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Friday, October 16, 2015

Gilding the Lily: The Fantasy Imagination

Choosing to try children’s fiction, like many young writers, I started with fantasy. I ran into a problem in my first draft of Josiah’s Apple Orchard because I wanted to create a place that not only conquered the seasons but contained new apple tree hybrids. That book was rewritten with realism but I was happy with a Readers’ Favorite reviewer terming it “surrealistic.”

I felt I was in trouble and read up on fantasy. According to children’s literature experts, fantasies have rules within their boundaries. The sorcery in Harry Potter often goes wrong in the real world and could cause Harry bad trouble with his relatives. The sorcery at the school has a much better chance of success. I admit I liked the juxtaposition of Harry's magical friends in the real world while the author preferred the wizard school as her setting, establishing a sensible rule. Mary Poppins was an odd adult who didn't get caught and could escape if she were suspected for magic.

Creating parallels with real life, the best authors can elevate fantasy to philosophy. Alice is controlled. Someone who knows biology has controlled her body and its growth. When she tries to obtain more power over her plight in Wonderland, she runs into tyranny, a queen who bends Wonderland rules for her own purposes.

Recently I re-read The Wizard of Oz. The news probably nudged me. Judy Garland's childhood home was in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, and so The Judy Garland Museum there displayed the ruby slippers, one pair of the four that Garland wore in the movie. But ten years ago, a thief entered the museum and stole them. This June, one of the museum founders followed a lead to a nearby mine. During a Wizard of Oz festival, divers searched for the slippers but didn't find them. Then in July, a Garland fan and donor offered a million dollars for information that would lead to the slippers. Every dreamer goes to Oz, trying to solve this one.

Smithsonian ruby slippers photo from

I wanted to re-read The Wizard of Oz to find out why it disappointed me after I first saw the great movie. That was probably because the dream aspect of the story was not in the book. There was no connection between Oz characters and Kansas characters. The movie added Miss Gulch and the circus man. Dorothy's orphan status was more apparent. She was caught up over the rainbow, and there was reluctance about her need to return to Kansas where it was just Auntie Em and her uncle who revived her. She could have returned at any time, the good witch told her.

It seems that the imagination in a good fantasy is driven by an obsession for answers. The world of children is full of rules that can be questioned but can’t be changed. Children probably realize that parents change in every generation and that the world is unique today.

One of my favorite juvenile fantasies is the Dark Is Rising series by Susan Cooper, from the 1960’s. I was absolutely taken by the idea that certain characters in her story had been reincarnated and knew it. They were the secret society. Is there reincarnation? I’ve often wondered.

I finished one fantasy – The House in Windward Leaves. The concept that ruled the book from the first was “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I felt that children discover what they like to do. In the fantasy, I allowed my characters to find out about an identity they chose. The rule was that their Halloween costumes became real in the fantasy world, but they couldn’t remember who they were. They could magically get the hang of their new status and experience the up and down side of it in a society of children.

My fantasy has more humor in it than horror. I suppose my big question was: Why are the decisions we make at eighteen so serious? Lewis Carroll may have wondered: Can a female get any control out there in the world if she isn’t an aristocrat or a queen? Maybe L. Frank Baum was asking: Why is a fabulous place close in the mind when home is drab?

After all, it’s greener on the other side of the fence. Strangely, good fantasies, as stories, make good sense. The human imagination, in real life, creates locales wonderfully different from another while the human experience is very similar. Humans gild the lily of life.

In the fantasy world, things can get out of control for characters who have arrived at the site of an author's imagination. The reader shares the dilemma: “How soon can I make sense of this?” There is satisfaction in getting somewhere and finding that an author is gilding that recognizable lily. 

Image digitalart at