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Children & Fantasy – The Introductory Phase

Since I finished university, I’ve had a little more free time on my hands. My favourite way using some of this time to help out my aunt and a friend by babysitting a 6-year-old, a 5-year-old and an 18-month-old. Kids are brilliant.

Of course, the older two love stories. Being the adult in charge, I get to pick the stories we read, including taking some of my own literature with me. This got me thinking; how would I go about introducing a child to fantasy literature?

Girl Reading by trafalgarssquareIt’s not always as straight forward as recommending a novel to a friend; after all, chances are you know what sort of things they like. But with kids? They change their minds on a whim, a favourite cartoon character one week might be a reviled bugbear the next, so it’s a little trickier. I did a little thinking, and I think I may have cracked it.

Firstly, the world the story is set in. I feel throwing a child into an entirely made up world at the beginning would put them out of their depth. They have no context of how the world would work, and would likely feel confused. I tested this by asking the girls to create their own worlds for a story we were making up. Both of them, whilst coming up with things out of the ordinary, had many of their ideas based on what we have in the real world. Kids need a point of reference, so stories that merely slightly tweak the world they know are a perfect place to start.

Also having protagonists they can relate to immediately is a vital factor. Ask a six year old to imagine another six year old having the adventure in the book, and they can base the character on a friend, or themselves, and get a realistic view of the action. It does work with protagonists within a few years of the child’s age, especially if the child in question has siblings.

This sort of fiction always seems to be really good at introducing magic to children too. It’s always a simplistic system, fun to watch the characters use, and often, as should be the way in children’s literature, it’s used by the ‘good’ characters to overcome the ‘evil’ characters. For teaching children to be moral, seeing characters they like being upstanding citizens can often help in their own development.

They should also be good at suspending reality just enough for the children to get excited, and to keep them interested for long enough to complete the story. Teaching children to be patient and build up a tolerance for longer works is essential, in the case of the girls I babysit in preparation for moving through the school system.

Of course, this has all been said before, but finding literature that encompasses all of these things is rather difficult. I have found two series I think work really well, and will try to explain why below.

Magic Faraway TreeMy first example is the Magic Faraway Tree stories by Enid Blyton. Yes, they are about 80 years old now, but they still work as a perfect introduction for children into the fantasy genre. The basic premise of the stories is that, in this quiet wood in the middle of the English countryside, there is the Faraway Tree. A tree full of mad inhabitants, whose topmost branch pokes through a cloud into a different land every few days, and of which the best way down is a giant helter skelter inside the trunk. Who reading this now cannot themselves picture that in their minds? Why would this not be intriguing, engaging, exciting to a child?

The first book begins with the three children moving with their mother to a new house; something children can and will experience. There’s Joe, the oldest, who feels he should look after his little sisters Beth and Frannie. Anyone with siblings will be familiar with this dynamic.

The inhabitants of the Tree themselves are just different enough to seem magical, but are still relatable for children; MoonFace, who’s name speaks for itself, Silky the pixie (what little girl didn’t want to be of the fairyfolk at some point?), Saucepan Man, who makes himself deaf from his unusual clothing rattling, amongst others. They’re quirky, endearing, and Blyton cleverly uses them to teach children about morality and basic human decency.

The magic used in these stories is never overly complex, making it very easy for children to follow along. For example, in one of the first stories, the children and their friends visit the Land of Topsy-Turvy for a picnic. After exploring for a while, and finding the whole thing rather funny, they sit down under an oak tree for a picnic. It is at this point an upside down policeman approaches, telling them off for not following the magic rules of this land. Joe insults him, and suddenly finds himself under the spell as punishment for his impudence. He then has to wait until the next land, the Land of Spells, arrives. This means he has to spend the night in MoonFace’s house, and therefore learns his lesson, as he gets in trouble with his mum.

Personally, I just love these stories for story value, they’re entertaining and exciting and funny, making them one of those books you just want to finish. In terms of introducing younger children to fantasy literature, they’re one of the best series I can think of.

RedwallThe second series I briefly want to touch upon is better I feel for older children, purely because the content is rather more mature. It is the late Brian Jacques’ Redwall series. Redwall is established around a woodland abbey, and its inhabitants and historical figures, confronted by tyrants, warlords, foreign invaders and rogue slavers. Best of all, all of the characters are animals. How could any child resist a story like that?

The premise of the stories themselves are nothing new; in the titular novel, the Abbey is put under siege by a vermin horde, common antagonists in the series, and it’s only by discovering the story of the founder of the Abbey, and by finding his fabled sword, that the protagonist Matthias can win the day.

