One of the biggest challenges I faced growing up was learning to differentiate between reality and fiction. I was always a voracious reader and spent a great deal of my childhood extremely “adventurously frustrated.” Others had slayed dragons and fulfilled prophecies by the time they were seventeen and I had lived a most mundane and repetitive existence that I could not fathom enjoying for the rest of my time on earth. I wanted to travel and see the mountains, breathe in the ocean, and fight Dark Lords alongside elves and giants. There was so much magic out there that I longed to experience and yet it wasn’t really out there at the same time. All that wonder and those adventures were so close, but so impossibly out of reach that I would get genuinely depressed at times, thinking about the grayness of reality in comparison to what imagination allowed. I felt so trapped, and so out of place in this world.
It was around middle school when my parents began to get seriously concerned about this, and with my reading habits. They tried to stop me, tried to change how much I read, tried to change the nature of what I read, and lectured me extensively on how too much reading was ruining my life. Don’t get me wrong; my entire family is composed of avid readers. But I’ve noticed that many “educated people” are remarkably snobby about the type of books they read and greatly look down on the value of what a child’s fictional story can teach. At that time however, I was only hearing that I needed to “get my head out of the clouds,” “get back to reality,” “observe the tangible things around you,” “pay attention and contribute to what’s actually real.” Alas, “it does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live.” (Albus Dumbledore, PS)
But what was real? How could I leave behind the stories that had made me stronger, braver, and more confident than any tangible part of my life had? All around me, “real people” were tearing into my passions, into my beliefs and hobbies, into the hopes that got me through every day. Whereas my books, the characters I found between pages, were teaching me to love, to fight for goodness, to find my voice, giving me advice through all my struggles. Let me ask you then, what is real?
“Fiction can show you a different world. It can take you somewhere you’ve never been. Once you’ve visited other worlds, like those who ate fairy fruit, you can never be entirely content with the world that you grew up in. Discontent is a good thing: discontented people can modify and improve their worlds, leave them better, leave them different.” -Neil Gaiman
I always knew I didn’t want to end up like people who lived their entire lives in a video game, and I struggled to find the balance between living in the moment and seeking shelter with my stories. Was I just a naïve child unwilling to grow up? Was there really such thing as too much reading? Were the scornful people around me really more mature or more intelligent than I was? I saw so many adults with bland lives, loathing their jobs, a dull resignation in their eyes, no more hope of magic. I didn’t want to lose that. Finding the little traces of magic in life was all I’d ever wanted to live for.
The answer hit me just this year in this Nostalgia Critic video. “Stories can change our minds and shape who we are. In a bizarre way, we see much more truth in fiction than we do in reality. It takes our lives, which have no writers, and tries to give great understanding and even purpose to them, and that’s something to greatly admire and learn from. But (…) the purpose of fiction is to help us understand reality, not escape it. It’s giving into a different time and place to help you understand life lessons.” -Doug Walker
Any fiction is valuable so long as it contributes to experience and growth. The stories that I have taken in are not a step back from living my real life. Although there were times when escaping was all I wanted, maturity comes with harnessing those dreams and lessons, and bringing that magic into reality. Every story I’ve devoured has been as important to my development as any real person or experience, perhaps more.
How does it serve anyone to scorn what makes us better, be it kids’ stories or fiction? “Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?” (Albus Dumbledore, DH). Because in the end, does it matter in the slightest whether the conversation between Harry and Dumbledore at King’s Cross really took place or if it was just a dream? Either way, it brought Harry understanding and motivated him to go back and keep fighting. That’s what good stories do for us; they help us become better people and lead greater lives beyond their pages.
As a volunteer at Toronto’s Word on the Street book festival last year, I witnessed an author announcing that he would be making the switch to children’s literature. An audience member commented offhandedly, “well, that’s a step down.” This shows the snobbiness that often takes hold of adults; they fail to see the wisdom and beauty that can come from some of the simplest stories. So much happiness is missed in our daily turmoils because adults lose a lot of their ability to see the positive. Bitterness and broken dreams take away childhood innocence and the wonder that kids see the world with. We would deny ourselves the belief in magic even if it appeared right before our eyes, which is why we so often miss it! I love the fun and crazy adventures that fill children’s literature because their imagination is unlimited and the morals are so true and pure. Yes, there is enlightenment and valuable knowledge in adult literature, but such turmoil and ambiguity are not all there are to life. There is so much light, so much hope, and so many happy endings in kid lit. While a lot of reality is not happily ever after, it is not with more darkness and complexity that we make it better. Even the five year olds know it: only pure goodness and simple belief in love and light will conquer.