does the Future Need?” In it, he describes fantasy as an extension of reality and goes on to say, “Only by means of fantasy can we conceive and conceptualize the future…and if fantasy means an increase in knowledge, if it is the power for adapting traditions to modern standards with an aim to creating new things, then we should foster children’s fantasy.” Think of all the things we use every day that were fantasy in our own childhood: smart phones, computers, hybrid cars, Internet, even microwave ovens (okay, I’m old). Someone had to think beyond reality in order to invent these things.
Not every child will go on to invent something like the iPhone, but they all will make their own way through life, and fantasy can teach them the skills to make the right choices. Bruno Bettelheim, in his 1975 book The Uses of Enchantment, says, “Although the events which occur in fairy tales are often unusual and most improbable, they are always presented as ordinary, something that could happen to you or me or the person next door when out on a walk in the woods. Even the most remarkable encounters are related in casual, everyday ways in fairy tales.” From these encounters, children learn to deal with similar experiences in their own lives. From Harry Potter, children learn perseverance. You can vanquish the bad guy if you hang in there and keep trying. From Percy Jackson, they learn the value of working together as a team. Both series show the value of friendship, and how to deal with the ups and downs of those relationships.
Very learned scholars have debated the issue of reading fantasy, both for adults and for children. At the very least, if a young person enjoys reading fantasy they are reading. By doing so they improve their knowledge of vocabulary, grammar, spelling, and sentence structure as well as reading comprehension. As a parent and a teacher, if my child enjoys doing something that benefits them, I will make sure they have the opportunity to continue doing so.