Of rainbows and unicorns – Part 1 – Fantastic creatures and magical realms

I am not a reader of adult fantasy novels. I have never read Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit or Watership Down. I just couldn’t buy into it. I’m sorry I have to admit it – it is true.

However, I don’t mind a bit of fantasy in children’s books and, in fact, really enjoy it. I didn’t mind the rats’ use of language in Robert C. O’Brien’s The Rats of Nimh while I couldn’t handle the talking rabbits in Watership Down by Richard Adams. I cannot explain why my response is different but I’m sure it has something to do with the ability to suspend disbelief. I am obviously more able to do that when encountering fantasy in children’s stories than in adult fiction.

As both parent and teacher (and now grandparent) I love sharing stories with children. In addition to all the good things I know it is doing for them, it is doing lots of good things for me as well. Reading children’s stories written by masterful authors is one of life’s greatest pleasures and I love having excuses for doing so.

This week the flash challenge issued by Charli Mills at the Carrot Ranch was to

In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that includes a fantastical element or creature. 

I am taking the opportunity of sharing with you some of my favourite fantastic creatures and magical realms from children’s stories. Each of these stories is wonderful to read aloud and share with children.

Charli mentioned rainbows, unicorns and the phoenix.

I thought of The Iron Man by Ted Hughes (a story in five nights, suitable for children from age 5 – 104)

book 2

“Taller than a house, the Iron Man stood at the top of the cliff, on the very brink, in the darkness.

The wind sang through his iron fingers. His great iron head, shaped like a dustbin but as big as a bedroom, slowly turned to the right, slowly turned to the left. His iron ears turned, this way, that way. He was hearing the sea. His eyes, like headlamps, glowed white, then red, then infra-red, searching the sea. Never before had the Iron Man seen the sea.

He swayed in the strong wind that pressed against his back. He swayed forward, on the brink of the high cliff.

And his right foot, his enormous iron right foot, lifted – up, out, into space, and the Iron Man stepped forward, off the cliff, into nothingness.”

 

and The BFG by Roald Dahl. (a longer tale for school age, and older, children)

book 4

“It wasn’t a human. It couldn’t be. It was four times as tall as the tallest human. It was so tall its head was higher than the upstairs windows of the houses. Sophie opened her mouth to scream, but no sound came out. Her throat, like her whole body, was frozen with fright.

This was the witching hour all right.

The tall black figure was coming her way. It was keeping very close to the houses across the street, hiding in the shadowy places where there was no moonlight.

On and on it came, nearer and nearer. But it was moving in spurts. It would stop, then it would move on, then it would stop again.

But what on earth was it doing?”

 

I thought of Joan Aiken’s wonderful collections of fairy tales like A Necklace of Raindrops (for children in early years of schooling)

book 3

“And when she had nine raindrops Laura found that she could make the rain stop, by clapping her hands. So there were many, many sunny days by the sea. But Laura did not always clap her hands when it rained, for she loved to see the silver drops come sliding out of the sky.

Now it was time for Laura to go to school. You can guess how the other children loved her! They would call, “Laura, Laura, make it stop raining, please, so that we can go out to play.”

And Laura always made the rain stop for them.

But there was a girl called Meg who said to herself, “It isn’t fair. Why should Laura have that lovely necklace and be able to stop the rain? Why shouldn’t I have it?”

and The Kingdom Under the Sea (for children approx. 8 -12), each beautifully illustrated by Jan Pienkowski adding another element of wonder to the tales.

 

book

 

Charli suggested that we “think of how (we) can use the fantastical to enrich realities” and I thought of the mouse who invented The Gruffalo in Julia Donaldson’s story and showed how imagination could be used to solve problems that arise. (The Gruffalo is suitable for children in pre-school and early years of schooling)

 

 

While the above excerpts are short, like flash fiction, each demonstrates the skill of the author in choice of words and sentence structure. In his book On Writing Stephen King refers to these as forming the top level of the tool box. But these excerpts show a depth greater than that also.  They create a connection, forming a relationship with and a need in the reader to know what happens.

It is the ability of the author that sweeps us away, as if on a magic carpet, to other places and other lives. It is the ability of the reader to suspend disbelief that allows the journey to occur.

I thought about how we, as either child or adult, use fantasy to escape realities that we may not wish, or not feel strong enough, to face. This brought me back to Charli’s unicorn.

And now I offer my own bit of flash, which is not suitable for reading to children of any age.

 

Unicorn knights

She sat on the bed and looked around. Funny how some things don’t change.

They had left it untouched for all those years since her escape, waiting for her return. But she never did. Never could. Until now.

“You should,” she was told. “Make peace.” “Let it go.”

It didn’t look so scary now. They were both gone. She was grown.

Sunlight glinted on the unicorn. It had faded but waited still, on the night-table, for their nocturnal escapades away from cruel reality.

She fingered it for a moment, remembering. Then dumped it in the wastebasket.

“Sell!” she said.

 

I welcome your comments on any aspect of this post; the books I have suggested for sharing and my own piece of flash.

Don’t forget to pop over to the Carrot Ranch where you can read responses to Charli’s prompt by many other writers.

