21th Century Fantasy
- K.V. Johansen (Author)
Beyond Window-Dressing?: Canadian Children's Fantasy at the Millennium. Sybertooth Inc. (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by J. Kieran Kealy
Expanded from a paper which won the IBBY Canada 2004 Frances E Russell Award, Johansen's Beyond Window-Dressing provides an expansive overview of children's fantasy with a particular emphasis on the growth of this genre in Canada in the new millennium
She begins by providing a rather brief discussion of the history of Canadian children's fantasy, focussing on those texts foregrounded by critics such as Egoff and Saltman as seminal works in this genre. Quite rightly, Johansen points out the paucity of Canadian texts that one finds throughout the twentieth century, and dismisses most, if not all, of these early efforts as rather inferior, particularly when compared to the richness of the American and British traditions during this same period. Though the conclusions drawn from this analysis are generally quite laudable, her rather abrupt condemnation of writers such as Catherine Anthony Clark and Ruth Nichols fails to recognize the hesitant yet clear emergence of a uniquely Canadian "otherworld" in such writers.
But these early fantasies are not the true focus of this text. Rather, the text explores what has appeared recently, beginning by dividing the fantasy genre into eight different sub-genres (time-travel, primary world magic, speculative fantasy-like science fiction-re-imaginings of traditional tales, historical fantasy, animal fantasy, dual-world fantasy and, finally, secondary-alternate world fantasy. Though some of these sub-genres are not always that exclusive (the last two, for example), they serve Johansen well, allowing comment not only on individual texts but on those approaches to fantasy that seem to have been the most successful.
Johansen follows her introduction with an individual chapter on each of her sub-genres, focussing primarily on what Canadian children fantasists have provided in these areas, an encyclopaedic overview largely accomplished by providing mini-book reviews of major contributions.
Though I, not surprisingly, have quibbles with some of her assessments of the worth of individual texts, I applaud the honesty and forthrightness of her analyses. Far too often, reviews of children's books provide little more than vague plot summaries with very little, if any, questioning of the aesthetic or literary value of a text. Not so with Johansen's analyses. She has her opinions and she quite adroitly defends them. She establishes clear criteria for what she considers a valid and valuable fantasy, and judges each text accordingly. And, I must admit, I found her criticism of even some of Canada's literary icons both refreshing and, more significantly, quite convincing.
Johansen's final chapter, echoing the title of the text, examines her chief concern about the present state of children's fantasy in Canada. Far too often, she argues, the fanciful elements in texts, their fantasy-ingredient, if you will, are but window-dressing, with only a marginal attempt to create a world that is truly worth visiting. She also bemoans the absence of male heroes in the Canadian tradition, and, perhaps concurrently, of male fantasists. She also worries about the alarming passivity of Canadian fantasy protagonists and the rather passive plots they are asked to be a part of. There must be more emphasis on personal responsibility, she argues, on heroes and heroines facing crises that demand true risk.
As for the state of 21st-century Canadian children's fantasy, Johansen finds fantasies, particularly those directed at children rather than young adults, to be unnecessarily simplistic, with far too much reliance on stock plots and characters. She also quite forcefully decries the emphasis on "useful books" that do not overly challenge the readers, particularly linguistically. And, finally, Johansen admits that, though Canadian children's fantasies have vastly improved in the last decade, there is still an unfortunate reluctance on the part of Canadian publishers to take on any manuscript that is in any way unique.
Sadly, perhaps, Johansen's final conclusion is that there are, in fact, wonderful Canadian fantasists out there, but that they will have to be picked up by an American or British publisher to receive the creative support and recognition that they deserve, to finally be deemed so much more than mere "window-dressing."
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MLA: Johansen, K.V. and Kealy, J. Kieran. 21th Century Fantasy. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 23 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #200 (Spring 2009), Strategic Nationalisms. (pg. 158 - 159)
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