The Prism

Children's Corner

FANTASY is Good for the Child

by Louise Sherman

Kornei Chukovski wrote, "Fantasy is the most valuable attribute of the human mind and it should be diligently nurtured from earliest childhood". Fantasy stimulates children's ability to imagine--an ability on which science depends as much as the arts.

The sheer length and difficult vocabulary of classic fantasy works may prove daunting to today's children. Blackstone Audio Books' unabridged recordings of E. Nesbit's fantasies make these wonderful stories accessible. Five Children and It (1994; $29.95; gr. 2-5) and The Phoenix and the Carpet (1993, $39.95; gr. 2-5) have inspired many of today's fantasy writers. In them, five Victorian children discover magical beings such as the grumpy psammead (Sand-fairy) who reluctantly grants one wish a day and enchanted objects such as the nursery carpet which flies. Johanna Ward's intonation, clear enunciation and expression perfectly suit Nesbit's inventive text.

William Steig has written outstanding fantasy for the very young. In The William Steig Library, Weston Woods video combines award winning animated versions of Steig's Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, The Amazing Bone, Doctor DeSoto, and Brave Irene with a documentary introducing readers to Steig (1995; $175; gr. preK-3).

Many of the best recent fantasies are stories in which the ordinary becomes fantastic through magic or accident. Bill Brittain's Wings (HarperTrophy, 1995; $3.95 paperback; gr. 4-8) for example is about an emotionally neglected boy who learns to appreciate the six-fingered girl he had cruelly termed "spider-hand" when he inexplicably grows wings and she helps him both escape curiosity seekers and explore the potential of his wings.

In S.E. Hinton's The Puppy Sister (Delacorte, 1995; $14.95; gr. 2-5) Aleasha the dog narrator causes her own fantastic metamorphosis from pet to human by carefully observing and imitating human actions and sounds. Such a radical change can't happen all at once of course and mix-ups and misunderstandings are the inevitable and funny result. Ask children how they would feel if their pets became human.

In Jimmy the Pickpocket of the Palace by Donna Jo Napoli, metamorphosis is imposed on Jimmy the narrator who is a frog (son of the frog prince). When he goes to a palace to find a hag's magic ring in order to save his family from her wrath, he is horrified to be turned into a human by a princess' kiss. Both Napoli's text and Judith Schachner's apt illustrations convince the reader of Jimmy's frogness (Dutton, 1995; 14.99; gr. 2-5).

Good fantasy defies age classification. Sylvia Waugh's wonderful The Mennyms (Greenwillow,1994; $14) and Mennyms in the Wilderness (Greenwillow, 1995; $15) have delighted readers in my household from 13 to 84 years old. These stories of a family of lifesize cloth dolls who operate in human society while trying to keep their nature secret are whimsical, funny and surprising. Waugh manages to make her doll characters so thoroughly convincing that we even believe in a romantic attachment between a teen-age doll and a human benefactor. Readers who enjoyed Mary Norton's Borrowers series when they were younger should love the Mennym books.

Older readers will also enjoy Jane Yolen's three collections of stories and poems Here There be Dragons(1993; $16.95), Here There be Unicorns (1994; $16.95), and Here There be Witches (1995; $17) in which Yolen's introductions to the selections telling how she came to write them give fascinating insight into the writing process (all Harcourt Brace, gr. 7-12).

Nancy Farmer's Newbery honor book The Ear, the Eye and the Arm (Orchard, 1994; $18.95; gr. 6-10) creates a futuristic Zimbabwean society in which sheltered wealthy children are kidnapped and experience a surreal odyssey gradually learning to fend for themselves while three comical and extraordinary detectives repeatedly just miss finding them. Farmer's talent for creating convincing and memorable characters is equally evident in The Warm Place (Orchard, 1995; $15.95; gr. 4-6). Ruva, a baby giraffe kidnapped and shipped to a zoo in California escapes with the help of a rat and a chameleon and sets off to find her home in Africa. Farmer makes it seem perfectly plausible that a giraffe could stow away on a ship and that a rat could tutor a giraffe.

Try reading Dick King-Smith's comic animal fantasy Three Terrible Trins aloud to first- to fourth-graders. The trins, mouse siblings, decide to fight back against cats and not only succeed in driving away the farm cats, but invent the game of noseball with the farmer's glass eye as a ball, and unite the different strata of mouse society in the farmhouse. King-Smith's The School Mouse in which learning to read saves the lives of a mouse family will also delight young readers (Hyperion, 1995; $13.95; gr. 1-4).

Gregory Maguire plays on arachnophobia in his hilarious Seven Spiders Spinning in which poisonous Siberian snow spiders found in a glacier and accidentally loosed in the Vermont woods converge on a schoolhouse where one by one they try to attack the children and ultimately almost kill the beloved teacher Miss Earth. Children will love the suspense and slapstick humor while adults will chuckle at such touches as Miss Earth's lunches of celery sticks, low-fat cottage cheese and raspberry mousse doughnuts (Clarion, 1994; $13.95; [or in paperback, HarperTrophy, 1995; $4:50] gr. 3-7).

Hob and the Goblins by William Mayne is another suspenseful tale suffused with humor. Hob, an invisible house spirit, previously appeared in picture books by Mayne. Here, his human family moves to a house built over a door to the world of goblins and only Hob knows the danger. In a very funny climax a battle between a London bus and the goblin king sets all to rights (Dorling Kindersley, 1994;12.95; gr. 4-6).

Finally, Lloyd Alexander takes readers on a madcap journey into a pre-Homeric Grecian fantasy land in The Arkadians. An enchanted jackass, a spunky oracular girl, and a boy with a talent for telling stories travel together and pick up along the way goat people, an exiled village leader, and many other characters who help them oust a pair of throne-usurping scoundrels (Dutton, 1995; $15.99; gr. 4-7).

Let these stories help your children go beyond what is real and observable to what can be imagined.

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