Reviews 2016

Children's Fantasy Literature: An Introduction

Children's Fantasy Literature: An Introduction. Michael Levy and Farah Mendlesohn. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2016. 274 pages. $27.99 (paperback).

Preceded by such publications as Colin N. Manlove’s From Alice to Harry Potter: Children's Fantasy in England (2003) and Caroline Webb’s Fantasy and the Real World in British Children's Literature: The Power of Story (2014), Children's Fantasy Literature: An Introduction by Michael Levy and Farah Mendlesohn offers a more extensive overview that reads like a very comprehensive compendium written with "the love for the genre" (225) by the experts in the fields of history, science fiction, fantasy, and children’s literature. The purpose of the book is to show the trends in the evolution of fantasy and children’s literature in the English-speaking world, within its sociohistorical context and against the backdrop of changing ideologies of childhood. The authors cover a plethora of texts, ranging from bestsellers to lesser-known and marginalised titles. The research covers texts from the fifteenth century up to children’s and YA fantasy written in the 2000s. A helpful index is provided at the end of the book.

The first chapter proposes that, like the fantastic texts of ancient Greece and Rome that were memorised by pupils at school, the European beast fables and folk tales from the sixteenth century were not intended for children, but were either read to or by them. The authors also discuss the elevation of folk tales in the mid-sixteenth century and their didactic appropriation as texts for children two centuries later. This appropriation is discussed more thoroughly in Chapter 2, which focuses on the unique fantasy mode developed in Britain and shows how antiquarians and revivalists of the folk tale boosted the popularity of fairy tales, which were used to inspire nationalism and provide moral guidance to children. The nineteenth century in Britain also witnessed a shift in fairy tales that started treating the child reader as a rational being in need of guidance instead of a disciplining threat. This led to the emergence of the first child protagonists in Victorian fantasy, who were rather passive and confined to domestic settings of home or a garden.

Shifting away from the British context, Chapter 3 examines the beginnings of the American fantastic tradition. Here, the authors point out the American tendency to rationalise the supernatural in tales of the fantastic, including Gothic stories. The switch from the fantastic tales set on the old continent to more a local content is evident in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900), which is more extensively discussed in this chapter as well. In addition, E. B. White, James Thurber, Edward Eager, Edgar Rice Burroughs and Natalie Babbitt are listed among the most important contributors to the development of twentieth-century American fantastic children’s literature, which, as the authors point out, was also shaped by the growing popularity of pulp fiction.

The authors proceed to give an overview of British and Empire fantasy in the inter-war period in Chapter 4, in which they also indicate three main influences that impacted upon the fantasy market: the works of Edith Nesbit, C. S. Lewis, and J. R. R. Tolkien. These authors presented a new type of child protagonist, an active agent exploring "the great outdoors" (93), yet still accompanied by an adult figure. This chapter also examines twentieth-century animal tales and "service books" (95) with animal and toy characters helping children. It also intriguingly posits Mary Poppins (1934) as supposedly "one of the first real mutations of the fairy story into fantasy" (92). Tracing different trends in child protagonist depiction throughout the ages, in Chapter 5, the authors show how child protagonists became even more independent and exposed to increasing levels of threat in post-war literature, which also put a greater responsibility on them. Their actions have far heavier impact on the other characters and worlds they encounter; moreover, the evil they confront in the post-Holocaust stories is far more terrifying. Equally important is the revival of destinarianism, which has been enjoying enormous popularity in children’s and YA fantasy ever since.

Chapter 6 focuses on the post-war period in English speaking countries that is marked by the conjunction between fantasy and fairy tale and inspired by the rekindled localist fascination. In children’s literature, the domestic settings of Victorian fantasy were replaced with new mythological landscapes explored by more active and realistic protagonists. Nevertheless, the popularity of wainscot fantasy shows that stories about characters who are sheltered from the outside world were still in demand. Narrowing down the discussion, Chapter 7 examines closely the groundbreaking impact of C. S. Lewis’s and J. R. R. Tolkien’s mythopoeic fantasies, which bring together the elements that are at the heart of modern heroic fantasy: the movement towards secondary worlds, the integration of myth and legend, the growing importance of the quest structure, and the use of prophecies and medievalist elements (133-5). This chapter also analyses the changing depiction of heroines and the trope of the rejection of power popularized by Tolkien. Proceeding along the timeline, Chapter 8 presents the trends in children’s fantasy since the 1990s and the separation of the teen from the children’s market, which has spurred new subgenres discussed in this section such as ironic, urban, and dark fantasy. Special attention is given to the works of Philip Pullman and J. K. Rowling, which indicate a further tendency in children’s fantasy to shift from the intrusive mode to a more immersive one. The last chapter looks at how the extended delay of full adulthood influences fantastic texts for young readers, which tend to depict the protagonists entering the world of adult politics and which "integrate magic into adulthood" (206). This chapter also features an insightful analysis of Twilight and, more broadly, paranormal romance. Another trend discussed here is YA novels’ tendency towards bitterness and loss that is often accompanied by the theme of giving up power, followed by death and destruction that leads to a new beginning. This section also examines the novels in which "the power of text as a physical object" (220) is explored.

The format of the book, along with its inclusiveness, brings to light many new interpretative perspectives and patterns in the genre’s development that would be extremely difficult to notice without looking at the discussed texts within "a narrative history of the field" (5). The analytical part, however, instead of dominating the text, gracefully balances out this almost encyclopedic formula, which makes this book a precious source of information about the history of the genre for scholars in the field and new readers alike.

Katarzyna Wasylak
Independent Scholar, Poland