‘Cinderella’ to ‘Harry Potter’

Professor co-authors book on children’s fantasy literature

May 25, 2016

Mike Levy

Children’s fantasy literature at first wasn’t for children at all. Stories such as “Robin Hood” and “Cinderella” were meant for adults but gobbled up, eventually, by story-loving children.

When fantastical stories began to emerge in the 1800s with children in mind, many adults didn’t — and some still don’t — like the idea of outlandish, otherworldly and frightening tales being absorbed by impressionable young minds. Even books such as L. Frank Baum’s beloved early 20th century “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” occasionally have been banned.

“Some evangelicals still believe (children’s fantasy literature is) satanic,” said Mike Levy, professor of English at University of Wisconsin-Stout.

Over the course of five centuries, however, the children have spoken. Children’s fantasy literature is here to stay. “Half of the best-selling books for children today are fantasies. Kids love to read this stuff. It’s enormously popular,” Levy said.

The history of children’s fantasy literature from the 17th century to the present, covering hundreds of important authors both famous and somewhat forgotten, is the subject of a new 274-page book, “Children’s Fantasy Literature: An Introduction,” by Levy and Farah Mendlesohn, an English professor and department chair at Anglia Ruskin University in England.

The book was published this spring by Cambridge University Press in England, the cradle of the genre until the second half of the 19th century.

Although largely intended for an academic audience, “Children’s Fantasy Literature” isn’t overly academic. The subject matter is such, covering many beloved writers, that it has the power to pull along all readers who love children’s literature and are interested in how the fantasy genre developed.

The cover of With the Brothers Grimm, C.S. Lewis, Rudyard Kipling, E.B. White, J.R.R. Tolkien, Roald Dahl, J.K. Rowling, and Neil Gaiman and many others, it seems as if children’s fantasy literature must cover the whole of children’s literature, which leans toward the highly imaginative.

Yet, fantasy literature for children is a world of its own. Levy and Mendlesohn clearly chronicle the movement, from the Brothers Grimm’s 1800s “Grimms’ Fairy Tales” such as “Sleeping Beauty,” “Cinderella” and “Snow White” to Lewis’ “Chronicles of Narnia” to Rowling’s “Harry Potter” blockbusters to Gaiman’s Newbery-award winning “The Graveyard Book.”

Levy, who has taught a children’s literature course at UW-Stout — often to early childhood education majors — for more than 30 years, and Mendlesohn trace the development of the genre in the English-speaking world. They write largely objectively, analyzing the importance of the works to the movement as opposed to making value judgments about them.

“Our book describes the entire sweep of children’s fantasy literature and puts it in a historical context so you can see how these stories reflect the ideas of their day,” Levy said.

Important children’s fantasy works are much more than creative stories, Levy said. They reflect the development of adults’ views of childhood, what it means to be a child and, as such, are a reflection of their times.

“They all have a deeper meaning. The ‘Chronicles of Narnia’ books are about Christian values. The ‘Harry Potter’ books are about the outsider and taking responsibility,” Levy said.

“Fantasy literature has a double value. It allows you to talk about important things, and it’s just fun. It’s bibliotherapeutic,” Levy said.

While the authors cover hundreds of children’s fantasy writers — picture books and poetry weren’t considered — and don’t dwell for more than a page or two on any of them, the depth of their knowledge is exhaustive. They suggest the Brothers Grimm shouldn’t deserve all of the credit for their writings, later made famous by the Disney movies. Lovers of Baum’s “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” made into an iconic movie, would be interested to know that Baum wrote 14 “Wizard of Oz” books before he died in 1919.

The authors call Nathaniel Hawthorne, with “A Wonder-Book” and “Tanglewood Tales” in the early 1850s, the first major American writer of children’s fantasy literature; they see Baum in the early 20th century as the most important American writer in the genre; said Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings,” although not intended for children, changed the children’s book market in the 1960s; and that a teenage fantasy market developed in the 1980s, fortuitously for Rowling just prior to the “Harry Potter” books.

Levy and Mendlesohn each wrote about half of their book and provided critical feedback on each other’s writing. Levy has a Ph.D. in English and Mendlesohn a Ph.D. in history. “We each brought different strengths to the book,” Levy said.

Levy, who also researches and writes about science fiction in literature, has published three other books, is working on a fifth title and has published nearly two dozen scholarly articles, a book chapter and more than 1,000 book reviews. He began teaching at UW-Stout in 1980. His Ph.D. is from the University of Minnesota.

“Children’s Fantasy Literature,” in paperback, is available through Cambridge University Press, online at Amazon and at Bookends on Main Street in Menomonie.



Top: Mike Levy is co-author of “Children’s Fantasy Literature: An Introduction,” published this spring by Cambridge University Press.

Bottom: “Children’s Fantasy Literature: An Introduction”