A story is circulating about a British private school head teacher speaking out against fantasy books, because they “encourage difficult behaviour in children.” The teacher urges parents to have their kids read Wordsworth, Keats, Shelley, and Shakespeare instead. Reading the article is like an invocation of Poe’s Law, as it’s basically its own self-parody. Rhianna Pratchett, daughter of the late Terry Pratchett, said it best:
I know what my father would say if anyone told him that his books encourage “difficult behaviour.” He would say ‘Good!’
— Rhianna Pratchett (@rhipratchett) May 6, 2016
This is only the latest outbreak in a battle that’s been fought for literally decades, or even centuries. Rather than spend my time arguing against this head teacher, I share with you the first couple of paragraphs of a 1909 G.K. Chesterton essay, “The Red Angel,” from his book Tremendous Trifles. Chesterton is better at putting this into words than I will ever be, and he explains exactly why this teacher is wrong.
I find that there really are human beings who think fairy tales bad for children. I do not speak of the man in the green tie, for him I can never count truly human. But a lady has written me an earnest letter saying that fairy tales ought not to be taught to children even if they are true. She says that it is cruel to tell children fairy tales, because it frightens them. You might just as well say that it is cruel to give girls sentimental novels because it makes them cry. All this kind of talk is based on that complete forgetting of what a child is like which has been the firm foundation of so many educational schemes. If you keep bogies and goblins away from children they would make them up for themselves. One small child in the dark can invent more hells than Swedenborg. One small child can imagine monsters too big and black to get into any picture, and give them names too unearthly and cacophonous to have occurred in the cries of any lunatic. The child, to begin with, commonly likes horrors, and he continues to indulge in them even when he does not like them. There is just as much difficulty in saying exactly where pure pain begins in his case, as there is in ours when we walk of our own free will into the torture-chamber of a great tragedy. The fear does not come from fairy tales; the fear comes from the universe of the soul.
The timidity of the child or the savage is entirely reasonable; they are alarmed at this world, because this world is a very alarming place. They dislike being alone because it is verily and indeed an awful idea to be alone. Barbarians fear the unknown for the same reason that Agnostics worship it—because it is a fact. Fairy tales, then, are not responsible for producing in children fear, or any of the shapes of fear; fairy tales do not give the child the idea of the evil or the ugly; that is in the child already, because it is in the world already. Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.
Neil Gaiman and others would later paraphrase this quote in different ways. C.S. Lewis said something similar, and I quoted him when I was discussing a similarly foolish person who thought that adults shouldn’t read children’s books.
Here’s a 2005 piece in Slate discussing the reasons kids read fantasy:
In fact, cognitive science suggests that children may love fantasy not because they can’t appreciate the truth or because their lives are difficult, but for precisely the opposite reason. Children may have such an affinity for the imaginary just because they are so single-mindedly devoted to finding the truth, and because their lives are protected in order to allow them to do so.
The article suggests that children use these fantasy worlds as theoretical models to help them learn more about the way the real world works. As such, by depriving them of access to these worlds, this teacher would deprive them of an important aspect of their mental development. There’s some evidence that depriving children of opportunities to play—which would include opportunities to read fantastic fiction—reduces their creativity.
But then, kids showing imagination has always scared adults who’ve somehow managed to misplace theirs. Just look at the big Dungeons & Dragons scare of the eighties. Look at the way that “even chess was at one time considered a path to moral degeneracy.” Look at the way people wanted to blame online “Creepypasta” stories for the actions of someone who clearly already had mental health issues. People hate and fear what they don’t understand, and people like that head teacher simply don’t understand very much about children at all. It’s hard to believe they ever were children themselves.
I think we should be grateful any kids can find something they actually want to read at all, and if the publishing industry is to have a future these young generations should be encouraged to read everything they can get their hands on. There are video games and movies and other distractions out there to steal their attention away, you know!
That being said, though, we probably also owe this head teacher a debt of gratitude—because let any adult authority figure come out so strongly against something and it will only encourage kids’ curiosity about it all the more. I wouldn’t be surprised if half the kids at his school were now reading all the fantasy stories they can get their hands on just to find out what all the fuss is about.
And this is the best possible time for that, too. E-books are so much easier to obtain and hide than print books. Kids who want to get their hands on them and read them without adults being any the wiser have a much easier time than the days when they might have to hide entertaining fiction books behind textbooks’ covers. Without actually going through their phones or tablets, how could any adult tell what they were reading? They could easily check the e-books out from a library, or if necessary download them illicitly from the Internet without anyone ever knowing. I don’t support piracy as a rule, but if it’s a way for kids to get their hands on this stuff and read it without anyone telling them they can’t, I think the books’ original authors would probably understand.
We need to protect children’s imaginations, and encourage them. Trying to force them to read the “classics” instead is not the way to do that.