Tag Archives: fantasy

Confessions of a Failed Geek: My Kids Don’t Like Fantasy

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Imagining… but maybe not swords and dragons.

In the last few months, a horrible truth has come down in our home. While the kids enjoy a little Harry Potter, like playing Dungeons and Dragons, and looked forward to seeing the new Star Wars, they just don’t care for fantasy.

I have been trying to deny this for years. I’ve been pushing the Diana Wynne Jones, the Lloyd Alexander, the Gregor the Overlander books on them. They often tolerate it. Sometimes they find it enjoyable. But the truth has been written on the wall for a long time. The fantasy books get an, “okay,” but they would much rather hear The Saturdays, The Great Brain, a pile of historical fiction, a mystery novel.

I was a fantasy fanatic as a kid. I read nearly everything that was labeled fantasy on the children’s shelves – Narnia, Edward Eager, Robin McKinley, and so forth. Then I moved into the adult section and tried out books like the Dragonriders of Pern and The Belgariad.

The idea that fantasy is “just escapism” has been pretty well refuted in the last few decades as children’s and now young adult literature has become more saturated with it and even adult literature has leaned more and more speculative with writers like Neil Gaiman and George RR Martin as some of the most blockbuster bestsellers out there.

Fantasy was so influential in forming the way I looked at the world. Fantasy is big battles between good and evil. It’s big questions about right and wrong. It’s about power and responsibility. And it lays it all out in a way that’s more epic and more philosophically bare than most realistic fiction for kids. It’s not an escape from reality, it’s reality heightened for young readers, where you can really think about what you believe and challenge your imagination.

I can remember flying through and then rereading fantasy novels, especially in middle school. Obsessing over the details, copying the maps of imaginary places, and then dreaming up my own imaginary places. I can remember imagining, all Mary Sue style, what it would be like to be in these fantasy places, visiting Narnia, tempted by the Dark Side, tromping into Mordor, fighting the power of IT, training to battle dragons.

And now, I realized, my kids just won’t have those moments or anything like them. It made me want to cry.

But, gathering myself together. It’s okay. I would have groaned at some of the long classics and historical fiction that they actually adore. They adored The Secret Garden when they were little. They actually really enjoy classics that other kids often find sort of dull, like when we read Island of the Blue Dolphins. And far from shying away from tough topics, Mushroom’s favorite books are critically acclaimed books about tough topics like Mockingbird and Counting By 7’s. Those aren’t the sort of books I would have read at that age at all, but they’re undoubtedly giving him different perspectives on the world. They get excited about a new Penderwicks book and reveled having a new Calpurnia Tate book to listen to.

And while they may not be fantasy nuts, they don’t lack for imagination, playing out long soap operas of intrigue and love between their toys and coming up with elaborate spy, ninja, and mythology inspired games with their friends. For them, art, history, and politics can be just as much fodder for the imagination as Narnia or Middle Earth.

Into the Dark Woods

Wildwood by Colin Meloy is a thick middle grades fantasy with an imaginative premise.  Outside Portland, there’s a vast wilderness that no one is allowed to visit.  Prue McKeel’s baby brother is carried away by crows into the wilderness while she’s watching, so, joined unexpectedly by her classmate, Curtis, she travels into the forest to rescue him.  Once they get there, Prue and Curtis become separated and encounter a complex world of talking animals, political intrigue and warring factions.

I wanted to like this book so very much.  I was prepared to love it, I tell you.  Colin Meloy is the lead singer for the Decemberists and I love the Decemberists.  The illustrator, Carson Ellis, whose work you may know from The Mysterious Benedict Society, created amazing artwork for the book.  The concept is right up my alley and I could feel all the wild and weirdness of some Decemberists lyrics as I started reading.  Heck, Colin Meloy and Carson Ellis even have a cool music playlist to go with the book.  Some of the language and the descriptions are lovely and really set the mood of the story well.  You feel Portland in the opening and then you feel the strangeness of Wildwood.

