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I’ve been working my way through Colin Meloy’s book Wildwood, recently, and it’s given me a lot of thought about self-awareness in circular fantasy, because it hedges the line at times. I wrote my Masters thesis on the topic of children’s circular fantasy fiction, which is fiction that begins in the “real” world, ventures out into a fantasy world, and returns – and it’s sort of a staple of children’s fiction. There’s a lot to be said about it, including topics of imagination, dreamlands, and escapism, and it’s often banished strictly to the realm of children and young adult fiction (unless your name is Neil Gaiman, in which case carry on). Of course, this post isn’t really about Meloy – I haven’t finished his novel, so I’m disinclined to discuss what I see so far, but about another self-aware circular fantasy of recent relative popularity.
But I suppose to begin with, I want to define what I mean by self-awareness in children’s literature: this isn’t an awareness of the main character, who may be genre savvy for whatever reason (they read a lot, they listen to their elders, they have heard tales of this place before – so on, so forth) but self-awareness in terms of the author to create a work that refers to itself in metafiction terms. Catherynne Valente, who wrote The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, for instance, seems to be incredibly self-aware. There is an entire speech in the novel from a character who describes not only circular fantasy in great detail, but also outlines the inherent problematic nature that not only the genre, but the self-same book possesses.
This level of self-awareness is already didactic and difficult to swallow in adult works – in children’s work it becomes borderline unreadable. To be fair to Valente, whose novel is well-paced and whose plot is not actually bad in the least, I don’t think that being didactic was her intention. There are problems with novels like The Chronicles of Narnia and Peter Pan that are inherent in their structure as well. But those problems cannot be examined from within the confines of another story about fairyland.
It becomes unsettling because of the conversations of adults (and this of course ties back to the notion that adults appropriate children’s work), such the discussion in her first novel of fairyland being tamed by children, which can be seen as a direct commentary on adult fairy tales being bowdlerized for children. That fairyland is, in it’s pristine and unchanged nature, a wild place distinctly unsuitable for children. This meta, which comes from the characters (and therefore makes this novel self-aware) is actually a bit offensive to me, because it implies that children’s fiction – all children’s fiction – is an infantilized mirror of a richer, more complex work, and that work will become apparent as children grow into adult literature.
That’s like saying that children consume safe media, which is patently untrue. There are monsters in children’s fiction that are much scarier than anything in adult fiction, and they are necessary, according to Bettelheim, for children to grow psychologically into healthy adults. I defy any adult novel to be as satisfyingly scary as Coraline, and still be as well-written and inherently dangerous. The danger in fairyland is not tamed for children’s work. It is there, lurking, and every child who reads these books don’t only see the danger, but understand the ways to defeat it.
What purpose does self-awareness in children’s work serve? Why put it in there at all? To satisfy the adult audience, whom Valente seems to actually aim her novels at (the language being relatively “cool,” if you’ll pardon my jargon) or to moralize to her child audience, who is getting talked down to by an adult author speaking through her characters? Why not cut the moments of self-awareness out and leave a satisfying story in it’s place?
I can’t answer these questions in a single blog entry: this may be the work of a 4,000 word paper. But it gets me thinking, and it makes me want to glance at other works, to find the elements of meta that don’t fit.