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Because I write fantasy novels for kids, I am often asked, Why fantasy? Not only why do I write it, but why is fantasy so important for young readers? Of course, the answers are as unique and varied as the kids who read it, but I have managed to identify a few core reasons.

Fantasy feeds our sense of wonder. This lesson was driven home for me when my son was ten years old and decided he knew the truth about the tooth fairy. Even more, he wanted me to admit it; to admit I was the person placing quarters under his pillow, not some quaint little fairy person. I resisted for days until finally, I decided if he was pushing this hard, he must truly be ready to know. So I confessed.

Big mistake.

His lower lip trembled and he burst into tears, wailing, “There just isn’t enough magic in the world anymore.”

Kids hunger for a sense of wonder. With technology and science growing in leaps and bounds and explaining the previously unexplainable, today’s kids are even more hungry for that sense of magic, of exciting and surprising mysteries. In reaction to the huge technological leaps of Industrial Revolution, the Victorians developed an enormous fascination with spiritualism and the Otherworldly, as they too hungered for this sense of wonder. I think there are big parallels with today’s technology inundated population’s current insatiable appetite for fantasy. As humans, we crave a sense of wonder, of hope in small miracles and unexplainable mysteries. We want to be awed and astonished and amazed.

Additionally, the distance of fantasy allows us to explore concepts and issues that might be too scary or too overwhelming for younger readers. As these young readers go about the business of absorbing our societal values and learning the difference between right and wrong, they are particularly drawn to well-defined conflicts that illustrate the struggle between good and evil.

But in real life, the truly evil is too dark for many of them. They still deserve our protection from certain realities that exist in the world. But in fantasy, by virtue of being a fantasy, we create some much needed distance that allows the reader’s subconscious to take in what the conscious mind is too terrified by.

Fantasy is also critical in the development and exercising of a child’s imagination. Imagination has a lot in common with muscle; if it’s not used, it can atrophy and ultimately wither away to nothing. But if taken out and exercised, it grows strong and can do wonderful things.

It is all too easy to fall into the habit of putting imagination in a little box to be used only by “artistic” fields, but the truth is, imagination fuels so much more than that. Innovations in science, technology, mathematics, philosophy, astronomy, physics, industry, medicine, all have benefited from leaps in imagination from those who worked in those fields.

Quantum physics was not developed by people who lacked in imagination. The Hadron Collider was not conceived of by those without imagination. Even something as mundane as the assembly line was a huge leap of imagination in its day. How many people laughed at the Wright Brothers and their quaint notion of a machine that could fly? A phone so small it could fit in your pocket? Penicillin from mold? The light bulb?

If we only expose kids to what actually exists, only the basic realities of the world, we have for all intents and purposes limited the world they live in. How will they know to look beyond the next horizon, to reach past the stars and planets we see today, to approach a problem in a completely new and unfamiliar way?

But it’s not just about their career choices and their ability to shape the world they live in. It is also critical in their personal lives. How can you dream big if you have no imagination? How can you strive beyond the everyday if you have no idea what the fantastical might look like? If you’ve never seen a hero embark on a quest for the impossible—and achieve it, where will you find the courage to try? If no one has ever told you stories of someone reaching for the unreachable, how will you ever know to reach for the stars? Or the moon? Or even past your current socio-economic circumstance? If we don’t help kids develop their imaginations, we have in effect, limited their ability to dream big.

Another oft ignored connection is that imagination is a key component of empathy. How can you empathize with someone, if you can’t imagine what they must be feeling?

By helping kids to exercise their imaginations, we help them expand their internal, external, and emotional worlds. But don’t take my word for it. I’ll close by quoting one of history’s most revered geeks:

When I examine myself and my methods of thought, I come to the conclusion that the gift of fantasy has meant more to me than any talent for abstract, positive thinking. –Albert Einstein

Why Fantasy Matters
by R. L. LaFevers
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