A recent study on children’s reading habits (by digital-reader platform Kobo) noted the dominance of fantasy:
According to the study The Children’s Digital Book Market: The future looks bright, the fantasy & magic category dominates book sales for kids, capturing 56 percent of the market share.
Hooray for fantasy! The other categories didn’t come close, scoring under 10% each.
What I found unfortunate (if predictable) was social-media commentary following the study’s release that there was a “strong correlation to children’s reading preferences for fantasy and magic . . . as a means of escape from the news headlines of today.”
Escape from reality? I do understand why people have that instinctive reaction. There’s an easy logic to say that fantasy is by definition about not-reality (it’s a branch of literature that allows impossible, magical things), and therefore, reading it is escapist. However, a lot of influential writers (Lloyd Alexander, Peter Beagle, Ursula Le Guin, Jane Yolen, Madeleine L’Engle, Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and others) have argued specifically (and wrote works of fiction that made their case well) that reading fantasy is not an avoidance of dealing with difficult real-world issues.
These gifted writers saw fantasy stories as an imaginative, complex, creative, value-based way of trying to understand intangible aspects of what it means to be human, to deal with issues of good and evil, right and wrong, etc. Many of us agree with them that well-written fantasy stories do that especially well.
To put it briefly, a reader’s suspension of reality in fantasy is not the same as trying to escape from reality. As Tolkien (and Chesterton) noted, a key part of a fairy-tale’s tri-fold approach (Recovery, Escape, and Consolation) to and from an imaginary world is the reader’s return to reality at the end, refreshed, with new insights.
If you’ve read any well-crafted, insightful fantasy from The Little Prince to Tuck Everlasting to (just fill in your favorite here!), you’ll likely agree. Read the female-centric stories of Tamora Pierce. Ask the kids who read the Harry Potter novels if they learned anything that might be worthwhile to them about good and evil, about friendship, responsibility, trust . . .
I’d argue that the reading of fantasy by kids just may reflect an attempt by kids to actually try to deal internally with those issues of the “news headlines of today,” albeit through fiction, that some might think they are trying to escape.
Anyhow, that’s part of the case for fantasy’s non-escapist nature that I make (with the help of those insightful fantasy authors) in A Guide to Fantasy Literature in the chapter “Fantasy and Belief.”
To quote Lloyd Alexander: “Fantasy is hardly an escape from reality. It is a way to understand it.”
Or, as the fox tells the little prince:
It is only with the heart that one can see rightly;
what is essential is invisible to the eye.
– The Little Prince (1943), Antoine de Saint-Exupéry