Magic in Children’s Literature

Phenomenal quote from N.D. Wilson about the role of magic children’s literature. For some background, Phillip Pullman is the chap who wrote the His Dark Materials trilogy (the first of which was made into a movie–The Golden Compass). Pullman calls his fantasy series the anti-Narnia. And N.D. Wilson recently released the third installment (The Chestnut King) of his 100 Cupboards trilogy. Dandelion Fire is the middle book.

Here’s the quote, in an interview from two years ago:

I consider the appropriate role of magic in kid lit to be the same as the appropriate role of magic in reality—though it will look different. This is, after all, an extraordinarily magical place. Sunlight makes trees out of thin air (literally), tadpoles turn into frogs, human love turns into children, and you can trick the air into lifting an enormous steel bus full of people up to thirty thousand feet if you know how to curve a wing and harness explosions. And it’s not all cheerful, happy, kittens-in-baskets magic either.

What happens if one of our wizards splits an atom? I think magic in children’s books is at its best when it wakes kids up to the mind-blowing magic all around us—when it overcomes the numbness of modernity and makes them watch an ant war on the sidewalk with all the wonder it deserves. Ironically, Christians, who profess outright to believe in magic (what else is water into wine, resurrection from the dead, calming storms, etc?) are the most upset when you put it into a book, while authors like Pullman (a materialistic atheist who believes reality to be all mechanism as far as I can tell) works with it comfortably and well. It really should be the other way around.

Hat tip to Justin Taylor for that.

While we’re on the subject of children’s lit, here’s a passage I read recently from Gene Edward Veith’s Reading Between the Lines about children’s response to reading “Hansel and Gretel”:

Here is a tale of abandonement, cannibalism, and burning people. Is such horrifying material, worthy of an R-rating on the screen, appropriate for children? Bettleheim [a child psycologist] and the experience of generations of parents and children say yes. Somehow, the fantasy framework and the charmed atmosphere of fiary tales prevent most children from actually being afraid. Experience shows that the “scary” elements are part of what children love most in these tales, which they enjoy far more than the socially correct, innocuous realism of much modern children’s literature…What could be more terrifying to children than the thought that their parents on whom they are totally dependent can no longer provide for them? And yet, Bettelheim points out, these children do worry about such things. In fairy tales like “Hansel and Gretel,” their most secret fears are acknowledged,  respected, and resolved into a happy ending.

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