I believe these are a perfect introduction to fantasy for slightly older children as they aren’t perhaps as full on as some “grown-up novels”, but the stories are detailed and involved, requiring the reader to immerse themselves in the world. They also introduce battles in a very intense way, perhaps a little shocking in the first instance, but probably a good thing, because, let’s face it, what child doesn’t enjoy a scene which makes their emotions run high, and sees the bad guys get what’s coming to them?

I myself discovered this series when I was 12 years old, and I still go back every now and then to read it. That’s also an important part of children’s fiction; if it is something an adult is likely to read with said child, it has to be enjoyable for both parties.

So these are my opinions; there are of course many more fantastic examples of children’s fantasy fiction, but for me these series have had the highest success rate, and are the most enjoyable for the adults reading them too. Reading is such an important thing for children, and if we can use fantasy to encourage them, well, that’s a win-win situation, is it not?

Title image by TheExtentofSilence.

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10 Comments

  1. Avatar xiagan says:

    Very good article!

    I want to add the books by Diana Wynne Jones to your recommendations. She writes excellent fantasy for children and especially books like ‘The Ogre downstairs’, ‘Archer’s goon’, ‘Dogsbody’ or ‘Eight Days of Luke’ take place in our world but include magic and fantastic events.

  2. Avatar Sarah Murphy says:

    Ahh now I see that I set myself up perfectly to be a fantasy fan. I loved the Magic Faraway Tree and RedWall series.

    There is also an absolutely fantastic book called the Hound of the Morrigan by Pat O’Shea which twists fantasy and Irish folk tales – totally outstanding. My absolute favourite for a long time. I read it at about 9 or 10. Magical fantasy story with a brother and sister as the main characters.

    I can see i had no hope really…

  3. Avatar Lor says:

    Xiagan: I came to Dianne Wynne Jones quite late, as I’m sure a lot of people did through “Howl’s Moving Castle”, so I haven’t really seen any of her other works. However, we are working on filling my cousin’s bookshelf (I had one, so she had to have one too), so I shall look into it. Thank you for the suggestion!

    Sarah: I know exactly what you mean; I used these series as examples as they’re the ones I grew up on. The O’Shea book sounds really intriguing though, I love indigenous histories, and I’m encouraging my cousin along the same route. So far selkies are her favourites. Thanks for the suggestions too, I’ll look into it for her!

  4. Avatar Henry Herz says:

    I’ll see you and raise you! 🙂 Not only did I write a book to introduce children to reading fantasy, I got them to help write the book. Our recently published children’s fantasy book. Nimpentoad is the tale of a courageous and resourceful little Nibling, who leads his tribe through the perilous Grunwald Forest, overcoming obstacles and encountering strange creatures along the way. Kids enjoy the adventure and stunning illustrations (see http://www.nimpentoad.com). Parents appreciate a story that emphasizes teamwork, creativity, perseverance, and leadership.

  5. Avatar the_hound says:

    Good starting point but you seem to stop short! Robin Jarvis’ Deptford Mice is an excellent next step point for when the kids become a bit jaded with Redwall, and of course the Hobbit and the Chronicles of Narnia MUST be read to all kids. Seriously, I am gonna petition and make this a law.

  6. Avatar Fellshot says:

    I’d also recommend Diana Wynn Jones. Her books are made of awesome regardless of what age you are. There’s also L Frank Baum. Even though his books are over a century old, Dorothy is still one of the best children’s lit characters ever. 🙂

  7. Avatar E. Kaiser says:

    I have to scream, “The Hobbit!” I was first introduced to Tolkien at the advanced age of seven, and Bilbo was a perfect stand in for me. I felt every inch of that journey, and my rambunctious brother was drawn in too. It was written in the first place as a children’s story, so I’m not that unusual.
    If the children in question have issues with the words, I guess that might be an issue. (Here’s a tip! Do what Mom accidentally did to me; start reading in Gollum’s cave… then say doubtfully; “Are you really interested in this?” If you get a resounding yes! Then start at the beginning again. ;- ) )

  8. […] Fantasy Faction (Laura Graham) on Children & Fantasy – The Introductory Phase. […]

  9. Avatar Lor says:

    Hound: I am in complete agreement about the Narnia thing. Even if Staples was a tad odd. And I agree this is just the start, but I badly ran out of words! Aretmis Fowl would have been in there too if I hadn’t 🙂

    Fellshot: The Wizard of Oz is my cousin’s favourite film at the moment, I shall definitely take the time to read the novel to her too.

    Kaiser: Ah yes, the Hobbit. I think it’s a tad too scary for the girls at the moment, but it’s definitely on the list for when they get a bit older, there’s no way they’re escaping that!

    Also thank you all for taking the time to read this and add suggestions, they are being duly noted and are really appreciated.

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