“Fantasy is hardly an escape from reality. It’s a way of understanding it.”
This is the season of vacations – be it a trip across the world, a weekend away, or even just a relaxing day spent by the pool. Can you guess the easiest and most direct way to head out on an adventure? To pick up a book, of course! You can go just about anywhere on the written page, but when you step into Fantasy, those destinations often defy even the wildest and broadest strokes of your imagination.
Fantasy is a genre that features magical and supernatural elements that are absent from the “real” world. The mythical, the magical, the fantastical – or even a combination of all three. Think: a school dedicated to all sorts of magic users, or dragon eggs in Brooklyn, or even seaside towns bursting at the seams with larger-than-life monsters.
Just one of many wonderful things about Fantasy is that it allows readers to escape. Often, though, it’s more than just a first class escapism ticket. You’re so drawn in by the razzle-dazzle of the magic systems, the mythical creatures, and the strange, new worlds that you don’t realize your defenses are being lowered. And by the time you understand what’s happening, you’re in the thick of processing the struggles faced by the characters. Bigger than that – you see that these problems and heartbreaks aren’t too different from your own.
This month, we gather at the Lamp-Post with three titles that perfectly capture such a vital gift that kids and grown-ups alike can appreciate: Upside-Down Magic by Sarah Mlynowski, Lauren Myracle, and Emily Jenkins, Dragons in a Bag by Zetta Elliott, and Malamander by Thomas Taylor.
By stepping into the world of Upside-Down Magic, you meet Nory Horace the night before what is arguably the most important day of her life. She’s facing the entrance exam for the prestigious Sage Academy, but her magic is “wonky.” Instead of turning into a sweet little kitten, her kitten is mixed with a beaver, resulting in a “bitten” and the destruction in Nory’s father’s wood-filled office. However, Nory’s brother, sister, and father have never struggled to control their magic, and it leaves Nory with no one to turn to for help.
When the morning of the exam arrives, Nory fails… miserably. She lands an immediate rejection from Sage Academy, is sent away to live with her aunt, and is enrolled at the Dunnwiddle Magic School to join a class for kids with Upside-Down Magic.
Readers are dropped into a world that looks just like ours, but magic is everywhere and running through everyone. For example, Nory hardly bats an eye at her Aunt Margo, who works as a flying taxi, soaring “over black blobs that looked like forests, and black blobs that looked like buildings.”
What brings Nory pause, though, are the other students in her Upside-Down Magic class. Among the unforgettable roster, there’s Elliot, a Flare who can only turn things to ice; Andres, a Flyer who has to be tethered at all times lest he drift off; and Pepper, a Fuzzie who can only make the animals in vicinity react in terror. Each student arrives with the impression that something is wrong with them, that something needs to change. It’s why Nory very quickly takes it upon herself to create a “box of normal” in an effort to fix her powers, test out of the UDM class, and return home.
The other students at Dunnwiddle see the UDM kids as different, “dangerous” even. Nory’s own father deemed her magic “damaged” and refuses to contact her throughout the book. For many kids, their view of themselves stems largely from how those they’re closest to describe and perceive them. When those people say hurtful things, it leaves wounds that are long-lasting.
With the unconventional lessons and constant encouragement from the UDM teacher, Ms. Starr, Nory begins to accept herself as she is. Something as simple as changing her verbiage does wonders for Nory’s self-worth: “We won’t use wonky, either. It’s not polite or kind. Instead, we will say different, or upside down.” There also comes the understanding that Nory shouldn’t have to contain herself to that “box of normal,” not when that box leaves out so much of what makes her unique. By surrounding herself with others who find themselves outside of what’s considered “normal,” Nory is able to realizes that she still has a place where she fits. In the end, it’s the nurturing of her upside-down magic that saves a classmate, and flips her self-perception from powerless to “powerful.” It’s a universal feeling, wanting to be normal – whatever normal means. So don’t let that cute winged kitten on the cover fool you. No matter your age, no matter what others might say, you can take a leaf out of Nory’s book and embrace what makes you unique, too.
When you pick up Dragons in a Bag, you’ll find that fantasy elements present themselves a little differently. Jaxon, a young boy from Brooklyn, is dropped off at the apartment of an old woman everyone calls Ma. There’s not really anything to do while he waits for his mother to return besides reading and staying out of Ma’s business… not until Jax notices a mysterious box that moves and jumps all on its own!
Soon enough, Jax discovers that Ma is actually a seasoned witch with an incredible job: delivering fantastical creatures from our world to the magic realm. Specifically, Ma and Jax are tasked with handling three dragons who cannot, under any circumstances, be fed marshmallows lest they “imprint” on whoever fed them.
Jaxon’s world, as mentioned above, rests parallel to a magic realm. According to Ma, Brooklyn has gone and “lost its magic. All kinds of creatures used to call this place home. But not anymore.” Still, readers quickly discover that not all the magic has been extracted from Brooklyn. There’s Ma’s friend, Ambrose, who seems to be wearing at least “a hundred different pieces of clothing” and Jax believes that he’s invisible under all those layers. Waiting in the heart of Prospect Park is a transporter disguised as a guardhouse that “looks like the tiniest castle ever built.” This device is what enables Ma to travel between the real and magic realms – and it’s also the reason Ma and Jax get lost in time. “Parallel realms exist in different dimensions. Time travel is like whizzing down a slide. Crossing dimensions is more like skipping double Dutch. You have to wait for the right movement to slip in between the ropes.” Rather than going across time, they wind up going backward to the Mesozoic era where the sky is red and “hungry Pteranodon” are circling for their next meal.
