I’ve talked about fantasy before on this blog, but it’s been awhile. So I am happy to have such a delightful excuse to do so now. Fantasy? You say. What has fantasy got to do with traumatized children and the like? More than you’d think.
The word “Escapist” is often applied to fantasy as a derogatory term (or even, occasionally, to all YA, but we won’t go there.) But the reason that books are so important to a lot of kids who have been “abused, abandoned, neglected, negated, traumatized, tortured, half-loved, and wholly-hurt” is that they do create a safe place for hurting children to literally escape to. Some kids don’t have access to a therapist or a great teacher they can spend time with or anything else. For those kids who are being abused at home and have nowhere else to turn, what are they going to do? Often, read a book.
And fantasy holds a special spot in this cycle because it isn’t just a book that a child can get absorbed in for a while. If it is a big, meaty, well-drawn fantasy with several books, then it becomes an entire world that the child can imagine herself living within. I re-read Lord of the Rings (all of them) at least 16 times in my adolescence (I lost track counting at 12, but I know that I read it at least 4 times after that.) I imagined that I lived in Middle Earth quite often.
My Mom despaired that I would ever stop reading “escapist literature” and develop “adult reading tastes.” And I did eventually do the latter (I adore Olive Kitteredge and The Well of Loneliness), but I still love fantasy. And back then, I needed it. I needed to escape. So here is to escapism in general. But not all fantasy is for escape. Though I absolutely love Tender Morsels I would not give it to a traumatized twelve year old. I’d even be on the fence about The Hunger Games–though I love those, too. (But that might just be me getting more conservative in my old age.)
So what characteristics make for a good escapist fantasy?
- An intricate and fully-developed world–one where it seems to extend off the page
- The darkness feels at least a little abstract or hypothetical or over the top
- There are multiple books set in the same world
- The good guys come out on top
- If trauma or abandonment are treated at all, they are done in a fairly light-hearted and not overly realistic way
Books that I think fit the bill are:
- Lord of the Rings
- Harry Potter
- The Dark is Rising Sequence
- His Dark Materials
- Robin McKinley’s Damar books (The Blue Sword and The Hero and the Crown)
- The Bone series by Jeff Smith
- Buffy the Vampire Slayer the tv show if it were books
- Maybe the Percy Jackson books? I haven’t read those, so I can’t be sure.
But, the real reason I started this post is that I came across a new series a few days ago, and I am wicked hooked. The Lunar Chronicles by Marissa Meyer. (And did anyone think of calling these books the Lunar Cycle? Because that would have been cooler.) These are . . . post-apocalyptic fairytale retellings? Huh?
We start out with Cinder who is a Cyborg Mechanic in New Beijing. And she doesn’t just lose her shoe when she dances with the prince. She loses her whole foot. In front of the whole ball, and then the whole kingdom and the whole “Earthen Union” because, of course, it’s being broadcast live.
Then we move on to Scarlet who is a hot-headed farm girl with anger-management issues who falls for Wolf–he turns out to be a genetically modified wolf-person hybrid foot soldier being controlled by magicians from the moon.
Apparently Cress which comes out next February (and I will die of anticipation before then) is a Rapunzel retelling. And there will be one final book the following year.
Is this a fully-drawn world that seems to go on off the page? Yes indeed. And unlike the Hunger Games, the threat stays a little way back. There is something about children being forced to kill children as a spectator sport that is just a little too close and real, too Lord of the Flies, for Escape. But here the big evil is the Lunar Queen who can control everyone’s bioelectrical waves (basically mind-control), but hates mirrors because they don’t lie. It stays a little way back. It feels just unreal enough. Like Sauron and Voldemort, to be a good villain but not utterly terrifying.
Both these main characters have been hurt and abandoned. Kind of like Harry Potter. But also like Harry Potter, it isn’t quite real. It’s not dealt with in a realistic way, so it doesn’t force kids to face the reality of their situation or anyone else’s. And this isn’t a short-coming. I think really good, Escapist, fantasy can bring up Universal questions–Harry Potter and LOTR are both rife with them–without forcing the reader to deal with a lot of deep emotional issues that he or she may not be ready to face.
In any case, enjoy! (And if anyone gets their hands on an arc for Cress, please keep me in mind.)