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Of Fantasy and Daughters

Howl's Moving Castle by Diana Wynne JonesI read my daughter’s first fantasy book to her when she was one week old. Every evening I swaddled her up and rocked her to sleep while reading aloud another chapter of Diana Wynne Jones’s Howl’s Moving Castle. What else was I supposed to do with a tiny speechless creature with big eyes who only wanted me to hold her twenty-five hours a day? Reading her my favorite book seemed like an excellent way to survive her first month, but it was also important to me, too, for many reasons.

I wasn’t introduced to fantasy fiction nearly as young as she was. It wasn’t until I was twelve and stumbled across a battered copy of The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe on our neighborhood bookmobile that my eyes were opened to the magic and possibility of what remains my favorite book genre. I’m not sure what exactly divides fantasy for younger readers from adult fantasy, other than its exclusion of most sex and some violence, because it certainly doesn’t lack for philosophy, emotion, or psychosocial insight. Fantasy is often dismissed as being childish precisely because of its imaginative context, but it is exactly through this play of witchcraft and dragons, alternate worlds and moving castles that the deeper issues can be reflected upon and acted out. The power of fantasy’s semi-unreal context is the way it facilitates deep thinking about issues that might otherwise be too hard to engage, particularly with children.

Rather than burdening my now-seven-year-old with world events and problems, we have important conversations in the language of fantasy. We discussed issues of race, genocide, labor, and exploitation through Hermione Granger’s status as a “Mudblood,” and how that informed Hermione’s Society for the Promotion of Elfish Welfare and her passion for protecting non-humans.

Before my daughter’s eyes are fully opened to body consciousness and the sexist standards of perfection so pervasive in the “princess culture,” we talked about how The Wee Free Men’s Tiffany Aching wasn’t perfect, but through accepting that fact she became incomparably powerful. When confronted with her flaws, Tiffany chose not to feel shame, or to accept them without challenging them, but rather to transform them and exploit them for the common good:

All witches are selfish, the Queen had said. But Tiffany’s Third Thoughts said: Then turn selfishness into a weapon! Make all things yours! Make other lives and dreams and hopes yours! Protect them! Save them! Bring them into the sheepfold! Walk the gale for them! Keep away the wolf! My dreams! My brother! My family! My land! My world! How dare you try to take these things, because they are mine!

pratchett_wee free menAnd my beloved Howl’s Moving Castle allowed us to talk about anxiety and the limiting expectations put on us by self and society. Timid Sophie Hatter, who was resigned to being a failure, found she had nothing left to lose after being turned into an old woman by an angry witch. She realized there were benefits to speaking her mind, even to powerful men and women, that kindness had huge results, and that the only thing holding herself back from a desired life of adventure and magic was herself.

The best fantasy is empowering. It teaches you that you are magical. That you are a phenomenon. That you are literally fantastic. When we read The Wee Free Men, my daughter laughs uproariously at the wit of the older witches and the hijinks of the pictsies, but she wants to be young Tiffany Aching — independent, fearless, passionate, capable. Same with Sophie Hatter and Hermione Granger. The stories are so beautiful and creative that sometimes we forget they are productive, too. They offer real possibilities for how our children can be. That is their real magic.

Read more from The Horn Book on the late, great Sir Terry Pratchett and find Diana Wynne Jones’s hilarious 2012 article on horrible school visits here.

Carie Little Hersh About Carie Little Hersh

Carie Little Hersh is a Teaching Professor in Anthropology at Northeastern University. Between writing for her public anthropology blog, www.relevANTH.com, and piloting a podcast, Anthropologist on the Street, she reads relentlessly, especially to her two kids. She's also very, very tired.

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Comments

  1. This pretty much just made my day. (I have two fantasy-loving daughters too.)

  2. Elissa Gershowitz Elissa Gershowitz says:

    Jules, I think you and Carie would be friends IRL

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