“The history of fantasy in the realm of children’s literature has been one of forceful contradictions: on the one hand, fantasy is criticized as being fraudulent, irrational, and overly imaginative; on the other, it is criticized for being formulaic, escapist, and not imaginative enough.” (Baker, 2011)
Fantasy tells a story that could not happen in the “real world”. An effective fantasy convinces readers to suspend disbelief and immerse themselves in imaginary characters and/or settings. For instance, characters may possess magic powers. Many authors establish their own set of physical laws that may allow for time travel, telepathy, or talking animals. Many fantasy stories incorporate elements of good versus evil and heroes that come to the rescue.
Science fiction is fantasy set in the future or in an alternative universe. The author may imagine principles of science that have not yet been discovered.
Read O-Quinn, Elaine J. & Atwell, Heather (2010). Familiar Aliens: Science Fiction as Social Commentary. ALAN Review, 37(3), 45-50.
Read Ventura, Abbie (2011). Predicting a Better Situation? Three Young Adult Speculative Fiction Texts and the Possibilities for Social Change. Children's Literature Association Quarterly, 36(1), 89-103.
Fantasy for Children
Many works of fantasy have become classics. For instance, most children are familiar with Flat Stanley (1964) by Jeff Brown. Although the book is a half-century old, the tradition of children creating their own Flat Stanley and sending it through traditional mail to visit friends and family has withstood the test of time.
Seek out works for young children that connect fantasy to familiar objects and settings. The Day the Crayons Quit (2013) by Drew Daywalt deals with crayons who begin writing protest letters.
Keep in mind that even young children enjoy fantasy. However, it’s important to remember that preschool aged children are just discovering the difference between the real and imaginary world. Look for fantasy books that easily connect with real-world settings and objects familiar to children such as a pet goldfish.
A Fish Out of Water (1961) by Helen Palmer (Dr. Seuss) is a classic example. The story is about a boy who buys a fish named Otto and is told
“Never feed him a lot. Never more than a spot. Or something may happen. You never know what.”
Of course the boy can’t resist over feeding the fish resulting in a whirlwind of events that try to fix his growing problem. It’s interesting to read this book to children of different ages and see their reactions. Even some older children still wonder if the story could “really happen”.
As children mature, they enjoy playing with the imaginary world and begin to realize the outrageous possibilities. My Big Fat Zombie Goldfish (2013) by Mo O’Hara is fantasy through and through, but young readers love the close connection to the reality of pet ownership.
Many children want to read books like the Harry Potter series (1997+) although they may not be developmentally appropriate. Some parents step in and read the books aloud to their young children who don't have the reading skills to read the series themselves. There's been quite a debate in the "blogosphere" about parents who "adapt" (also known as "pink washing" the book by leaving out the "scary parts".
For a taste of the Harry Potter debate, read a few blog entries:
Child Proofing Harry Potter by Lynn Messina (November 8, 2013)
Hogwarts Professor John's reaction (November 10, 2013)
The Folly of Child-proofing Harry Potter by Peter Damien (November 11, 2013)
It's fun to read the many comments that people have made to these postings.
What do you think of this debate? Where do you stand?
Fantasy for Young Adults
Young adults are drawn to different aspects of fantasy. Some like adventure, while others like the romance. Many young adults don't think of themselves as fans of fantasy. Instead, they focus on their particular sub-genre of interest such as dystopian or vampire books. It's important not to lump all fantasy together. Instead, focus on the types of characters, plots, and settings of interest to a particular reader.
The Harry Potter series (1997+) is credited with a resurgence of interest in fantasy fiction (Baker, 2011). During the past decade, dystopian fiction has been particularly popular with series like The Uglies (2005+), The Hunger Games (2008+), and Divergent (2011+) by Veronica Roth. The Twilight (2005+) books by Stephenie Myer and Vampire Academy (2007+) series by Richelle Mead popularized vampires for a new generation.
Fantasies can be set in the past, present, or future. For instance, How to Catch a Bogle (2013) by Catherine Jinks is set in Victorian London.
Be sure to think outside the traditional fantasy category. Many youth enjoy books that relate to particular sub-genre such as cloning like Double Identity by Margaret Peterson Haddix and zombie romance like Generation Dead by Dan Waters.
Read Barron, T.A. (July/August 2012). Why fantasy must be true. Horn Book, 85-89.
Read Wika, Courtney Huse (2011). She's Not Me: Confrontation with the monstrous double. VOYA, 234-237.
Categories of Fantasy
Modern fantasy can be difficult to categorize. We’ll explore some of the popular themes.
Keep in mind that some books defy categorization. More than This (2013) by Patrick Ness is a work of dystopian fiction that addresses deep philosophical questions.
While some books involve warm and fuzzy animal characters, other works of animal fantasy may have dark and violent animal representations.
From Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865) by Lewis Carroll to The Jungle Book (1894) by Rudyard Kipling, anthropomorphic creatures can be found throughout the history of children's literature. Anthropormorphic characters continued to be popular in the 20th century with books like The Wind in the Willows (1908) by Kenneth Grahame and Winnie-the-Pooh (1926) by A. A. Milne.
These books continue to be popular today. The Warriors (2003+ series) book by Erin Hunter follow a clan of wild cats, while the Redwall (1986+ series) books by Brian Jacques features badgers and other anthropomorphic animals.
When growing up, I enjoyed the books featuring anthropomorphic mice. After reading Stuart Little (1945) by E. B. White and The Mouse and the Motorcycle (1965) by Beverly Cleary, I became fascinated with The Littles (1967+ series) by John Peterson. I imagined my pet hamsters being able to talk.
Today's youth have grown up with a mouse named Despereaux Tilling from The Tale of Despereaux (2004) by Kate DiCamillo.
Were you a fan of pigs, crickets, or some other fantasy animal?
Seek out books for young readers that play with the fine line between fact and fiction. Mr. Tiger Goes Wild (2013) by Peter Brown encourages children to talk about anthropomorphism. Click the image below to see a page from the book.
Animal stories provide a unique way to discuss issues of animal treatment. Books like The One and Only Ivan (2012) by Katherine Applegate see the world from the point of view of animals. Applegate’s Newbery award winning book is told through the eyes of a captive gorilla named Ivan.
Listen to Meet 'Ivan': The Gorilla Who Lived In A Shopping Mall from NPR. Think about how complex ideas and adult concepts and be effectively conveyed to children.
From a tiny family to a boy flattened by a bulletin board, many works of fantasy envision quirky or unusual characters that somehow fit into everyday life. Also known as modern fantasy, contemporary fantasy is set in present day. Keep in mind that the present day for Mary Poppins is 1934 and for Flat Stanley is 1964.
Percy Jackson and the Olympians (2005+ series) by Rick Riordan is a great example of contemporary fiction. The series begins with an ordinary boy living an ordinary life in the city. The Dark is Rising (1965+ series) by Susan Cooper and Spiderwick Chronicles (2003+ series) by Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black are other popular examples.
Contemporary fantasy often overlap with other fantasy categories such as high fantasy series Harry Potter as well as the romance fantasy Twilight books.
The Gregor the Overlander (2003+ series) by Suzanne Collins takes place in modern day New York City. Because the series invents an entire imaginary world under the city, it can also be classified as epic or high fiction. The series begins in the basement laundry room of an apartment building. Click the image below right to read about the bridge from reality to fantasy.
Creature and Monster Fantasy
From aliens and zombies to vampires and werewolves, young people enjoy stories about monsters. This category of fantasy often overlaps with other categories such as contemporary and dark fantasy.
Vampire Academy (2007+ series) by Richelle Mead is known as both contemporary and urban fantasy. Urban fantasies take place in urban settings.
Wolf books like The Wolves of Mercy Falls (2009+ series) by Maggie Stiefvater books are also popular.
The Monstrumologist (2009+ series) by Rick Yancey is a gothic thriller. Set in the 19th century, Will is an apprentice to a monstrumologist who studies monsters.
The Killer Species (2013+ series) by Michael P. Spradlin are an action-packed series popular with reluctant readers. In each book the young protagonist faces a different invasive creature.
Bunnicula: A Rabbit-Tale of Mystery (1979+ series) by James Howe focuses on a vampire bunny that sucks the juice of of vegetables.
Elements of horror and dread are often combined for the dark fantasy category. Sometimes referred to as modern gothic fantasy, these books have a gloomy atmosphere and scary elements. Far Far Away (2013) by Tom McNeal is a dark fairy tale that even incorporates the ghost of Jacob Grimm from the Brothers Grimm as narrator.
Many children grew up reading the Goosebumps (1992+ series) by R. L. Stine. These horror books placed child characters in everyday situations that turned sinister. Although they’re considered thrillers, most of the books contain comedy elements and little violence.
Jonathan Stroud writes series for youth in the dark fantasy category. The Bartimaeus (2003+) series are for the middle grades audience, while the new Lockwood & Co. series (2013+) contains elements of horror combined with great mystery elements for younger readers.
The Graveyard Book (2008) and Coraline (2002) by Neil Gaiman are both available in multiple formats. For instance, Coraline is available as a traditional book, a graphic novel, and movie. It's interesting to compare the different versions of the story. Click the graphic novel page below to read it.
Over the past decade, dystopian fiction has become increasingly popular with young adults. A sub-genre within science or speculative fiction, many teens enjoy reading about worlds that involve catastrophe, disaster, and survival. Most involve a post-apocalyptic setting, however some exist in an imagined universe.
Read Latham, Don & Hollister, Jonathan M. (2014). The Games People Play: Information and Media Literacies in the Hunger Games Trilogy. Children’s Literature in Education, 45, 33–4.
Read Tan, Susan Shau Ming (January 2013). Burn with Us: Sacrificing Childhood in The Hunger Games. The Lion and the Unicorn, 37(1), 54-73.
Ship Breaker (2013) by Paolo Bacigalupi is a great starting point to explore the relationship between today's world and the dystopian world invented by the author.
Watch an Amazon interview with Paolo Bacigalupi who discusses his dystopian world's connection to today.
Having enjoyed adult works like Brave New World (1931) by Aldous Huxley and Fahrenheit 451 (1953) by Ray Bradbury when I was a teenager, I wondered why there weren't dystopian novels aimed at teen readers. When The Giver (1993) by Lois Lowry won the Newbery Medal in 1994, it exploded in popularity but also caused lots of controversy. For me, The Giver marked a turning point in young adult literature. Two decades later, dystopian literature for youth is common.
Are you a fan of dystopian literature? Why or why not?
Books with imaginary worlds or epic elements may be identified as high or epic fantasy. Many of these works focus on the conflict between good and evil.
The settings found in high fantasy tend to be very well developed and populated with creatures that reflect the world such as dragons, demons, elves, or wizards. The imaginary worlds may be within the “real world,” a parallel universe, or the primary world (Gamble & Yates, 2008). Because the worlds are so involved, most works of high fantasy involve multiple books such as a trilogy, quartet, cycle, saga, or series.
The popularity of the Harry Potter (1997+ series) books by J.K. Rowling generated interest in both classic works like The Chronicles of Narnia (1956+ series) by C. S. Lewis as well as newer works of fantasy.
Works of high fantasy are often told through the eyes of a key character or main hero such as Harry Potter or Eragon. In most cases, the characters mature through the series as they learn more about their world, their powers, or their legacy.
His Dark Materials (1995+ trilogy) by Philip Pullman contains steampunk elements along with its dystopian elements and high fantasy worlds.
Skim Cantrell, Sarah K. (2010). ‘‘Nothing Like Pretend’’: Difference, Disorder, and Dystopia in The Multiple World Spaces of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. Children’s Literature in Education, 41, 302–322.
