Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Fantasy in children's books - Harry and His Bucketful of Dinosaurs

A long time ago (too many years to bear thinking about) I studied a literary theorist called Tzvetan Todorov and in particular his definition of the fantastic in literature. As I recall it (and a quick bit of Googling suggests I'm recalling it pretty much correctly) his theories on this were based around the notion that  truly fantastic stories left the reader unsure whether or not the protagonist had really experienced fantastic events or just imagined them. His Wikipedia entry puts it like this "Todorov defines the fantastic as being any event that happens in our world that seems to be supernatural. Upon the occurrence of the event, we must decide if the event was an illusion or whether it is real and has actually taken place...Upon choosing whether the event was real or imaginary, Todorov says that we enter into the genres of uncanny and marvelous. In the fantastic uncanny, the event that occurs is actually an illusion of some sort. The "laws of reality" remain intact and also provide a rational explanation for the fantastic event. Todorov gives examples of dreams, drugs, illusions of the senses, madness, etc. as things that could explain a fantastic/supernatural event. In the fantastic marvelous, the supernatural event that occurs has actually taken place and therefore the "laws of reality" have to be changed to explain the event. