...I'm now becoming perceived as a young people's writer. Teachers and librarians say, "Your books are really popular among children who don't read." I think this is a compliment; I just wish they'd put it another way.
The aforesaid school librarians tell me that what the children read for fun, what they'll actually spend their money on, are fantasy, science fiction and horror and, while they offer up a prayer of thanks that the kids are reading anything in this electronic age, this worries them.
Not long ago I talked to a teacher who, having invited me to talk at her school, was having a bit of trouble with the head teacher who thought that fantasy was morally suspect, irrelevant to the world of the nineties, and escapist.
Morally suspect? Shorn of its trappings, most fantasy would find approval in a Victorian household. The morality of fantasy and horror is, by and large, the strict morality of the fairy tale. The vampire is slain, the alien is blown out of the airlock, the evil Dark Lord is vanquished and, perhaps at some loss, the Good triumph -- not because they are better armed, but because Providence is on their side. Let there be goblin hordes, let there be terrible environmental threats, let there be giant mutated slugs if you really must, but let there also be Hope. It may be a grim, thin hope, an Arthurian sword at sunset, but let us know that we do not live in vain.
Classical written fantasy might introduce children to the occult, but in a healthier way than might otherwise be the case in our strange society. If you're told about vampires, it's a good thing to be told about stakes at the same time.
As for escapism, I'm quite happy about the word. There's nothing wrong with escapism. The key points of consideration, though, are what you're escaping from, and where you're escaping to....
... Here's to fantasy as the proper diet for the growing soul. All human life is there -- a moral code, a sense of order and, sometimes, great big green things with teeth. There are other books to read and I hope children who start with fantasy go on to read them. I did. But everyone has to start somewhere.
One of the great popular novelists of the early part of this century was G.K. Chesterton. Writing at a time when fairy tales were under attack for pretty much the same reason as books can now be covertly banned in some schools because they have the word 'witch' in the title, he said: "The objection to fairy stories is that they tell children there are dragons. But children have always known there are dragons. Fairy stories tell children that dragons can be killed."
Reading fantasy represents the attempt to give meaning to one's life by forgetting, for a time, the world that one lives in. In the escape offered by fantasy one glimpses the profound dimensions of our modern dilemma. Fantasy is the primary expression of a terrible socio-historical truth: the fundamental implication of our scientific culture is that life is meaningless.
If so many religious groups are up in arms about Harry Potter, it is because they see in it a competitor--and rightly so. Fantasy novels can be construed as necessary supplements to the Holy Bible. In a culture antagonistic to meaning, the bald assertion that life is meaningful is not enough. We crave examples.