My first year as an elementary school librarian, I was asked to work with the Talented and Gifted (TAG) program on a literature-based project. As a fan of high fantasy, I thought this area would be a wonderful way to stimulate the creativity of my third to sixth grade students. I began with a poem from The Dark is Rising series that reappears throughout the books. Through the series, we explored Arthurian legends, Celtic stories, and Norse mythology. It was a magical time for my students and I.
“When the dark comes rising, six shall turn it back;
Three from the circle, three from the track;
Wood, bronze, iron; water, fire, stone;
Five will return, and one go alone.”
What work of high fantasy could turn into a "magical time" with youth?
Some fantasies contain elements of mystery. In many cases, the fantasy involve paranormal activities and characters such as ghosts and vampires.
For children, mystery fantasy often involves ghosts and other spooky elements. The 43 Old Cemetery Road (2009+ series) by Kate Klise involves youth in detective stories that often include ghosts, phantoms, and other spooky and also hilarious characters.
The Midnight Magic series (1998 + series) by Avi are mysteries set in a magical kingdom during the Renaissance in Italy.
Before I Fall (2010) by Lauren Oliver involves a dead girl who relives the last days of her life and tries to unravel the mystery of her death.
Romance fantasy combine elements of romance with fantasy features. In the case of the Twilight series the fantasy element involves vampires and werewolves. These works are sometimes categorized as dark fantasy or gothic novels too.
Science fiction is a type of fantasy that often includes futuristic settings, science, and technology. Works may deal with topics such as time travel, parallel universes, aliens, and space travel.
The Ender (1985+ saga) series by Orson Scott Card has been popular with teens since the military science fiction novel was published in 1985. The saga includes both sequels as well as parallel novels that explore other characters.
Star Wars, Star Trek, and books related to other television and movie franchises are always popular with youth. Many of these materials are geared at particular ages and use the official logos to attract readers. For instance, teens are interested in the Star Wars: The Trawn Trilogy (1991+ series) by Timothy Zahn. For middle school, check out Star Wars: Jedi Academy by Jeff Brown (2013). In anticipation of a new generation of readers, DK Readers going back to the original stories with LEGO Star Wars: A New Hope (2014) by Emma Grange
I read a lot of science fiction in my teens. I particularly enjoyed short stories such as the Star Trek short story collections by James Blish. I remember reading Ender's Game when it was first published as a short story in the August 1977 issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact. The Ender books are a great example of works equally popular with young adults and adults.
What books have you read that appeal equally to young adult as well as adult reader?
Science fiction for youth generally include speculation about the future of familiar science and technology. For instance, genetic engineering is something on the radar of most young people. House of the Scorpion (2002) and The Lord of Opium (2013) by Nancy Farmer is a work of dystopian science fiction that incorporates the idea of clones and slaves.
Artemis Fowl (2001+ series) by Eoin Colfer is a series of science fiction/fantasy novels that focus on a teenaged criminal. The storylines involve fairies, demons, and world domination. These books are available in both the traditional and graphic novel formats. They're also available as iBooks through iTunes.
Science fiction is also popular with younger readers. Aliens on Vacation (2011+ series) by Clete Barrett Smith is a light, humorous look at extraterrestrials. Along the same lines is Attack of the Fluffy Bunnies (2010) by Andrea Beaty. The Galaxy Zack (2013+ series) by Ray O’Ryan may not be the best written series around, but it's very popular with primary age boys who express an interest in reading about space exploration.
Elements of time travel or wraps in time can often be found in works of fantasy as well as the sub-genre science fiction. The Nick Mciver Time Adventures (2008+ series) by Ted Bell are an exciting and engaging time travel series. Nick finds a sea chest containing a mysterious glowing globe that turns out to be a time travel device.
Read Science Fiction by A. Waller Hastings in Keywords for Children’s Literature.
A sub-genre of science fiction, works of steampunk are generally set in an alternative version of history that feature steam-powered machinery and 19th century Victorian era or American West settings. In some cases, steampunk is set in a post-apocalyptic future or fantasy world where steam power has regained popularity. Technology found in the works of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne fit this genre.
