The Talking Mushrooms Are Great, But Would You Really Want to Live There?
This year we’ve seen a fair number of adapted fairytales, cautionary tales, talking animals, etc. In short, lots of lovely fantasy to sort through. I can’t say I’ve read everything. For example, I’ve yet to read that book that declares itself to be “The Hunger Games meets Harry Potter” (that would be The Unwanteds by Lisa McMann and, to be fair, Kirkus called it that). I have read a fair number of books, though, and it got me to thinking about fantasy worlds.
With the final Harry Potter film in theaters let us consider one aspect of its legacy. Hogwarts. Which is to say, the fact that kids who read the Harry Potter books are often overwhelmed with a desire to go there. Adults feel the same way, and this is hardly a new feeling. Historically authors of great fantasies for children are able to make their readers wish desperately to go to that place. Hogwarts’ clearest predecessor, I would argue, is the land of Narnia. Oz too has its followers, and so we have it. Fantasylands that ensnare their readers, in part, by creating places they want to inhabit personally.
This made me think that when it comes to a hero or heroine finding a new world there tend to be two ways you can go.
A. The world is fantastic the way it is, but there’s a threat on the horizon that requires that the protagonist defeat it. Hogwarts is this kind of world.
B. The world used to be fantastic but now some kind of evil despot has twisted it and it’s up to our heroes to defeat the big bad and restore everything to the way it was. Narnia falls into this category.
That was how I was going to frame this post. Then I realized that this model doesn’t work at all. Where, for example, would you put Oz in this situation? You might be able to say that Baum has it both ways. Since Oz has two good witches and two bad witches, you could say that the good witch lands are A. and the bad witch lands are B. Except that A. would suggest that the bad witches want to defeat the good witches’ lands and this, we know, is not the case. And what about Coraline or Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland?
So I abandoned that plan and went back to my original location: Hogwarts. Ignoring the kinds of fantasylands authors create, here’s a question for you: How many of the exotic worlds we’ve seen this year are the kinds of places a child reader would fantasize about escaping to? Here are a couple I’ve seen. Consider:
The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne Valente – In this book our heroine is taken by a green wind to a fairyland named… uh… Fairyland. There she discovers that an evil Marquess rules and threatens everyone. The place feels to me to be in the vein of Alice in Wonderland (though there are plenty of folks who would disagree with me on that point). It then falls into the under-the-sway-of-a-despot model, but Valente does a pretty good job of making it sound appealing. Sure, aging appliances may try to kill you, but have you tried the food? Mah-velous!
Would a kid want to go there? Yes
In this book two siblings are sent to a hidden place called Ashtown where the secrets of the world are relayed to them. Ashtown has both mechanics (hot air balloon games where you pelt your enemies with stale bread) and magic (angry giant golden god skulls). On the plus side it’s a little like Hogwarts with its kooky faculty and lessons. On the down side, when our heroes arrive everybody loathes them. It’s hard to want to go to a place where the people you identify with are hated. Then again, you might get to wear an early 1900s fighter jacket with a boxing monkey patch. Awesome.
Would a kid want to go there? Yes, if you could avoid the whole social pariah element.
Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu
In this book our heroine crosses into the woods to a dangerous place. She proceeds to get a serious scratching from a crazy woman with a skinned swan, lured by a couple who prefer her as topiary, avoids a hunter with some pretty awful red shoes, saves a freezing match girl, and finally walks in the serious cold to save a friend who doesn’t really want to see her in the first place. There may be fairylands you want to visit, but this is not one of them. Good thing it’s a great book.
Would a kid want to go there? No way, josé.
Cross over from Portland, Oregon into Wildwood and there’s a world that’s very much in the despotic ruler vein, but more in an Oz kind of way. Prue, our heroine, discovers that it’s ruled over by different factions. There are the talking birds (that’s good), the coyotes ruled by The Dowager Governess (that’s bad), and the humans (that’s . . . complicated). Oh, and the folks who talk to the trees (good again). Talking animals abound as well. And since there’s an offside chance you might get to ride on the back of a giant eagle or have a conversation with a badger, it could be worth your while to consider a visit.
Would a kid want to go there? Maybe.
It’s kind of strange to make the fantasyworld you live in merely be the same real world location you were larking about, only decades in the past. The magic in this book is more of the it’s-all-around-you-but-you-can’t-see-it stripe. Like Harry Potter, but without a Hogwarts. And without a Hogwarts the only places you could visit that sound all that neat is the underground dwarf kingdom (now with more drilling slaves!) or the Native American (except we’re not calling them that) camp.
Would a kid want to go there? Pass
Now that’s more like it! Why have one cool fantasy school when you can have TWO! One for teaching you how to fly in the most awesome way possible (think gliders on steroids) and one for helping you deal with casting spells. Because Neumeier splits her story between two main characters, you get a flavor of both worlds. And frankly, both schools are enticing in their own ways.
Would a kid want to go there? Absolutely!!
All this begs the question as to whether or not the lure of a fantasy location has any bearing on its popularity with children. My guess is probably not, but it’s worth considering just the same. Harry Potter may have been popular because its author had a handle on creating great characters, storylines, and true to life emotions but part of the credit might also go to her appealing world building ala Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Worth considering.
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About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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