I’ve just finished reading this book:
Reflections by the (predominantly) children’s fantasy author, Diana Wynne Jones.
Reflections is a collection of… well, her reflections on writing and, in particular, writing fantasy fiction and writing it for children.
The book was a wonderful surprise gift from a Twitter friend from across the pond who chose perfectly. Thank you again, Siofra Alexander! 🙂
Now before you groan and shut down the blog thinking ‘this is going to be a book review’, please allow me to assure you it is not.
I wanted to blog about this book because, having read it, it has become a great big missing part of the jigsaw puzzle of this journey I’ve embarked on of writing a children’s fantasy novel.
Reading this book made me fall in love with Jones and then despise her all within the turn of a page! Reading this book made me fall in love with my writing, gave me inspiration and hope and then, in the next breath, snatched it away, making me doubt virtually everything I’ve put down in the last 132,000 words. Quite a powerful book, wouldn’t you say?
Now, I have never, much to my chagrin, read any of Jones’ novels. I will confess I am not widely read in general compared to most people I know who enjoy reading, not by any stretch of the imagination. Reading Reflections made me realise just how little I have actually ever read. In terms of ‘pure’ children’s fantasy I’ve read the most obvious as a child: The Chronicles of Narnia (and then only three of them as I got bored half way through Prince Caspian. ) The Harry Potter series and of course The Lord of the Rings. Oh, and I used to read those Choose Your Own Adventure books which were around in the 1980s. Other than that, my fantasy reading is pretty much limited to the above. Shocking considering what I am writing now. I did, however, gorge on fairy tales as a child. I owned a large number of Ladybird books which I cherished and read over and over and over, delighting in the beautiful illustrations. Cinderella, Chicken Licken, Snow White… the list goes on. How I loved those books! I also was the lucky recipent (I bought it with some birthday money one year if I remember correctly) a huge volume of The Brothers’ Grimm Fairy Tales which I also loved to pieces. It was a brick of a book and I have no idea what happened to it. However, five years ago I was staying in a B&B in Loch Lomond and in the guest lounge was an exact same copy of the volume I had. It was like coming home. I sat and read as many as I could that evening. I wish I’d asked the owner now if I could have bought it from her. But oh, well never mind. I think that demonstrates the power and magic of the early reading of fantasy stories before I even get much into this post. Anyway, I intend to read some of Jones’ books as, I feel as though I ought, given she’s a bit of an authority on the subject.
So the main reason for this post is because I wanted to highlight some of the points Jones made in relation to writing Fantasy and how that relates to what I’ve written so far. Also to comment on what she has to say about writing for children specifically and how that relates not only to writing but also to teaching children. There were many places in the book I was shouting “YES! YES! This woman talks sense; she knows children; she knows writing! I love her!” At other points I found myself shaking my head at the condescending attitude she appeared to have towards teachers and actually towards other writers of Fantasy. (More on this in another post.) She came across as quite narrow minded in some respects. She also came across as extremely intelligent and well read, but narrow minded in some instances, nevertheless.
Anyway, I’m going to break this post into a few posts as I have quite a lot of thoughts and reflections of my own, so here goes with Part 1:
On Children, and the Value of Fantasy
In the first essay in Reflections, ‘The Children in the Wood,’ Jones writes about overlooking the woods near her home and watching the local children play there. She says they always played some version of ‘Let’s Pretend’, i.e the children were being knights or princesses, or soldiers or what have you. She says she noted how often they played that type of game: “it seems to be something they need to do. You can see they need to because they are all so happy.” She writes about how these games always involves the children splitting off into groups to be the ones dying or killing or just ambling though the action, taking little notice. (though she acknowledges that children play Let’s Pretend games on their own in their heads all the time too.) She notes how, when engaged in this type of play, there are no quarrels. “quarrels happen when….the children are trying to play a game like hide and seek or building a tree house, which does not involve make-believe.” She surmises that they need Let’s Pretend to make them combine together as a group.
Now, as a primary school teacher who has stood on countless playgrounds over the last seventeen plus years and watched children, I can absolutely vouch for this. The times I have had to settle disputes are when the games with rules are played. Like football. Oh, football! How I despair. But never have I had to speak to a child (other than to say ‘get up off the wet floor or else your mother will be cross with you having dirty trousers‘ [it’s always boys rolling around on the damp tarmac, never girls I’ve found!]) when they have been “killed” by another whilst they are involved in ‘make believe’ games.
So what does this mean? Why do children need to play these games and why don’t they fall out over them like in other, more structured, games?
Well, I believe, as does Jones, that fantasy and make believe is the one way children learn to understand the confusion of the world around them. So many adults worry that children cannot separate reality from fantasy. Many adults belittle or make fun of their children for indulging in make believe games beyond a certain age. Many adults are keen for their children to grow up and get a grip on the real world and real life far too soon. Some even actively discourage reading or watching of Fantasy saying it will confuse their minds as to what is real and what is not. Well what a load of hogwash that is.