Gail Carriger is well-known as a streampunk author for young adults such as Etiquette & Espionage (2013). Her series fall into the category of urban fantasy, mystery, and science fiction. Series including Parasol Protectorate (2009+ series) and Finishing School (2013+ series).
Many of the series such as Leviathan have both male and female protagonists that make the books equally appealing to boys and girls.
Many youth enjoy reading about the adventures of superheroes and super villains. Many of these works are available in comic or graphic novel formats.
Companies like DC Comics have affiliated with publishers to produce leveled reading books for emergent readers. Series like Super Friends, Super Hero Squad, and LEGO DC Superheroes are examples.
An enjoyment of superhero fiction continues with young reader series like The Adventures of Captain Underpants and Ricky Ricotta’s Mighty Robot by Dav Pilkey. The Fly Guy (2005+ series) books by Tedd Arnold are another popular series.
For reluctant readers, seek out books with humor and adventure elements. For instance, Fortunately, the Milk (2013) by Neil Gaiman spins a trip to buy milk into a story of imaginary worlds, pirates, and aliens. Bad Kitty (2005+ series) by Nick Bruel is another example. In each story, a housecat named Kitty wreaks havoc in her owner’s home.
Humor can be found in both fantasy and realistic fiction genre. Elements of humor may be found in both the text and illustrations in books like Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures (2012) by Kate DiCamillo. Although much of the book is realistic, there are an equal number of fantasy elements.
Books by Roald Dahl such as Fantastic Mr. Fox (1970), James and the Giant Peach (1961), Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964), and Matilda (1988) can be enjoyed as read-alouds by younger children then again as children become readers.
As a child who loved candy and particularly chocolate, I immersed myself in the world of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964) by Roald Dahl. Soon after reading the book, I saw the movie Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971). I loved it too.
Are you a fan of Roald Dahl? If so, which books are your favorites? Why?
Interesting and unusual characters are often found in humorous fantasies. Authors such as Daniel Pinkwater have gained readers with their quirky characters like Mrs. Noodlekugel.
An increasing number of authors of are creating graphic novels or highly illustrated humorous books for youth. Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm are known for their Babymouse books as well as their Squish books.
For young adults, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1979+ series) by Douglas Adams is an excellent example of a book that crosses the fantasy and humor genre.
The Benefits of Fantasy
Fantasy is rich with visual imagery (Baker, 2011). While some adults find fantasy to be “unhealthy escapism” or protest the elements of occult found in the stories, others see fantasy as a way to encourage creativity and imagination.
Fantasy also provides a wonderful way for young people to explore important issues relates to the human condition in the safety of imaginary worlds.
“Children can read directly about friendship, sacrifice, selfishness, the fear of death, and death itself, but the insight is somehow more meaningful when shown metaphorically through the lives of Wilbur the pig, Templeton the rat, and Charlotte the spider in Charlotte’s Web (White, 1952). Because Charlotte is a spider, she can embody all selflessness without losing credibility. On the other hand, if she were a character in realistic fiction dedicated completely to doing good and had no flaw or foible, she would not be believable.” (Tunnell, 2012, 126-127)
No longer are books for children and young adults simply paragraphs on a page. Text is being presented in the form of screenplays, text messages, and blog posting. Graphics are woven together with text to create graphic novels and other works of sequential art. Audio, video, and animation are being interspersed with traditional text.
Increasingly, works of fantasy are incorporating transmedia elements. These multi-platform stories are told through social media sites, videos, blogs, and other web-based media.
The Spaceheadz series (2010+ series) by Jon Scieszka is an example of this growing trend. As youth read the book, they discover hidden website address that link to social media sites and videos that enhance the storyline. Go to the series website to get a feel for the connections between the book and the website.
The Search for WonderLa (2010+ series) by Tony DiTerlizzi incorporates QR codes that will take readers into a 3D world where they can explore a map from the story. Go to the series website to explore the many extras available with this series.
