Why I write fantasy for children
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the third book in C. S. Lewis’s Narnia series, begins with a picture. It hangs on the wall of the guest room where Edmund, Lucy, and Eustace are sitting, and in it a green dragon-shaped ship with a purple sail dances on sun-splattered waves of green and purple and blue. But as the children are looking at it, something magical happens: the picture becomes a window. They see a real ship, they hear the roar of the waves, they feel the salty wind in their faces, and suddenly they are pulled through the frame and into an adventure that will take them to the end of the world, where Aslan’s country lies.
A great book is like that: it not only shows you a new window into the world, it yanks you right through the window.
My favorite books when I was growing up were the ones that painted the world in wild colors and yanked me through windows—books like the Chronicles of Narnia, A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle, The Wizard of Oz (and its sequels) by L. Frank Baum, The Neverending Story by Michael Ende, The Trumpet of the Swan by E.B. White, Five Children and It by E. Nesbit, and anything by Dr. Seuss and Shel Silverstein. As I grew older, J.R.R. Tolkien turned me upside-down with his epic imagination, Lewis Carroll’s wittiness won my heart, and the fairy tales of George MacDonald wove goblins and fairies into a deep wisdom I had never encountered before.
There has never been a time when I have not loved stories—both reading them and making them. I began sending short fiction and poetry to publishers and magazines when I was eighteen (and getting all the requisite rejections of a beginning writer). But some deeper sense of calling settled into place in my late twenties when, after years of trying desperately to think like an adult, I walked into the children’s section of the bookstore, spread my arms wide, and bellowed (at least in my heart), “These are my people! ”
And so I dug in my heels, shunned the self-doubting voices, and wrote The Rise and Fall of Mount
Majestic. Not because I was deliberately attempting to write in the “middle-grade fantasy ” genre, but because, for better or worse, this is the sort of story that comes out of me when I am most being myself—buried giants, walking mangrove trees, singing lyres, poison-tongued jumping tortoises, and heroines with eccentric hats. If my calling is to paint pictures that will turn into magic windows, I am so grateful that children’s fiction is what naturally spurts out of my brain, because those are my favorite pictures, and because the windows will plunge readers into worlds that could potentially shape them for the rest of their lives. Those few years of childhood between the first stirrings of bookwormishness and the onset of adolescence are magical and mind-stretching and character-forming. Before adult cynicism kicks in, the imagination is as free and adventurous as the Dawn Treader itself.
I love fantasy—which I define not in terms of a genre but simply as freedom from the restraints of a literal realism—because it gives my own imagination space to breathe, allows mystery and topsy-turvy silliness to come together and mean something. It makes me ask the question (and I hope it evokes the same question in my readers), “What if there is more to the world than what I see on the surface?” As J.R.R. Tolkien said, the reason for reading about enchanted woods is that it makes all woods seem a bit enchanted. It makes us more open to a world where the marvelous and the miraculous are possible, where if we don’t walk through life with our eyes wide open we will miss all of the wonder. The task of a writer in this world of marvels is to paint a picture so vivid and so welcoming that it will pull us into an open sea where a ship awaits, ready to carry us to the very edge of ourselves and beyond.