Long before I’d heard of fantasy as a genre, I loved books that fall into that category. I was a child, after all, and had no problem with talking animals or Impossible Things. I loved to imagine, so Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride was a story to dream about. And I wasn’t steeped in politically correct-think, so the Uncle Remus stories such as Brer Rabbit and the Tar Baby were a delight, not a controversy.
Later I “graduated” to realistic fiction, but I never lost my love of fantasy, though I found it more often in comic books. Not the superhero kind. My taste inclined toward Scrooge McDuck, Donald, and his nephews Huey, Dewey, and Louie. Maybe it was the talking animals.
Back in the day, children’s books, meaning picture books here, of all stripes seemed to convey important themes, less artfully disguised so that little listeners, and later little readers, would not miss the point. Reading and stories, after all, were not simply entertainment. They were ways of passing on the beliefs and traditions of society. They weren’t reflecting culture, they were consciously helping to maintain its standards.
Much has changed since my growing up years, not the least this attitude toward children’s books. Sure, they were good for teaching colors and numbers and identifying animals, but after The Cat in the Hat, where was the fantasy? And where was the goal to provide a moral compass for little minds and hearts?
In addition, some writers turned to children’s books, not as a means to reinforce societal norms, but as a means to change them. (See for example books like Heather Has Two Mommies).
But then along comes the very popular self-published book, The Rabbit Who Wants to Fall Asleep, and children’s books suddenly look as if they might be positioned to do for the current crop of children what the fantasies I read did for me.
I’m not sure why talking animals resonate so much with children. Maybe it’s because they are free of race and the trappings of socioeconomic situations. They transcend borders and bypass differences. Maybe it’s because they are cute or because they tap into the desire in the heart of children to imagine, to dream the what-if story. Maybe because we adults tend to surround children from their infancy with Teddy Bears and rocking horses and silly mice.
At any rate, I’m happy to see a renewed interest in children’s books, particularly by Christian authors. As western culture moves away from Christianity, books can play a bigger and bigger role in grounding children from an early age in truth and moral instruction.
I don’t know a lot of picture book titles, but Donita Paul and her daughter Evangeline Denmark have written two which I’ve mentioned before: The Dragon and the Turtle and The Dragon and the Turtle Go on Safari.
Another author who is writing imaginative picture books (imaginative because the characters are animals), is Hannah Hall. Her latest which released in August is God Bless Our Fall. Others by her include God Bless You And Good Night, God Bless My Boo Boo, and God Bless Our Christmas.
Lisa T. Bergren, who some readers know more for her speculative young adult novels, also has a series of children’s picture books, starring a family of bears. Some of her titles are God Gave Us You, God Gave Us Love, and the just released God Gave Us Sleep (a timely title, it would seem!)
In the general market there are quite a few fantasy stories with moral underpinnings, including The Pout-Pout Fish by Deborah Diesen, Giraffes Can’t Dance by Giles Andreae, and I Don’t Want To Be A Frog by Dev Petty.
What are the picture books you remember that had an influence on you? Have you seen or read any lately that you think could become classics? What do you think should be the purposes for children’s books? Why do you think so many children’s books depend on an element of fantasy?