The recent, rapid ascent of young adult fiction has created a totally new paradigm in reading – a type of book marketed to both adults and young folks. This new category has not only ushered in a new wave of post-apocalyptic fantasies, but has also pulled attention from genre works in children’s fiction. With so many choices in both adult and YA fantasy, there seems little reason to look into juvenile literature. But readers would be mistaken, as there is a tremendous history of children’s fantasy that, while sometimes simple in structure and prose, can also be thematically rich and emotionally complex. Here are three choices from the past century that forgo any dystopian tropes for some classical optimism:
First, try L. Frank Baum’s 1900 classic THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ.
Far too often overshadowed by its 1939 film adaptation, Baum’s novel is at once more sincere, funny, and scary than the movie – which is saying something, considering how remarkable the film is. This is a children’s fantasy that directly confronts the fears and anxieties of the real world, and deals with our insecurities in a way that resonates today. It is not only a fiery piece of political allegory (reflecting on the inequality of turn-of-the-century America), but also empathetic and kind, and adult readers will find multitudes within.
If Oz is a little too antiquated for your taste, try THE BOOK OF THREE by Lloyd Alexander.
The first in his Chronicles of Prydain series, Three combines the dense world and mythology of Tolkien with the practical, seemingly everyday mysticism of Lewis. Based on real Welsh mythology, the series is a true coming-of-age story in that its protagonist, Taran, is constantly in a state of becoming, never fully turning into a hero but rather better understanding what it means to be heroic. This meditative tone is immensely satisfying, more than the gratifying wish-fulfilment of many modern fantasy stories, so that when victories do come, they truly mean something.
These books were rather unique in their own time, but are even more special today, when fantasy novels are inextricably tied to our own world and often involve “epic” stories, the planet’s fate often at stake. But there is an heir to Baum and Alexander’s more gentle fantasy in Colin Meloy’s WILDWOOD. The first of a trilogy, this story begins with a baby boy kidnapped by a murder of crows and taken into the deep woods bordering Portland, Oregon. The ensuing adventure involves ghosts, witches and woodland creatures, but it remains intimately about its protagonists and their hometown. The story is thoughtful and humane, magical and frightening, perhaps the platonic ideal of what a children’s fantasy ought to be.