 

17 thoughts on “Of rainbows and unicorns – Part 1 – Fantastic creatures and magical realms

  1. Pingback: The Fantastical « Carrot Ranch Communications

  2. Bec

    Very powerful writing, Nor, as always. It is amazing the fortitude that children have to get through some of life’s hardest trials, and perhaps being equipped with fantasy worlds and a keen imagination adds to this resilience. It reminds me of the film ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’, which is about a young girl living during war time, and she uses a fantasy world to escape the cruelty of her ill mother and unkind step-father.

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    1. Norah Post author

      Thanks for your comment. I like your suggestion that a keen imagination helps to strengthen resilience, not only as an escape from a harsh reality but also as an ability to imagine ourselves strong and capable. 🙂

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    1. Norah Post author

      Thanks for visiting my blog and leaving a comment, Roe and Ken. You don’t have to miss children’s books and literature – they are always there to read. But I know what you mean – it is good to have an excuse for doing so! Thanks for your kind words. I really appreciate them. 🙂

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  3. Charli Mills (@Charli_Mills)

    Another thoughtful reflection that ties into your first love–education. How easily you set up excerpts and age-appropriateness. The idea that we can suspend believe for children’s novels, but not adults is interesting. And I know others who share that sentiment. Yet, I wonder what Lewis and Tolkien would say in support of their ideas that we are drawn to myths, that they are a part of us.

    As to your flash, wow, that captures a deep struggle in a moment. I agree with Sarah that the cutesy clip art set up a different expectation, yet in reflection that would have been the kind of cutesy toy a child would have had and as the broken adult it would have seemed hideous. I also agree with Lori that by adding a few more sentences, you could create an even more powerful piece. Remember that Flash Fiction Magazine takes longer flash and it might be the next step or submitting to some of the sites that Anne has shared with us.

    Great writing–all of it! And I’m intrigued–Part I? Do we get more of the fantastical from you?

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    1. Norah Post author

      Hi Charlie,
      Thanks so much for your comment. Mentioning Lewis along with Tolkien got me thinking further. I love the Narnia stories. Interesting too, that the children’s books I listed, including the Narnia stories, I read as an adult. (Reading children’s literature was a big part of my teacher training and ongoing preparation for teaching, as well as reading to and with my own children.) One I didn’t list was by another Lewis: Carroll, “Alice in Wonderland”. I was given the book for my tenth birthday but, although I read it, never enjoyed it. Parts of it I find really unsettling. I didn’t ever get through “Through the Looking Glass”.
      I appreciate your comments about my flash and am thinking that I may add a little more to it. The concern is, of course, that adding more makes it less powerful. The constraint imposed by the 99 word target makes me write tightly. Without that I might just waffle on, as I have been known to do. The challenge to tell more in less is a powerful tool for learning, and I am pleased to be a part of the process. I am learning a lot. Thank you.
      There will be another post about fairy tales (without the flash). I wrote it first, but it was getting too long to include the list of books or my flash, so I wrote this one as well. The next (first) one, I will publish on Wednesday.

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  4. Lisa Reiter

    Fantastic post Norah – some of my own favourite books here with a great choice of excerpts. Your own piece was then an unexpected punch. I actually like that I’m left piecing the bits together, filling in the details of the significance of the unicorn – really powerful..

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    1. Norah Post author

      Hi Lisa,
      Thanks for sharing. I’m pleased you enjoyed the books and excerpts I listed. I do intend to write about “The Iron Man” again, about using it as a stimulus for writing with children. It is such a wonderful book with beautiful language. That the author is a poet probably helps a lot! I appreciate your comments about my piece. I’m learning!

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  5. lorilschafer

    I love the setup on this – it’s beautifully done. I know you had a word constraint on this, but you might consider expanding it just a bit to make for an easier-to-follow transition to the significance of the unicorn. A couple of extra sentences would make this a truly brilliant piece!

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    1. Norah Post author

      Thanks Lori, I really appreciate your generous comment and suggestion. I did have more words to begin with, but with the constraints had to crop them. It’s not a bad thing – forcing me to use fewer words; makes me think more about word choices. I may do as you suggest for there is more that I would like to say about this particular episode. Will give it some thought. 🙂

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    1. Norah Post author

      Thanks Geoff. I’m sure you and your children greatly enjoyed sharing stories before bedtime. It is a very special experience.

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  6. Sarah Brentyn

    I was laughing so hard at the cartoon unicorn. Not fair! Your story hit me twice as hard as I wasn’t expecting that after seeing Mr. pink-and-purple clip-art unicorn.

    I just sat for a minute after reading this. It is so good and so horrible. Her pain of remembering battling with strength in going through her things and getting rid of the object that helped her deal. On one hand, how could you keep it? It’s a harsh, tangible reminder. On the other, how could you get rid of it? It’s an escape and proof of her strength and ability to get to the point where she is now.

    I absolutely love how you’ve delivered this. Powerful.

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    1. Norah Post author

      Thanks Sarah. I’m sorry I set you up for something light, airy and childish, and then abruptly burst the bubble. I appreciate your words as they confirm that you understood my intended message, and that is always so important. I guess the clipart was all I could find but I thought it was what her toy probably looked like. Thanks for sharing. 🙂

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