- Fantasy and the Real World in British Children’s Literature by Caroline Webb
Sir Terry Pratchett’s March 2015 death put a period on a life filled not only with the production of fantasy fiction, but also with dedication to raising awareness about dementia, an affliction from which he suffered. Pratchett’s life was manifestly one shaped by both the pleasures of fiction and ethical imperatives. Fittingly, Caroline Webb’s Fantasy and the Real World in British Children’s Literature (Routledge 2015) argues that fantasy literature for young adults is deeply enmeshed with ethics, using Pratchett’s novels as part of how it makes that argument. Webb’s central claim is that Pratchett’s books for young adults, along with those of Diana Wynne Jones and J. K. Rowling, “deploy fantasy neither as mere escapism nor as a mask for didactic moralising, but instead make manifest the ethical power of fantasy and the imagination itself” (3). These authors achieve this, Webb argues, through a marriage of literary self-consciousness and ethical impulse.
Webb writes in opposition to what she sees as a realist moment; while recent decades have seen realism, rather than fantasy, take pride of place as the assumed mode of social and moral engagement for children’s fiction, she identifies fantasy as a mode with the means to encourage ethical development in young readers. Webb does not set out to take anything away from realism, but she does work to quash the notion that fantasy merely fuels escapism. In writing about Jones’s and Pratchett’s employment of wainscot fantasy, for instance, Webb explains that this concept is “a starting point for complex consideration of how humans in ordinary life remain within mental barriers generated by social forces such as religious dogma or racial prejudice” (94–95). The hidden society within a larger society—the Nomes in Pratchett’s Truckers and the Dorig in Jones’s The Power of Three—allows readers to see how stereotypes divide peoples who could help each other and who actually have more common ground than difference. Webb’s argument about fantasy providing a beneficial remove from which to critique our real-world experiences is a compelling one, and it helps show fantasy to provide more than merely escapism. Her argument is exceptionally timely, too, when young adult literature is coming under fire for its simplicity and escapist pleasures. Articles such as Ruth Graham’s “Against YA” in the June 5, 2014 edition of the online magazine Slate forcefully deride young adult literature on the grounds that it merely “has to do with escapism, instant gratification and nostalgia.” Webb’s book helps to show why young adult literature should not be so quickly dismissed.
Webb takes a stand in favor of young adult fantasy fiction performing important work, and she is particularly persuasive when discussing the forms that these books’ self-consciousness as books take. Fantasy and the Real World in British Children’s Literature highlights the dangers of stereotypes by way of critiquing blind adherence to literary clichés. Jones and Pratchett, Webb explains, teach their audience to be careful, critical readers. Webb writes that these two writers “highlight the literary, both through their characters’ explicit consciousness of fairy-tale conventions and through intertextual allusion, underscoring the significance of expectations in shaping our responses to situations and the need to transcend the limitations imposed by convention” (118). In Pratchett’s Tiffany Aching books, Tiffany compares her actual experience with fairies to her past reading of The Goode Childe’s Booke of Fairy Tales and realizes how wrong the folktales she’s read have been. Jones’s Sophie from Howl’s Moving Castle is also familiar with fairy tale conventions, but once she realizes that they need not dictate her actions, she is able to employ a great deal of agency as well [End Page 141] as help other characters. Literary self-awareness in these books allows protagonists to reflect on what they’ve read as it compares to what they’ve lived, inviting readers...