The Septimus Heap (2005+ series) by Angie Sage website contains an interactive map, hidden games, and other online features to accompany the books. The The Mysterious Benedict Society (2007+ series) by Trenton Lee Stewart also has an interactive website. Magnificent 12 (2012 + series) by Michael Grant has a website that contains games and activities popular with both boys and girls.
The Fairy Godmother Academy by Jan Bozarth combines cards, clues, and online activities.
Books for young adults are extending their reach beyond multimedia elements and incorporating social media such as Facebook and mobile technology. These books are sometimes called interactive fiction. The Cathy's Series (2006+ series): Cathy's Book, Cathy's Key, Cathy's Ring by Sean Stewart and Jordan Weisman is a great example. The series involves elements of alternative reality gaming.
Pottermore is a website that allows fans of Harry Potter to delve into the world of their favorite characters. Users can experience interactive stories that go along with the original series as well as new elements.
The Bran Hambric (2010+ series) by Kaleb Nation provides a website with music to accompany each chapter of the book.
The 8th Continent (2014+ series) by Matt London contained an integrated website with games and interactive activities.
Patrick Carman is known for both his fantasy and realistic fiction. However, he is best known for his use of transmedia elements. Skeleton Creek series by Patrick Carman takes an interesting approach. Designed for preteens and teens, the story is written in journal form by a teenaged boy recovering from an accident. While writing in his journal, Ryan receives email communications from his friend Sarah who posts video clips at her website. The video clips are woven throughout the reading experience and are accessed by entering the passwords found throughout the book. Trackers (2010+ series) is a technology thriller that incorporates missions and videos into the story. Carman is one of many authors involved with the 39 Clues series that has an extensive online presence. The Atherton books and The Land of Elyon books have online gaming elements. When you read The Floors books you can go to the website and enter a "whippet hotel key card" to access areas of a website.
Although young people are thirsty for these nontraditional approaches, many schools aren't embracing these multi-modal texts and transmedia approaches.
Read Groenke, Susan L. & Prickett, Robert (2012). Continued Absences: Multimodal Texts and 21st Century Literacy Instruction. ALAN Review, 29(2).
Censorship of Fantasy Literature
Through works of fantasy like Tuck Everlasting (1975) by Natalie Babbitt, Bridge to Terabithia (1977) by Katherine Paterson (1977), and The Giver (1993) by Lois Lowry, young people have the opportunity to explore timeless social issues and discuss topics that might be difficult to address through realistic fiction. Tuck Everlasting provides readers a chance to think about the role of death in one’s life. In Bridge to Terabithia, young friends build an imaginary world to help them deal with the burdens in their lives. Through The Giver, readers learn about the flaws in a seemingly utopian society.
Books that bridge fact and fiction are often the target of censors. Both Bridge to Terabithia and The Giver are on ALA’s Most Commonly Challenged Book list. The Harry Potter series is also on the list along with other popular fantasy books like A Wrinkle in Time.
Evaluation of Fantasy Literature
Well-written fantasies must have credible characters, a believable plot, and a well-developed setting that makes sense for the characters and plot.
In addition to the books, look for supplemental materials. A growing number of publishers are finding ways to extend the reading experience. For instance, fans of the Spiderwick Chronicles can read the field guide introduced in the book. Many supplemental resources have been published to go with the Harry Potter books and Twilight series.
Baker, Deirdre (2011). Fantasy. In, P. Nel & L. Lissa, Keywords for Children’s Literature. NYU Press.
Gamble, Nikki & Yates, Sally (2008). Exploring Children’s Literature. SAGE Publications Ltd.
Lynn, Ruth Nadelman (2005). Fantasy Literature for Children and Young Adults: A Comprehensive Guide. 5th ed. Libraries Unlimited.
Pepetone, Gregory G. (2012). Hogwarts and All: Gothic Perspectives on Children's Literature. Peter Lang. Available as an eBook through IUPUI.
Tunnell, Michael O., Jacobs, James S., Young, Terrell A., & Bryan, Gregory (2012). Children’s Literature, Briefly. Fifth Edition. Pearson.