Part 1: Books That Built Us
Perhaps as long as we have been telling each other stories, we have been telling fairy tales, fictional stories that nonetheless have something to teach. As suspicion dawned that mysterious creatures and magical forces—so often key players in such tales—did not really exist, our edifying stories began to lose their fantastical nature. By 1744, when books began to be printed for children, they contained drier lessons, or at least spelled out their morals more plainly.
The first tale to turn that common practice on its head, offering a whimsical story with no clear moral, was Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, which was released in 1865 and quickly became a resounding success. As the moribund fairy tale found new life in the nascent fantasy genre, children's literature, too, regained a dimension, elevated to the heights of immersive imagination from where it had sunk into aloof moralizing.
L. Frank Baum, born in 1856, was just the right age to have read Alice as a child. Although Baum would tone down the most whimsical aspects of that story to present the more sensible The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in 1900, his work is still centered on wonder and reticent with its morals. There are even deliberate parallels between his protagonist Dorothy and the eponymous Alice.
E. Nesbit, a contemporary of Baum, centered her 1902 Five Children and It on siblings, instead of just one girl. In fact, Nesbit took little from the tradition of Alice, leaving morals close to the forefront and anchoring magic with sensibility. She broke new ground in children's fantasy with her choice to locate magical adventures in a world that looks like ours, pioneering the subgenre of low fantasy.
Born in 1898, C. S. Lewis represented the next generation, having grown up with Nesbit's work. He injected key qualities of Five Children into the more established fantasy of Alice and Oz, introducing The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe in 1950. With his work, Lewis reaches for the best of both worlds, sending multiple young protagonists on far-off adventures, offering a message that is clear to the intended reader without being spelled out.
The most recent monumental contribution to the current state of children's fantasy was, of course, the 1997 publication of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. J. K. Rowling, who mentions Nesbit and Lewis's Wardrobe among her influences, achieved the most widespread success children's fantasy has ever seen. While it's still too soon to tell exactly what from Harry Potter will become an essential tool for the great authors of the future, one thing we can do is identify just what this work borrows from those that came before it.
Part 2: Books Are Built Of
One way to compare and contrast these five books is on a set of four axes that might amount to the how, what, where, and who of them. The first two are the similar but not necessarily inverse dimensions I've dubbed "moralizing/madcap" and "whimsy/reason". Alice and Oz, naturally, take the madcap route, with Alice more whimsical than Oz; Five Children includes traditional moralizing with more reason than whimsy; the more modern Wardrobe and Harry Potter split the difference with subtle takeaways and a mixture of the ordinary and the extraordinary.
The third dimension is "far/near". While Alice, Oz, and Wardrobe send their viewpoint characters to "a land far, far away", Five Children sees its eponymous characters mostly sticking close to home, and Harry Potter sits at the crossroads between the world of wonder and the world of mundanity. The fourth and final dimension is "ensemble/protagonist", upon which Alice and Oz find themselves firmly in the one-hero camp, Five Children and Wardrobe follow groups of several fairly equal adventurers, and Harry Potter once more splits the difference with a core group which nonetheless boasts a single hero.
I even drew up some graphics to help visualize these similarities and differences:
Something I found exceedingly interesting, and which I only noticed after making these slider charts, was that Harry Potter landed squarely in the center of all four of the dimensions I investigated. It says something about the space of possible stories, that the most popular children's fantasy to date occupies a middle ground between the extremes mapped by the works that came before it. While I wouldn't go so far as to imagine this balance to be largely responsible for said aspirational performance, I hardly imagine that it hindered, either.
In fact, if I had considered these dimensions before I wrote my children's fantasy novel Magic's Key, I might have taken more deliberate aim. As it is, I can only analyze what I did choose—I have a lesson to teach, but I never say it outright. Although the magic system, too, is not fully explained, it's about as bound by reason as magic can be while still existing. This enables cohesion despite the mixing of magic in places familiar and foreign, even as the third-person-limited point of view stays mostly with the most main character but occasionally (not randomly) focusses on others of the heroes. Here, then, is my chart for Magic's Key:
There are still so very many different children's fantasy stories left to be told. Even within these four dimensions there are a plethora of untested waters, and I fully expect that there are more dimensions left to be discovered. I also expect, though, that future works will continue to be inspired by these five cornerstones, even as they perhaps build on them. In the meantime, these classics are with us yet, to read from and learn from and dream from and work to someday join.
— E. D. Kastin
Last updated August 30, 2021
NB: All the links in this article to books I didn't write go through my Bookshop.org "Cornerstones of Children's Fantasy" affiliate list. If you use my link to buy any of these books, I'll get a 10% commission. In addition, Bookshop.org supports independent bookstores with the profits of any books they sell online.