Rebecca, our assistant editor gives her opinion on what make the magic in children's fiction
What makes a good children’s story?
An opinion from Rebecca, our assistant editor.
What makes a story that will stick, that children will read again and again, until the book is worn and the pages are ruffled? What magic is operating in “Harry Potter” or “His Dark Materials”?
I thought I would look more closely at these two examples, to see if I found an answer. I noticed both Philip Pullman and J.K. Rowling’s are inclusive books, in which magic and everyday life coexist.
Philip Pullman sets “His Dark Materials” inside a world which is not ours, but very much like ours. The city is called Oxford, the country is called Brytain. The state is different, and so are the complex politics involved, but it would be easily recognisable for children and young adults. As soon as the second book starts, Lyra meets William – and he is from our home world. Lyra even enjoys such mundane pleasures as going to the cinema or the museum. So there is a very definitive link to “our” world, to the environment all children will be experiencing.
Of course, in J.K. Rowling’s case, it’s even more obvious: although we poor muggles can’t see it, the magical world is there, overlapping ours, hiding behind it, between the cracks. And what Harry Potter lives through is what most children will experience too: the excitement you feel before going to boarding school and leaving home for the first time.
On the one hand, there is very strong link to the experiences and lives of the readership. On the other hand, both series qualify as high-fantasy. There are wands, wizards, spells, potions and talking hats (to name but a few) in “Harry Potter”; and there are daemons, armoured polar bears, magical items and portals to other worlds in “His Dark Materials”. So although a link to our world and to what children are experiencing seems important, it seems equally important to have a magical element.
Another good example is Christopher Paolini’s “Eragon”. There we find the same ingredients again: the mundane element, which most children will have lived or thought about (having a new pet, and maybe trying to have a pet without your parents knowing) with a fantastical take on it (the pet in question being a dragon). Here of course the links to our own lives are more remote, which means that when the story sets into its epic journey to change the world, we are maybe less involved than when Harry Potter needs to infiltrate buildings in London, or when Lyra is fated to save all universes, including ours.
I was wondering why this strange juxtaposition of mundane and magical seems to be such a key to successful children’s writing. Maybe it’s because it reflects partly how children perceive the world and make sense of it. For children, the world is vast and difficult to embrace – adults are always mentioning incredible things which they can only partly explain or understand. Why don’t planes fall out of the sky, why does the sea move, why does the moon change shape? Magic seems a reasonable answer, because science is too complex.
Reading Philip Pullman’s new series, “The Book of Dust”, I was struck by how much I would have missed as a child. Explanations about Dust, the Rusakov field, the alethiometer – all of that must have gone right over my head when I was reading “His Dark Materials” ten years ago. Despite having moments when the story wasn’t easy for me to grasp, I enjoyed it, as did many other children around the world – why? Is it because that is how it feels in the real world too, when adults discuss subjects we can struggle with but not completely understand? If we can fill in the gaps in our everyday lives, then we can do it in stories too.
I think another important element to take into consideration is that the world is more charged for children – they believe in the monster under the bed, in Father Christmas, in the Tooth Fairy. In creatures not seen but always there at the periphery of their own world. When books reflect this structure, they echo with children.
In conclusion I think magic, in a way, mimics how children understand and interact with the world. It makes for a great plot and carries the story forward, but it is at its best when used to reproduce our routine. It can deepen children’s understanding of the world and give mundane a shine, a depth – whilst staying close to what they live through, and giving them tools to fight their own small battles.