We read for many reasons, but perhaps the most addictive reason of all is pure escapism. It's not that we don't love the world we're in, but when words on a page can take us straight into the midst of a whole other reality, who can resist? Not young children, that's for certain. The lure of reading aloud is always strong for them (the snuggles, the soothing voice), but books that offer fully realized fantasy worlds are the most captivating of all.
Our young kids are not ready for Harry Potter or The Chronicles of Narnia yet (soon, soon), but they are certainly primed to love fantasy fiction. Most children's books seem to feature talking animals (have you noticed? how could you not?), but books that offer a full-fledged alternate reality are harder to come by. Here are a few of the fantasy worlds that our children love to read and talk and dream about. Who wouldn't want to step right in?
A.A. Milne's Winnie-the-Pooh is a child's best first taste of a full-blown fantasy world. The talking animals are just for starters. What's really wonderful here is how convincingly the personalities are conveyed, and the detail with which the world is portrayed. There's the map of the "100 Aker Wood" and surrounds which is irresistible in and of itself. The domestic details (Pooh's larder, Rabbit's laundry), the excursions and the homecomings, the endearing personalities who each could not be more different. We know these characters, we inhabit their world with them, we don't want to leave, but then the book ends. Thank goodness for sequels!
Lesser-known but equally charming, innocent and beautiful is the work of Swedish author Elsa Beskow. She wrote and illustrated her books in the first decades of the 20th century, but they remain as fresh and captivating today as then. In stories like Children of the Forest, Peter in Blueberry Land and The Sun Egg, she imagines the worlds of the tiny people (sometimes elves) who live in nature, hidden from human eyes. The forest children, for example, play hide and seek with squirrels, frolic with forest fairies in the moonlight, and go to school with the other forest creatures under the tutelage of (who else?) a wise old owl. If only we could, like Peter, fall asleep and wake up in the land of the Blueberry King!
Our next pick answers an age-old parental question: why is it so hard to get the kids out of the bathtub? King Bidgood can do whatever he wants (he's the king, after all), so naturally he chooses to stay in the bath all day long. This concerns his courtiers who try their best, one after the other, to persuade the sudsy sovereign to dry off but instead get drawn into his watery fantasies. Don Wood's pictures of the king's imaginary worlds are, well, out of this world. As he engages in naval battles, fishing expeditions, and lavish meals from the depths of his bath, your kids will be rushing to the tub to douse themselves in some fantasies of their own.
Another favorite of ours, The Maggie B., is all about a little girl's fantasy of freedom, self-sufficiency and exploration as well as coziness and domesticity. Margaret Barnstable "wished on a star one night" for "a ship/Named after me/To sail for a day/Alone and free/With someone nice/For company." Her fantasy come true is one of the most delightful worlds any child could imagine: a beautiful ship out on the wide ocean, with a cozy cabin and a lush garden on the top deck, animals too and for company a sweet baby brother. So lovely! And a great tale of adventure too.
Lastly, we can't fail to mention one of the most entrancing fantasy worlds of all time: Peter Pan's Never Never Land, of course. A place with no parents and where no one ever grows up! With pirates, mermaids, Indians, fairies and constant adventure! Many children only ever know this story through the Disney movie (which is wonderful), but J.M. Barrie's classic is well worth reading aloud as an early chapter book, and we are also delighted to see that Disney has put out of new book of Mary Blair's original storyboards for the film, with the famous tale well retold by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson.
There are so many other fantastic worlds out there.... Which do your children love best?
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