When pairing the swiftness of the narrative with the eye-widening elements described above, it can be easy to overlook some of Dragons’ more subtle moments. For instance, Jaxon only spends the day with Ma because his own mother is in court after their landlord threatened to have them evicted. Jax’s anxiety and concern comes in waves, but helping the baby dragons reinforces his belief that, “Everybody should have a home and get to stay there as long as they want.” It’s Ma’s reply, though, that really lands a heavy punch: “In an ideal world, that would be true. But that’s not the world we live in, Jax.”
Whether or not they’ve ever directly faced the effects of gentrification, kids are sure to feel empathy for Jaxon and his mother. (“Brooklyn ain’t what it used to be… Out with the old, in with the new. Sure is a shame, though.”) More than that, by presenting this issue in a way that’s understood by young readers and gives them the appropriate language to use, it can prompt discussions at home and in the classroom. And for kids who are struggling with housing insecurity? Seeing a character like Jaxon will help normalize their own struggles, making them feel less alone with the added comfort of discovering that delight, wonder, and magic still exist in the world, even in the darkest times.
With Malamander, you’ll meet Herbert “Herbie” Lemon, Lost-and-Founder of the Grand Nautilus Hotel. You’ll accompany Herbie as he endeavors to help his new friend, Violet, uncover the mystery of her parents’ disappearance. Both must evade the sinister Boat Hook Man, just to find their paths crossing with that of the mysterious half-fish, half-man creature that’s haunted Eerie-on-Sea for generations – the malamander.
Once a year, the malamander comes onto Eerie’s beach to lay its egg. This egg is “an oddly translucent red stone” and bears the “grants-you-your-dearest-wish” sort of powers. But the good can turn bad in an instant, for if someone wishes on the malamander egg only to lose the egg, their wish will become a curse. Such a rare, precious treasure brings out the likes of Sebastian Eels, a smarmy local writer. Eels teams up with the Boat Hook Man, a sea captain who once wished on the malamander egg to live forever… only to be doomed to haunt Eerie’s shores. To make matters all the more complicated, we learn that Violet’s parents disappeared while searching for the malamander egg.
Malamander approaches Fantasy by creating a rich piece of folklore that rivals some of the most notable monster stories. This creature is known to be “something fishlike and spiny that keeps this from being a someone at all, and more like a something.” With a description like this, and an elusiveness that evades both Herbie and readers, it’s no wonder the town holds its breath when the winter fog sinks low.
The story is suspended in a time that feels both past and present and rooted in a setting that is so distinct, Eerie-on-Sea may as well be a character in and of itself. During the summer months, it’s considered a family vacation spot, but “when sea mist drifts up the streets like vast ghostly tentacles, and saltwater spray rattles the windows of the Grand Nautilus Hotel” you’ll feel yourself chased by a persistent chill and won’t be able to shake the snow that settles on your shoulders.
Amid the folklore and the fantastical, it is Violet and her drive to learn her own history that stand as the heart of the novel. Herbie is able to give Violet “two pairs of shoes, tied together by the laces” to show her parents were ever present at all, but Violet is still plagued by a sense of displacement. Her past is essentially a giant question mark. Naturally, she questions her place in the world – who she is, whether she’ll have to carry such a monumental loss for the rest of her days. Through the magic of the malamander egg, Violet is able to get some answers, but not all the answers of what happened to her parents. With Malamander, readers will find that sometimes, no matter how hard we look, answers will remain out of reach. What matters is how we move forward, how we, like Violet, find a way to build a life even when the question marks linger.
Ultimately, each book lands in a place that defies the traditional happily ever after element most folks expect when reading a fantasy novel. Nory can’t find a way to make her father proud, so she has to build a life without this acceptance. Jax and his mom don’t come out on top of the landlord situation, and have to stay with Ma. And Violet’s story doesn’t wrap up in a neat bow, either — her parents aren’t found, and she has to continue to weather the unknowing. It would’ve been easy to craft stories that end on a frilly, neat expected note, and yet, there is still ample hope to be found in these new beginnings. Magic and folklore and the fantastical remain, too, cushioning endings that would feel purely uncertain in our world.
It’s one of the reasons we as humans flock to stories, seeking doors to other worlds in an effort to escape our own.
The beauty of Fantasy is that kids and adults are welcomed through an open door where heroes dazzle in magical settings, yes, but these protagonists are vulnerable. The balance between the fantastical and the mundane is done so deftly, you are likely to be staring down your own heartaches before you know what is happening. After all, monsters are so much easier to face when characters offer a roadmap to navigating similar struggles. And the great company doesn’t hurt, either. Be it in cities that resemble our own or in fantastical places unlike anything we’ve ever seen before, we meet characters with lives that we can empathize with. We learn from mentors offering sage wisdom that can be applied to our own heartaches. Biggest of all, even when we run away to the pages, we’re always able to come home again.
So pack your bags and grab those books – your next journey awaits.