I enjoy stories about characters with wild imaginations, and that may partly explain why I love children’s books. From Where The Wild Things Are to highly symbolic fairytales to post-modern off-kilter realities, children’s literature is full of dreamscapes and fantastic journeys. But stories of imaginative power don’t end with childhood — there are many examples from general fiction of characters who create rich fantasies.
We all have three lives after all — our public life, our private life and our secret life. We rarely get a glimpse into other people’s secret lives. We may occasionally get bits and pieces, from friends and from family, but fiction offers the most in-depth explorations about how others might think. Our fantasy world is part of our secret world. We rarely share it with others.
That’s if we even have such a world. I have learned over the years that some people do and some people have nothing as organised and detailed as a ‘world’, but we are all creatures with immense imaginative capacity.
Most people spend between 30 and 47 percent of their waking hours spacing out, drifting off, lost in thought, woolgathering…
I like stories. Reality TV, which we all know is not reality . . . I see greater truth in fiction than in that false reality . . . A criticism against television is you’re not using your imagination because it’s handing it all to you. Oh, really? How often do you keep thinking about this stuff later on, imagining where else the story might have gone or where it’s going? . . . You’re imagining the subsequent seasons of Firefly.
Young children, of nursery school and kindergarten age, also practice emotional regulation in their make-believe, fantasy play. They play at emotion-provoking themes, including themes that induce fear, anger, and sadness. One person who has documented this, through observations in kindergartens, is the German researcher Gisela Wegener-Spöhring. For example, she described one play scene in which two little girls pretended that they were sisters whose father and mother had died and who were abandoned alone in the woods, with bears and other wild animals around. To deal with both their grief and fear, they held each other close and spoke intimately, and they built a cave to protect themselves and figured out what weapons they would use if a bear entered the cave.
As neuroscientists study the idle brain, some believe they are exploring a central mystery in human psychology: where and how our concept of “self” is created, maintained, altered and renewed. After all, though our minds may wander when in this mode, they rarely wander far from ourselves, as Mrazek’s mealtime introspection makes plain.
“I think a lot about the fact that, for most of the history of literature that we know about, most literature was fantasy. Up through Shakespeare, it was not looked askance upon to have witches and magic and spirits in your stuff. The more time I spend reading and writing fantasy, the more perverse it seems to me that fiction has to pretend to act like the real world and obey the laws of thermodynamics.”
In some ways, kids like things to be right. Here is a video of a four-year-old girl complaining that the picture of a toy dinosaur is anatomically incorrect. (I’d like to see her do some work with Barbie.) In other ways, kids love to be drawn into fantastic worlds. Picturebook creators tread a fine line between the two expectations.