Why Fiction and Fantasy are so Important for Children
Updated: Jul 9, 2020
Children are natural storytellers, perhaps some of the best on the planet. Before they even know how to write, they are already making up stories, reenacting scenes from their favorite movies, and creating elaborate worlds for their toys and character personas to inhabit. We see this all the time in the way children play.
When I was a kid, I used to beg my dad to let the grass grow a little longer every summer so I could hide my Jurassic Park dinosaurs in the lawn and recreate the raptor chase from The Lost World.
At Christmas, my mom would leave the Christmas tree up for an extra week so I could shoot rubber bands at my Stormtroopers hiding in the tree branches of the forrest moon of Endor.
And going all the way back to preschool, I would put on my Star Trek: The Next Generation captain's uniform and push our red wagon down the hill, pretending I was a bobsledder.
Little did I know that my wild adventures with Legos, velociraptors, and wagons would be the training camp for my career as a storyteller and writer. To this day, I can vividly remember the worlds I created as a child and what they reveal about the person I would become.
Watch a child hard at play. Pay attention. There you will discover a creative mind as it processes the world and shapes what it sees into wants it to be.
In pretending to be someone else, children can take on the attributes of characters they admire, and so begin training for the person (and hero) they hope to become. They identify the values they desire and put them into practice.
Play, therefore, is practice for the real world, and storytellers are nothing more than children at play
We create fictional worlds and develop characters as a means of processing and making sense of our present world with all of its joys, disappointments, and uncertainties. We do this for ourselves, and through what we put on the page, we create an opportunity for our readers to do the same.
Creative fiction, especially fantasy, therefore, like play, is one of the most important tools a child has to form their own unique worldview and shape their perception of the world, what it is, and what it can be.
Writers tend to reserve the title of Fantasy for stories dealing with magical realms, dragons, and superpowers, but Stanley Yelnats IV digging holes in the dessert is as much a magical journey as James Henry Potter's adventures in the giant peach.
In each tale, the hero discovers something about themselves and the world they left behind through their encounters with eccentric characters, strange environments, and overcoming personal limitations. A transformation occurs which grants each young hero new perspective on life and the world at large.
For example, in Neil Gaiman's modern fairy tale, Coraline, the author takes his main character on a journey through a magical door and into a world that mirrors her own. Rather than creating an entirely new world for Coraline to explore, Gaiman uses a mirror version of the real world that Coraline, like many children, is eager to escape.
Her story begins in a humble flat in the rural countryside where she lives with her parents. We quickly realize, though, that this environment isn't suitable for a young explorer.
The house is cold and dreary. Coraline's parents spend all day in their studies, typing away on their computers, too preoccupied, too busy, and too distracted to notice Coraline or share in her adventures. Everything about Coraline’s world is like one of her dad’s “recipes”, disgusting and boring. She lives in a house she cannot call home, and like many children, she feels alone in her world. It's no surprise that her discovery of a door to another world is a welcome invitation and opportunity to change her circumstances and explore the possibility of a better life.
How many times do we see this in children's fiction? Hogwarts, Terabithia, Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory, the Giant Peach, and the land of Oz are all "other worlds" that provide the promise of escape from a dreary, ordinary world with all its problems.
Upon entering her “other world”, Coraline is immediately greeted by her “other mother” and quickly discovers how much better this version of the world is to her own. Here, her “other parents” pay attention. Everything is colorful and warm, and here the food is delicious. In this world she can have whatever she wants.
The magic world, at first glance, highlights the undesirables of the world left behind. But as she begins to explore this new world, she discovers that this place is magical but also dangerous. It's fun but not very safe and definitely not better than the one she left behind.
Coraline was captivated by the “other world”, as most children would be, but is now captive to it.
"In the mirror Coraline’s mother and father stared at her. Her father opened his mouth and said something, but she could hear nothing at all. Her mother breathed inside of the mirrored glass, and quickly, before the fog faded, she wrote. HELP US with the tip of her forefinger. The fog on the inside of the mirror faded, and so did her parents, and now the mirror reflected only the corridor and Coraline."
Now Coraline understands that her real parents are not villains but victims of the “other mother’s” schemes, proving that even parents need rescuing sometimes too.
In this momentary escape from reality, Coraline realizes that she would much rather live with her imperfect parents in the real world than live with the soulless “other mother" in the other one.
“I don’t want whatever I want. Nobody does. Not really. What kind of fun would it be if I just got everything I ever wanted? Just like that, and it didn’t mean anything. What then?”
Coraline knows the real world will never be perfect. Her parents will never be everything she wants them to be. They will become too preoccupied to participate in her adventures. They will continue making horrible, disgusting recipes for her to eat for dinner, but they will still be her parents, who love her all the same.
And this is where Coraline can separate from the fantasy to return to the real world with new perspective on how to make it better, or at the very least, how to manage life when it isn't so great.
The fantasy stories we are used to, be it fairy tales, mythical journeys, or an occasional run-in with a boy wizard, Jedi, Hobbit, or friendly neighborhood superhero, often involve some form of physical change.
The scrawny kid who goes into the super lab with the radioactive spiders is not the same one who emerges with a nasty bug bite and a new six pack to show for it.
The Hobbit who leaves the Shire to destroy the One Ring is different than the Hobbit who returns a year later.
Likewise, the reader who picks up a book, the little girl who goes into the movie theater, and the boy with the toy velociraptors in the backyard are never the same when their imagined story is over. They will have discovered something about themselves and others through their time in the imagined/fantasy world, which will shape how they inhabit their real one.
This change may not be physical. It doesn't have to be.
Transformation, whether internal or external, is still magical because it represents change, and who understands the fear of change better than a child?
A shy boy braving his first day at a new school or dealing with the emotions of his first crush may feel just as big as a kid trying to control his new superpowers or figuring out how he's going to save the world.
Our children have to deal with more change than anyone. Nothing is certain or guaranteed. They are searching for answers and hope for their present and future. Stories can sometimes provide a little bit of both.
I'm not going out on any limbs when I say that storytelling is essential to human development, whether in fiction or the creations of children's imagination.
Stories provide a tool for self-examination and a laboratory for the shaping of worldview, defining of goals, and development of life skills. They aren't just a break from reality, though sometimes that is warranted and healthy. They are one of the few environments where we are allowed to process and understand it without encountering the real consequences of a much more dangerous world.
I love that Coraline opens with the famous quote from GK Chesterton.
“Fairy tales are more than true; not because they tell us that dragons exist; but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten”.
The real world can be a dangerous and dreary place for children, both on and off the page. An imaginary or fictional world may provide a temporary refuge for those in need, but more importantly, it will help the child and child at heart rediscover hope and the means to face and defeat dragons, real and figurative, when the world is not safe.
I'll leave it at that. Thank you so much for reading and supporting my work. If you enjoyed this post, smash the heart icon below, subscribe to Perspectives off the Page, or share this post with someone you know. Thank you again.
Until Today, Storytellers