While today you can go into any good bookshop (or perhaps more likely go online) to find plenty of children’s books of all kinds to choose from, this was not always the case. In fact, there was a time in the not too distant past when it was not easy at all for younger readers to find fiction written specifically for them – until about 150 years ago, children’s books were thought of only as lesson books, full of instructions about good behaviour. Only relatively recently have authors written books to be interesting, amusing and exciting for younger readers, instead of merely to teach them something. The development of the sub-genre of children’s fantasy is an even more recent phenomenon. From its misty beginnings in the fairy tales and fables of the nineteenth century to its first real expression in the form of classics like The Borrowers and The Chronicles of Narnia, children’s fantasy has progressed in leaps and bounds to become, today, an extremely lucrative literary form in its own right. It was perhaps the runaway success of series such as His Dark Materials and Harry Potter which first highlighted just how popular and successful fantasy for children (as opposed to its more grown-up counterpart as exemplified by Tolkien and others) could be. This was no mere flash in the pan, however, and books like the Twilight and Hunger Games series have continued to dominate the bestseller lists, as well as the box office, well into the 21st century.
One of the earliest children’s favourites to survive to our own day is John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, which was an exciting tale of adventure as well as a religious book, written in such a simple way that it could be enjoyed by people of all ages. A little later came two other great story books, Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe in 1719 and Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels in 1728. While neither of these books was written especially for children – Gulliver was intended to show up the foolish customs and opinions of the day – they could be enjoyed for the story alone, and as much by children as by grown-ups. About this time, though, a new kind of story intended for children appeared – the fairy story. Many of these stories came from France, where Charles Perrault published a book of them in 1698. The French titles have long since been forgotten in England: to us they are Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, The Sleeping Beauty and Puss in Boots, as well as many others. Soon The Arabian Nights, Grimm’s fairy tales and Hans Christian Andersen’s stories were all also translated into English. It was largely the popularity of these tales that encouraged authors to try their hands at books for young people that were written just to entertain, not to improve or show a moral. Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies in 1863 was one of the first examples of this new kind of book, but better was soon to come. In 1866 Lewis Carroll wrote one of the most famous of all children’s novels, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. No other book like Alice had ever appeared before and there has not really been anything like it since, even though Carroll has, inevitably, had many less talented imitators. The people and animals that Carroll, an Oxford don whose real name was Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (Lewis Carroll is the Latinized form of his first and middle names, swapped around), created have become so well-known that they are a part of everyday speech. Phrases like ‘Curiouser and curiouser’ and ‘to grin like a Cheshire cat’, for example, have passed into the English lexicon. I would also argue that Alice was perhaps the best early example of a children’s fantasy novel in the sense that it is understood today.
Kenneth Grahame did not write many novels but throughout the whole realm of children’s literature there are few books that are as good or as famous as The Wind in the Willows, which has romance, adventure, comedy and a touch of poetry too. Grahame created, in the world of the river bank, an unforgettable magical kingdom and, in the stand-alone chapter The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, one of the most haunting, mesmeric passages in all of English literature. Magic also came into the books of Edith Nesbit. The children in her stories tend to experiment with magic and find that it works, as is the case in The Phoenix and the Carpet, in which the children buy a magic carpet to go travelling on and make friends with a rather conceited phoenix. Another favourite character of make-believe is Peter Pan. James Barrie’s play about the eponymous boy who never grew up was first acted in 1904 and, except during wartime, has been put on in London during the Christmas holidays ever since. It has appeared in prose form too and for about 80 years children have not tired of reading of the flight of Wendy, John and Michael in the company of Peter Pan to Never-Never-Land and their adventures there with pirates, red indians and wild beasts. The famous Christopher Robin books were written for him by his father, A A Milne and today nearly everyone has heard of Winnie-the-Pooh, the Bear of Little Brain who was enormously fond of honey, while characters like Eeyore the donkey, Tigger, Piglet, Kanga and little Roo, are just as familiar. Unlike Peter Pan, however, Christopher Robin grew up and, when he did, A A Milne gave up writing for children.
The genre of fantasy grew up with its readers and eventually began to tackle darker and more adult themes. C S Lewis’s series of seven books about the magical kingdom of Narnia are, essentially, modern fairy tales or fables full of excitement, but they deal with death, danger and despair as well. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and its sequels are also suspenseful, often unpredictable and possess a great and moving climax. They are equalled, and many would argue surpassed, by the tales that Lewis’s great friend J R R Tolkien set in his invented world of Middle Earth. Whilst Tolkien’s masterpiece The Lord of Rings was by no means written with children in mind, they have since its publication made it their own. Some of the most original fantasies for older children were those by Alan Garner. The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and the other books in the ‘Wild Magic’ quartet all bubble over with strange and fantastical occurrences, touching everyday life with supernatural magic. In The Dark is Rising sequence Susan Cooper presented her readers with a new level of fantasy with her description of an epic battle between the forces of Light and Dark. Ursula Le Guin, in creating her imaginary realm of Earthsea, where her hero Sparrowhawk learns to become a wizard, also added an impressive new depth to the genre. Authors like Lewis, Tolkien, Garner, Cooper and Le Guin can be credited for children’s fantasy being taken really seriously for the first time. They have all also been major inspirations for the most successful children’s authors of the present day.
Whilst Philip Pullman’s often controversial series of books, His Dark Materials, was, in the author’s own words, almost an anti-Narnia, the debt that he owes to the children’s fantasy writers that came before him is inescapable. Here we have other worlds, child protagonists with special destinies and abilities, epic battles, great deeds and refreshingly adult themes. Much the same can be said of J K Rowling’s Harry Potter books, which changed the landscape of children’s fiction forever. Although it seems surprising given the popularity of the Narnia, Middle Earth and Earthsea novels, among others, it was really only after the runaway success of Rowling’s tales of her boy wizard and his battles with the Dark Lord Voldemort, that publishers really seemed to sit up and take notice of more mature fantasy stories aimed at the teenage market. This can be seen in the explosion of publications which might previously have been regarded as either too ‘adult’ to be categorised as children’s books, or would not have had the same level of promotion in their initial publicity campaigns. Two cases in point are Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series, which falls into the horror-fantasy category, and Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games series, which is a science fiction-fantasy. The levels of sex and violence as well as the sheer size of the books, though modest by adult standards, all push the envelope significantly from what would have been thought to be a children’s novel twenty or thirty years ago. Even Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl books, despite their main protagonists being fairies and children, are considerably more unpredictable and anarchic (if not necessarily any better) than anything that C S Lewis ever wrote. In fact, comparing the Artemis Fowl and Narnia novels perhaps provides the perfect illustration of the evolution of the sub-genre of children’s fantasy. Just as children have become more sophisticated in their tastes and more exposed to the world at an earlier age through smartphones, laptops and the ever-available presence of the internet, children’s authors have had to adapt to their changing audience. This process has led to the resurgence of what I consider to be one of the most vibrant categories of fantasy fiction that is around today. I can’t wait to see what the future holds…