Why Fantasy Matters
I’m a relative newcomer to writing fantasy. A former engineer, I chucked my day job as a middle manager running technical departments at Hallmark to write books full time for children and young adults. Because of that background I carved out a niche writing nonfiction and fiction for the educational market. I was a frequent speaker at school festivals and library conventions and soaked up the energy knowing kids were learning from what I wrote. It paid the bills, but it didn’t quite satisfy my original goal.
My heart remained rooted in science fiction and fantasy. From an early age those stories allowed me to escape into new worlds and imagine myself in extraordinary situations if only temporarily. The events unfolding between the pages as well as the fears and triumphs of the characters gave me breadcrumbs and templates to follow while navigating my own life.
In my spare time, I served as an interviewer for MIT. Most students I encountered had stopped reading for pleasure. Everything was about passing a test and pleasing an adult. Joy? That was missing. But I was good at what I did and more often than not, when pressed, could get a few to admit their own passion for independent reading. Fantasy was a popular choice. One student had even completed his own epic novel in secret. It was surprisingly well written. He turned out to be one of the best students MIT had ever admitted. I know because the President of MIT pulled me aside to tell me one year.
I realize those high achieving students were only a subset, but I saw the other side through the eyes of my children and their friends. They weren’t between those pages at all. Did they not have hope and desires too?
The answer from commercial publishers was, “No.”
Undaunted, I pressed on. Two things drove my journey. I wanted to write a complex but accessible adventure where the kids are smart but normal. You know - not quite functioning pre-frontal cortexes. The other was to tap into the wish I had as a child: to go on and complete a quest. So I set out, with much trepidation to write that book. I had amazing mentors well known for their own works. Still, the response from the industry was tepid. “Talented writer,” was a common answer. “Exciting narrative,” was another. “No market,” was the ubiquitous third. The equivalent of, “We like you, but there’s no room at our inn.” Fantasy loved child characters, but only if the children looked and sounded like the editors who sat in the chair.
Jane Yolen and Jerry Spinelli both told me that a rejection meant I had not yet found the right editor.
So I heeded their words and kept up the search until I found someone who understood what I was trying to do. Having raised her own son, Eileen Robinson at Move Books understood that in the push to train kids to pass state assessment tests, or college entrance exams, the country missed one of the most important aspects of growing up. Being a kid. Slaying imaginary monsters. Testing out roles to see which fit. Being someone else for a day. Being special and making the world better. And more important, pressing on through setbacks while learning resilience and empathy in the process.
What we do as writers matters. We reach readers and give them hope. Our books hint at tools to cope with adversity and darkness.
Few times have been darker than this in my lifetime. But with certainty I can say that World Fantasy Convention and similar conferences gave me a lifeline and an extended family of like-minded readers and writers. I felt embraced and accepted. So I offer that advice to you. Remember who you’re writing for and why. Then find a like-minded community to lift you up. World Fantasy Convention is going virtual this fall. I’ll be there. Hope to see you there too. ~~~
Christine Taylor-Butler is the author of more than 80 books and articles for children including The Lost Tribes Series, illustrated by Patrick Arrasmith. A graduate of MIT, she saw the need for Art and Literature have equal weight to STEM. Children's passions matter. Dreams are how tomorrow's innovations occur. May we all be the path to light the way.