Somebody’s wrong on the internet again.
Last week, Mr Graeme Whiting, a head teacher of an independent private school in Gloucester, wrote on his blog that fantasy books “encourage difficult behaviour in children” and damage “the sensitive subconscious brains of young children”. Although I see where he’s coming from, and we’ll discuss that in a bit, I can’t help but be niggled by the hypocrisy in his opinion, the seriousness of his sweeping statement, or his strange conclusion that fantasy is somehow linked with mental illness. It’s for those reasons I’m writing this blog, not to attack or demand a change of opinion, but to explain the other side, from an author and avid reader’s viewpoint. Who knows if it’s clickbait, but I’m going to weigh in.
Of course Game of Thrones isn’t for children
Now, when Mr Whiting says fantasy books, he means LoTR, Game of Thrones, Harry Potter, anything by Terry Pratchett, and The Hunger Games. Oh, and all the books Roald Dahl, you know, that incredibly famous and successful children’s author. *collective gasp*
Apart from Roald Dahl and Harry Potter (even though cleverly crafted to grow with the audience), these books are not inherently aimed at children. The Hunger Games is YA – young adult – at best, still not written for a “young child”, which is the demographic Mr Whiting refers to. If I had an 8 year old, of course I wouldn’t read them Game of Thrones, just like I wouldn’t show them Hellraiser. GoT is aimed at adults, so clearly it’s not suitable for a child, that’s why I see what Mr Whiting is getting at – that content control is important for young children, but focusing on GoT as a prime example doesn’t make sense.
Ascribing mental illness to fantasy is just plain wrong
Yesterday I posted news of Mr Whiting’s blog on the Fantasy Faction Facebook group. It was met with a huge response, most of which was in the tone of this blog, it has to be said. One interesting point was raised by fellow fantasy author Joanne Hall about Mr Whiting’s allusion to a connection between mental illness and fantasy. Wow. I know. But read it for yourself:
“Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, The Hunger Games, and Terry Pratchett, to mention only a few… can damage the sensitive subconscious brains of young children, many of whom may be added to the current statistics of mentally ill young children.”
This is possibly my biggest gripe. To say, unfoundedly, that mental illness and reading fantasy are connected suggests a real lack of understanding for the cause and seriousness of mental illness, not solely by diminishing it to something you can catch from a book. Escapism can be a powerful treatment for mental illness, and to instead brand it a cause, is wrong, as Joanne explains.
“As someone who's suffered from a number of mental health issues over the years, I'd like to say that the times when I have felt the healthiest, and the LEAST anxious and / or depressed, have been when I've been immersed in a fantasy book (either writing or reading). Fantasy has helped me recover from mental health issues, and to suggest that a child who might have, say, depression or anxiety should be prevented from reading something that might make them feel better, or more connected to something, is not only stupid, it's irresponsible.”
His recommendations are bizarrely hypocritical
As an alternative to all this evil fantasy that;s about, Mr Whiting suggests reading Shakespeare, Keats and Shelley, among others. Right. So Midsummer Night’s Dream is fine, but dragons and dwarves are out? Shakespeare’s plays are almost on par with GoT. As sci-fi and fantasy author Jon Courtenay Grimwood put it on the group yesterday:
“Because, obviously, Shakespeare with its witches, murders, cannibalism, spirits, magicians, and gods isn't fantasy and couldn't inspire difficult behaviour.”
And from Matt Willis:
“…Titus Andronicus (rape, mutilation, cannibalism), The Merchant of Venice (antisemitism), The Taming of the Shrew (misogyny), Romeo and Juliet (underage sex, suicide pact), Macbeth (regicide, witchcraft)…."
As for Keats, dystopian author Samantha Shannon referenced Lamia on The Guardian yesterday, a poem which features gods, nymphs, invisibility, sages and people dying of grief. And Shelley? Well if he means Mary Shelley, then monsters made of scavenged corpses are fine as well.
He refers to his examples as “old fashioned values of traditional literature”, while at the same time he calls thematically similar books “inappropriate”. This is why I fail to see how Mr Whiting can draw a line between the literature he warns against and the literature he recommends.
Imagination is important
I make a living through my imagination, and in pretty much every single interview I’ve ever done, every conversation I’ve had, I owe that to a childhood spent reading all the “dark, demonic literature” (as Mr Whiting would dub it) I could get my grubby mitts on. Even Mr Whiting acknowledges the importance of imagination: “Imagination is so rich and important”.
What the good head master has missed here is that fantasy books like The Hobbit, Eragon, Lion the Witch & The Wardrobe, and The Twits contain all of life’s important lessons. They might dress them up in armour, a scaly hide, or wield a wand, but the messages are still strong. Love, loss, truth, right and wrong… fantasy is rich with them all, and children get to experience it all merely by flipping a page, putting enough distance between them and the real world to help them escape, and relate. They can be the brave knight. Or the cunning queen. Or the young hobbit spinning riddles in a cave, and apply that to life, or let their own stories grow within them and bolster them. To curb learning and creativity is wrong and damaging in itself. As Neil Gaiman puts it best:
“Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”
In summary, for myself and many others, Mr Whiting’s argument was strangely biased and pretty off the mark. It’s a shame to think that any of his pupils might be missing out on fantastic literature, but hopefully, if they are, they’re still delving into strange realms at home, or in the library, and being a knight, or a queen, or a dirty, lost hobbit with a magic ring in his pocket.
And that’s it. Rebuttal over. Let us know what you think by writing in the comments below!