This idea that Fantasy feeds into reality and becomes a blurred boundary becomes evident these days in the headlines where the effect of computer games and violent films is discussed widely. “Oh that boy/girl committed those awful crimes because they couldn’t separate fantasy from reality.” True, they couldn’t. However, I would
suggest, strongly argue, that this may be because these children can’t separate the two simply because they didn’t partake in make believe or Let’s Pretend games at an early age. Their first dalliance with fantasy most likely was to be dumped in front of a computer or TV screen, in front of age inappropriate material, with no adult interaction or explanation to guide them through the confusion. To tell them those graphics in Grand Theft Auto are not real.
However, to have read fairy stories from a young age, with an adult, a child knows it is a story. They know it is make believe. They know that it is safe. Then they are able to go and act it all out in play and explore the ideas safely with their peers. That is why I believe they need it and partake in Let’s Pretend play: to test the world out, to unravel its rules and confusions. As for the argument that this sort of indulgence in Fantasy will lead to a muddle of what is real and what is not, I say this: Do all young children who swish a wooden or plastic sword around as a knight, or aim a plastic blaster gun at a friend in play, go on to kill and maim all across the land? I don’t think so. I haven’t. Jones makes the point more eloquently than I ever could about this aspect to the value of fantasy reading:
“Your story [as a writer] can be violent, serious and funny, all at once….Fantasy can deal with death, malice and violence in the same way that the children playing in the wood are doing. You make it clear it is make believe. And by showing it applies to nobody, you show that it applies to everyone.”
Later on in Reflections, Jones goes on to talk about the influx of ‘Real Books’ for children which flooded the market on the back of new trends in children’s literature. ‘Real Books’ being those where the protagonist (a child of target age group) is real, lives in the real world and has had some social problem to deal with, for example, the divorce of parents, racism or bullying at school. In these ‘Real Books’ she says the rules stated: “you wrote about this Problem in stark, distressing terms. Then – this is the rule – you gave it to the child with that problem to read. The child was supposed to delight in the insight.”
Put like that it does seem ludicrous anyone would want to publish books for children which are like that. “Here you go. This is your distressing problem and here’s a fictional tale about it to tell you how to deal with it.” Quite preposterous really, when you think about it. What fairy tales and Fantasy fiction do is allow children to explore all these confusions of the world at a distance. Through a character or characters who are not them. They begin to understand the world as it is, a multifaceted place where there is good and there is evil and they then try to work out how to deal with that. In fact, isn’t this what we as adults do when reading fiction, really, truly, honestly? We often say we read to ‘escape’, but I often find I solve problems from reading fiction. Not necessarily consciously, but I truly don’t think we are looking to escape by reading, I think we are always searching for answers, trying to learn more about ourselves and the confusing mess of the world. Otherwise why would novels have common themes running through them?
Now, the sad fact is, many, mainly adults it must be said, still sneer at Fantasy as a genre and at writers who choose to write Fantasy novels, as though it is somehow a lesser craft than writing about “real” things.
To that I have to say: but we all start with Fantasy really, don’t we? The first stories we are introduced to are traditional fairy or folk tales, even if we don’t stick with them. Fantasy, as I’ve said above, which allows us to see that the world does indeed have bad present in it. (In stories bad is disguised as wolves or foxes, or witches or giants or similar.) These portrayed ‘bad’ characters which children know, or learn fairly quickly, don’t exist or are not actually ‘evil’. However, they learn that those evils are overcome and that the hero, whether that be prince, princess, wizard, ie, the children themselves (as that is who they identify with) are good and they are able overcome those bad things. Children don’t need the real version of anything they might be going through given to them in a story to work it through. Fantasy stories allow children to do just that at a distance as I’ve already said.
Furthermore (and I don’t know if any research has ever been done on this) but I’d reiterate my argument from before and say that perhaps it is the children who are devoid of Fantasy stories and Fairy Tales or this Let’s Pretend and make believe play using the innocent characters an early age, who may be the ones more likely to drift down into the darker alleyways of life. They may become the ones who cannot work through traumatic childhood issues such as parents divorcing if they arise, and they are more likely (to my mind at least) become the ones unable to separate fact and fiction and work out those confusions in much darker, sinister ways. Who knows? It’s just a theory. Perhaps there are studies. Perhaps I shall conduct one of my own.
However, for my part I know it was the stories I could escape into, the ones so far removed from my own childhood which are the ones which have stayed with me. The ones whereby I learned to imagine and play and pretend. The ones where I learned most about the world and how to cope with it. Those are the same stories which have allowed me to write.
And if I have one wish as a teacher and as a parent it would be that all parents and teachers see the value in promoting Fantasy stories for children at an early age. I believe they hold more value and worth than many people realise. It’s why Jones says she wrote Fantasy for children, she utterly believed in its power. I know I write it for similar reasons. I understood the power and pleasure it gave me as a child. I understand the power and the pleasure it still gives children now.
In Part 2 I’ll look at the rules for writing Fantasy and writing for children and how many I’ve broken or not broken!
Thanks, as ever, for reading and feel free to add your own thoughts in the comments below.
*disclaimer: The ‘Fantasist’ in the post’s title is in reference to me, not of Diana Wynne Jones. Just to clarify! 🙂