The F Word: Writing Fantasy for Children

The 22nd Patrick Hardy Lecture was given this year by Jonathan Stroud (pictured) on the subject, 'The F Word: Writing Fantasy for Children', and author and journalist Graham Marks has provided this summary of the lecture for ReadingZone.

Stroud opened his lecture by telling us that the title had been suggested by his wife, Gina, as he had always had trouble with titles - his view being that they were naturally the last thing to come, after he'd finished everything else. "Otherwise", he said, "how can you truly know what a story or lecture's about?"

Once he had a title, Stroud then had to work out what it was going to be about. Having checked back over past speeches for inspiration, and been daunted by the range of styles and breadth of subjects, he decided his only hope was to attempt something which combined high moral seriousness, piercing social commentary, erudite literary references, cheap jokes, gratuitous references to popular culture and possibly even footnotes. Something for everyone, he said. "And it would be nice to make it relevant, too," he added. "But how relevant is it possible for a guy to be who makes his living writing stories about sarcastic djinn?"

While he was thinking about the subject of relevance, the August riots erupted and Stroud had to face up to the fact that, demographically speaking, half his target audience was out torching branches of Footlocker and Ladbrokes. "Big things going on, real issues, and here am I talking about fantasy books... how do you make that relevant, should relevancy even be the objective? What's the point of fantasy, what’s the point of writing it now?"

Jonathan started his speech by trying to define what fantasy was; for a lot of people, he said, it used to mean hairy dwarves, dragons, orcs, wizards with big hats and, if you were unlucky, roaming bands of singing elves. For a lot of other people, that's exactly what they didn't like about it.

Nowadays there's so much more choice on offer than Tolkien and his many copyists, whom he called "the literary equivalent of InterRailing: they give you thrills aplenty, and they lead you off to obscure and exciting regions, but in a way that's fundamentally safe and reassuring".

He described how the young Stroud, with the help of copious amounts of wallpaper, imagination and elbow grease, had created first picture story books, then maps and finally his own choose-your-own-adventure books.

Along the way on Stroud's journey we passed by Mervyn Peake, Alan Garner and Terry Pratchett, as well as Diana Wynn Jones (who, he averred, combined the best of Garner and Pratchett); he talked about Beowulf and Grendl, about Ital Calvino's Six Memos to the Next Millennium, and the fact that folk tales were about magic, and about how the real world works. Storytelling, he said, is also a kind of magic.

He concluded that he and other writers of Young Adult fantasy are "creating a type of literature that's particularly well-suited to this fluid age; yes, we're still creating tales of magic, there's nothing new in that, but they're messier, they blend genres, they mix humour with the serious stuff." Pullman, he said, even showed you could please the literati by throwing in references to Milton and Blake.

So how relevant is fantasy? "Just as relevant as storytelling's ever been", said Stroud. "There's no magical panacea for society's problems, but stories do reflect what's going around us and, more importantly, inside us".

06/10/2011The F Word: Writing Fantasy for Children
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