“The objection to fairy stories is that they tell children there are dragons. But children have always known there are dragons. Fairy stories tell children that dragons can be killed.” -G.K. Chesterton
Once upon a time, I went to grad school. One of the seminars was on Children’s Literature. It turned out to be the site of the fiercest arguments and the most passionate advocates of any class I ever attended.
Most of my fellow students were teachers in schools where the majority of the student body had parents who were themselves not literate, or who didn’t speak English as their first language, or who were so preoccupied with trying to keep a roof over their head that they didn’t have time to sit down and read to their children.
These teachers formed a cadre, united by their passionate belief that it was absolutely wrong to try to teach children fairy tales, or any kind of fantasy at all. In their opinion, literature’s sole function was to serve as a mirror. It reflected back to the reader exactly the reality that the reader saw all around them. Their fear was that children would not become interested in reading if they read about worlds different from their own.
I was in the other camp. To me, literature should be a window, not a mirror. It lets you look out onto landscapes you would never see otherwise. Sometimes when you look out of a window, you catch sight of your own reflection there. It never looks quite the same as the you in the mirror though. This is like looking at yourself from the outside and seeing a new side of you.
Terry Pratchett wrote an essay about the importance of fantasy for children:
… let’s not get frightened when children read fantasy. It is the compost for a healthy mind. It stimulates the inquisitive nodes. It may not appear as ‘relevant’ as books set more firmly in the child’s environment, or whatever hell the writer believes to be the child’s environment, but there is some evidence that a rich internal fantasy life is as good and necessary for a child as healthy soil is for a plant, for much the same reasons.
The cadre were right about one thing: not everyone is going to enjoy reading fantasy or science fiction or anything that does not reflect the immediate world around them. But that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be introduced to these stories. For some students, the experience is like opening the door on a whole new world and stepping into your kingdom. You don’t know which group a child is going to fall into until you let them discover for themselves what they like.
Let the children explore. Let them read fairy stories. They might become ferry tales, carrying them into a different world to help them understand their own.