But I’ll admit it.  It lost me somewhere.  The dual perspectives of Prue and Curtis shifted far too quickly for me, as if every scene was fast cut like two sides of the battle in a film.  Mostly though, the length just became a slog.  Somewhere in the middle, I began to feel like not that much had happened since Prue and Curtis’s initial separation, or, at least, not enough to justify two hundred pages.  That marked the end for me; I’m afraid to admit it, but I was just skimming from there on out, curious how the story came out and whether it would grip me again.  There was some good stuff in there as characters learned lessons, changed sides, and purposes were revealed, but it never quite did recapture me.

Still, I think I may have to chock this one into a pile of good children’s books that just didn’t do it for me personally.  Maybe it can share a shelf with Summerland somewhere.

A Conspiracy of Kings

I finally got to Megan Whelan Turner’s A Conspiracy of Kings.  This is the latest in her fantasy series that began with the Newbery honor book The Thief.  The Thief was an extraordinarily good read.  It interwove mythological stories into the text as characters told the tales that had clear parallels to their own situation.  The ending of the story has an excellent twist that can make a reread satisfying as well.  The two volumes after The Thief built on the first.  The Queen of Attolia was nearly as good as the first.  The King of Attolia was good, though it lacked some of the tightness that marked the first two.  This latest story was enjoyable for me, but not nearly as good as the others in the series.

A Conspiracy of Kings follows Sophos in his quest to become the king of Sounis.  Sophos has never had the charisma to be a real leader and when he inherits his uncle’s throne, he finds his country in shambles.  Part of the problem with this book is that Sophos simply isn’t as compelling a character as Eugenides, who was the central figure in the other three volumes.  Not only that, but a shifting perspective between first and third person dragged down the narrative for me.  When Sophos recounts what happened to him, there’s too much telling and not enough showing.  When the narrative comes to life with action, it’s wonderful, and Sophos’s voice and Turner’s writing style are strong enough to carry some of the feeling of summary, but not all of it.  But that said, glimpses of Eugenides and seeing Sophos grapple through how to take back his country made the book well worth the read for me.

Even though this particular sequel wasn’t the most amazing entry into the series, the series itself is among the really great upper middle grade, early young adult fantasy series out there.  I rank it alongside works like Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials and Robin McKinley’s Hero and the Crown.  If you’ve got a fantasy loving kid who hasn’t read it yet, then absolutely go out and start them on The Thief.

A Little Romance

I haven’t had it in me to delve into anything too deep lately, even as children’s books go.  Thanks to the advice of a certain Sharon Shinn loving book blog, I finally picked up a couple of titles by this YA fantasy author and I enjoyed them very much.  The first was Gateway and the second was General Winston’s Daughter.  They’re both books I think the fantasy and romance loving teenage girls out there, whether they come from reading Twilight or Tamora Pierce, would probably enjoy.  They’re both certainly romances, but rest assured, parents, they’re pretty tame.

I really liked Shinn’s writing style, which is descriptive and well done.  I also liked her imagined landscapes.  Gateway shows us an alternate universe just a step away from ours while General Winston’s Daughter depicts a world in a colonial struggle a bit like the scramble for Africa.  Both books feature an interracial romance, which I thought was a positive element in the world of children’s books and fantasy.  Both books deal with politics and oppression as the central character in each must learn to understand the world around them.  The interracial romance serves to highlight and explore those issues.

My only complaint is that, like so many girl YA books, the heroines of each story were surprisingly passive.  Events happen to them, rather than because of them.  Each book has its reasons, of course.  In Gateway, the main character has been thrown into an alternate universe.  In General Winston’s Daughter, the main character has lived a sheltered life.  This complaint was made about the books in Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games Trilogy.  It has been made about the megahit Twilight books.  Plotwise, there’s always a reason and sometimes, like with Katniss’s tragedy-struck life, it’s a plot element that’s there to explore deeper issues.  However, it’s one that sits slightly uneasy with me.  That’s not to detract from the other wonderful qualities of these books (well, we can detract from Twilight a little, can’t we?).  And there are many books that don’t fall into this pitfall, showing strong women who do take charge of their lives.  However, it’s one that’s beginning to wear on me as a reader.