'The best books, reviewed with insight and charm, but without compromise.'
- author Jackie French

Wednesday 23 August 2023

Guest Post: Emma Greville on The Magic of Magic & Hiding Veggies

Well-meaning adults can easily destroy a child’s love of reading: stop them reading what they enjoy, or give them worthy-but-dull books that you like, the 21st-century equivalents of Victorian 'improving' literature. You’ll wind up with a generation convinced that reading is uncool and worse, unpleasant. Neil Gaiman

We all know the old trick. Blend up a bunch of good for you veggies and sneakily chuck them in the pasta sauce, then let the kids get on with the fun business of sucking up the spaghetti like a human vacuum. 

Fantasy fiction is pretty similar. Hidden behind the fun stuff of quests and prophecies, lies an exploration of our own world disguised in dragon scales and hidden portals. And that’s the beauty of fantasy fiction. It’s so far removed from our lived experiences that authors can delve into moral complexities through a lens of make believe that offers a safety net to a young reader. It’s not about them, but it is about someone they could be, in another world.

Peel away the layers of smoke and mirrors, and most fantasy stories are based around the hero­ ­– often a child who doesn’t quite fit in, or going through massive changes – facing moral dilemmas. Our job as readers is to join them on their journey of personal growth. Children face their own hero’s journey every day, with so many new experiences to process and assimilate, it’s easy as adults to forget and trivialise the massive changes of first experiences – school, sports, new teachers, new concepts and social expectations might not seem much to us but our children are in a constant state of flux, and reading is a fantastic tool to explore complex feelings in a relaxed way. And if it all gets too much, a book can simply be put down.

 If, for example, a child is going through a family break up, reading a book about a divorcing family can be too immediate, too close to be comfortable. A book about a child who finds their way into another world, either by accident or design, is still about the same themes of change, fear of the unknown and leaving the old behind, filtered through a magical construct that feels inherently safer that seeing yourself in a mirror. 

In Raine in the Underlands, my middle-grade fantasy adventure, the main character kicks her way through the basement wall into another world, in order to help a cursed baby dragon, where she is thrust into a battle for her life. But whilst the setting is fantastic, Raine is a lonely kid struggling with low self-esteem and wondering where she fits in. It’s her ordinariness, trying to be brave when she’s scared and sticking up for her friends, that makes her the hero. Her magic just makes the story more fun and exciting by exaggerating the challenges she faces. She deals with complicated family relationships – realising that adults are fallible – and navigates new friendships, whilst embarking on a journey towards self-acceptance, all themes mirroring what many children deal with daily. 

Even if a child isn’t facing huge change, but just the usual emotions of growing and finding your place in the world, fantasy fiction still offers a fun and safe environment to explore the spectrum of their own emotions. These books are grounded in familiar themes of family, friendship and diversity, all wrapped up in a guise of escapism. After all, if we can sympathise with ghosts and vampires, or in Raine’s case ferocious-looking dragons, surely that translates into tolerance for others we might perceive as different in the real world? Using metaphors of otherworldly beings and situations to reflect societal concerns of technology, injustice, war and environmental destruction is less confrontational to a young reader, who can wonder what they would do if they were in the hero’s shoes without the potential distress of dealing with these in the real world. 

And lastly, if all this sounds a bit intense, fantasy fiction is fun and exhilarating to read. Top ten lists are always full of fantasy books, as are top ten film lists. And we know that children learn best when they’re having fun. Who wouldn’t want a baby dragon sidekick and a talking monkey, or to be a wizard or witch, or even half-god fighting to save the world from evil? Even better if we come away more emotionally intelligent, compassionate and confident. 

About Emma Greville

E M Greville is an award-winning short fiction writer and freelance editor. An ex-English teacher from England with an MA in Literary Criticism, she trotted around the globe before settling in Victoria. She can usually be found herding children, chooks and cats, and scribbling brilliant story ideas on scraps of paper, which she promptly loses and blames on the badly herded children, chooks and cats. She is passionate about helping kids discover a love of reading and writing, and explores the world of words through school visits, presentations and writing workshops. She promises to leave the wild creatures at home.

Emma can be found at her website: Home | E M Greville and Instagram