A walk in the woods
A pony interlude

Why we need fantasy

From Billy Popgun  illustrated by Milo Winter


The following passage by Lloyd Alexander (1924-2007) comes from an essay published in The Horn Book fifty years ago, yet I'm struck by how relevant it still seems to be today:

"Anyone close to children -- librarians, teachers, maybe even parents -- knows they do not hesitate to come out with straightforward questions. I am beginning to learn this for myself, although the process has been a little backwards: Instead of getting to know children first, then writing books for them, the opposite is happening. It is only recently  I have had some happy occasions to meet real live children. And not only in schools and libraries. At home I often discover a few hanging around the kitchen or perched on the sofa, swinging their heels. We talk awhile, they tell me what a hard day they had, I tell them what a hard day I have had -- there's really not much difference. But they constantly surprise me. The other afternoon one little girl asked, 'What would you rather do: be a millionaire or write books for children?'

"I gave her an absolutely honest answer. I said I would rather write books for children.

From Through the Looking Glass illustrated by Milo Winter

"Of course, I added, if someone felt inclined to give me a million dollars tax-free, in all politeness I could not refuse.

"But my answer was truthful. And I believe any serious, creative person -- and this includes teachers and librarians, for I have learned how really creative they are -- would have said the same. Because -- despite our status-oriented society, our preoccupation with 'making it,' with staying young forever, buying safe deodorants and unsafe automobiles -- I think something new is happening.

"Whatever our individual opinions, I think each of us senses that as a people we are in the midst of a moral crisis -- certainly the deepest of our generation, perhaps of our history. Few of us are untouched by a kind of national anguish. And it hurts. But if we felt nothing, if nothing moved or troubled us, then I feel we would be truly lost. For isn't anguish part of growing up? Without knowing grief, how can we ever hope to know joy?

From Aesop's Fables  illustrated by Milo Winter

"In the past, we have always been able to find technical or technological solutions to our problems. They have been external problems, for the most part, yielding to external solutions. And so we are not quite used to problems demanding inner solutions. In an article on fantasy literature, Dorothy Broderick points out that the English have dealt with fantasy more comfortably than we have in America and comments that perhaps, since England is so much older a nation, the English have had time to ask Why? instead of only How?

"It is true that we haven't had long years of leisurely speculation. But, ready or not, the time for us is now. A dozen Whys have been put to us harshly and abruptly. And searching for the Why of things is leading us to see the purely technological answers are not enough.

"We have machines to think for us; we have no machines to suffer or rejoice for us. Technology has not made us magician, only sorcerer's apprentices. We can push a button and light a dozen cities. We can also push a button and make a dozen cities vanish. There is, unfortunately, no button we can push to relieve us of moral choices or give us the wisdom to understand the morality as well as the choices. We have seen dazzling changes and improvements in the world outside us. I am not sure they alone can help change and improve the world inside us.

From Nights With Uncle Remus illustrated by Milo Winter

"We are beginning to understand that intangibles have more specific gravity than we suspected, that ideas can generate as much forward thrust as Atlas missiles. We may win a victory in exploring the infinities of outer space, but it will be a Pyrrhic victory unless we can also explore the infinities of our inner spirit. We have super-sensitive thermographs to show us the slightest variations in skin temperature. No devices can teach us the irrelevance of skin color. We can transplant a heart from one person to another in a brilliant feat of surgical virtuosity. Now we are ready to try it the hard way: transplanting understanding, compassion and love from one person to another.

From Nights with Uncle Remus illustrated by Milo Winter

"To me, one of the clearest reflections of this changing attitude is a growing appreciation of fantasy in children's literature. The climate for fantasy today is vastly different from what it was twenty, even ten years ago, when the tendency was to judge fantasy as a kind of lollipop after the wholesome spinach of reality -- a tasty dessert, but not very good for the teeth.

"Now I think we see fantasy as an essential part of a balanced diet, not only for children but for adults too. The risks of keeping fantasy off the literary menu are every bit as serious as missing the minimum daily requirements of thiamine, niacin, and riboflavin. The consequences are spiritual malnutrition."

Five decades on, these words are still true. We still need fantasy. We still need folk tales, fairy tales, mythic fiction, magic realism and other forms of fantastical literature to help us "explore the infinities of our inner spirit," and re-imagine the world.

From The Wonder Garden illustrated by Milo Winter

The art today is by American illustrator Milo Winter (1888-1956).

Born in Princeton, New Jersey, he trained at The School of the Arts Institute in Chicago, and illustrated his first children's book (Billy Popgun) at the age of 24. He lived in Chicago until the 1950s, and in New York City thereafter, illustrating a wide range of books for both children and adults -- including Gulliver’s Travels, Tanglewood Tales, Arabian Nights, Alice in Wonderland, Twenty Thousand Leagures Under the Sea, The Three Muskateers, Treasure Island, A Christmas Carol Aesops for Children, and  Hans Christian Andersen's Fairy Tales.

To see more of his work, go here.

From Nights with Uncle Remus illustrated by Milo Winter

From Nights With Uncle Remus illustrated by Milo Winter

The passage above is from "Wishful Thinking - Or Hopeful Dreaming?"  by Lloyd Alexander (The Horn Book, August 1968). All rights reserved by the author's estate.

Comments

A Rose for Lloyd Alexander

Picture this--a busy convention,
two floors of writers, illustrators
signing books, hawking wares.


Wary of sitting too long,
my signing over, I rise, clutching
a rose a fan has given me.


I have heard Alexander
is on the other floor,
a rare sighting, he so shy of groups,


These days, he stays cloistered
at home, a monk of the book.
I seek him out, his line meager


As if the book world has forgot him,
so eager for the new.
I stand in his short line.


When it is my turn, I put the rose
on his table, "For you, Meister."
He looks up, eyes misty with thanks


And a deer's caution, ready to flee.
Reads my name tag, stands, bows,
Hands me back the rose.

"No, it is yours, dear author."
The deer, shy, cautious, retreats.
We were book friends only before,


Now friendship blossoms between us.

©2018 Jane Yolen all rights reserved

wonderful observations. it seems that we need fantasy as much as we need narrative itself...and i wonder if it starts in early childhood, with imaginative play, in which children inhabit different roles, characters, creatures. something about that imaginative 'trying on' of different voices and different worlds may contribute to the ongoing development of compassion, of understanding, of a largeness of mind and soul. sadly, this kind of normal and necessary play has dwindled under modern child-minding circumstances, screen use, and ever-earlier academic instruction...perhaps it is no surprise that we have seen an erosion of civility and compassion? perhaps literature could be of some help here?

A most wonderful encounter! I treasure my hardcover Chronicles of Prydain (with magical book jacket illustrations by Evaline Ness), first read when borrowed from my elementary school library at the age of 11. What a powerful impression these books made on me, I love them still.

This a very intimate poem, Jane. How nearly like a fairytale to hear, and imagine in my heart and mind, a rose being passed between stars. Thank you, Jane.

The world needs fantasy as an antidote for the mundane. Swing between the two and you find wonder in the dandelions by the grocery cart and the joy of washing up the tea things after a symphony. Fantasy helps us recognize potential in the most unlikely people and powers the emotion that drives us off the couch to defend our values at the ballot box or in public service. What a disservice it does us when we’re discouraged from trying on the personas of fantasy where we can discover the parts of ourselves that we’ve folded away because they were deemed unrealistic. Mary Reynolds, the Irish landscape designer, talks about learning very young that she could shape the world through her choices. What better reminder do we get than through fantasy?

It IS a treasured memory, Mokihana.Thanks.
Jane

Thanks, Carmine. Sometimes such memories have to be shared.

Jane

My grandmother
who was a believer in the healing power of the body with the help of one's positive mind-set along with herbs and other natural elements, often characterized the process in a magical way. She told us there was a beautiful wise woman who lived within us, hidden and waiting to be summoned whenever we were hurt or terribly sad. Our body was a garden which she tended and restored to its healthy balance whenever needed. A lovely fantasy for a sick child; but I also feel it was my grandmother's way of describing the will to heal, to harness all the physical and spiritual energy within our system to get well. Motivation and hope are powerful elements in the act of recuperation. And often it is a great mystery, why the body seems to heal on its own with no explanation or logic. Here, fantasy played such a positive role in my outlook and emotional development. I totally agree with LLoyd Alexander on the need for fantasy/myth in our lives. It enables us to believe in something beyond the obvious, to retreat through the door of our imaginations into a better world and hopefully return wiser, healed and more compassionate or empathetic. Thank you so much Terri for sharing these gorgeous paintings and wonderful essay. It has certainly enriched my day and enlightened me as well.


Well-being

Not because it's Spring
does the body seek
that woman cloaked in shadow, her hair lining the hood
with the same silver
dawn uses to light the sky

and her hands stretched out
ready do dig
under the muscle 's loam
exploring vines of vein and artery. No, it's more about
the art of healing,
planting and weeding whatever she must --
to make the patient mend. Slowly

she moves through the labyrinth of bone,
feeling the lament of limbs.
as they recall what came before.
Nights of movement when the moon appeared
maiden young; and evening invited
a walk along the lake, agility stressing
its own song beneath a chorus of bird and cricket,
the exhale of heather and pine.

Or more deeply felt, those moments of light
distilled into the bloodstream making
the act of waking an act of joy, an impulse to rise
and renew the body with work. Echoes of tenacity
already spun, silk--glittering
along the garden hedge and a window sill
the forest once owned.

Neither goddess nor crone
(as you may have thought) she lives
and has lived in the sprawling vineyards
of our form since birth. Hidden. And on her breath --
the scent of everything green
as she leans over whispering -- Body
beloved body
heal thyself.

Hi Jane

What a beautiful experience and exchange. I love the offering of the rose and its significance. Gifts of admiration, respect and grace bloomed in this meeting along with the transformation of a friendship into something beyond spine and cover, into those pages of personal warmth and mutual understanding.

Reads my name tag, stands, bows,
Hands me back the rose.

"No, it is yours, dear author."
The deer, shy, cautious, retreats.
We were book friends only before,


Now friendship blossoms between us.

This is a beautiful poem and , of course, inspired by a treasured memory. Thanks so much for sharing it with us!

Take care
Wendy

It was really a pleasure sharing this with you, dear poet Wendy.

Jane

It's when you write lines like these:

she moves through the labyrinth of bone,
feeling the lament of limbs


that I know you are a true poet.

Thank you Jane,

so much for your lovely comment about my work and status as poet! I am really touched by your kindness and support!

Take care
My best always
Wendy

Thank you for the thought provoking and beautifully featured wisdom of fantasy. I recently read an article about how Tolkien felt the very same about fantasy and its important contributions not only to children but the enrichment it can impart to adults as well.

So beautifully written, I could see her.

Hi Kat

So glad you enjoyed and could envision her. I deeply appreciate your thoughtfulness!

My Best
Wendy

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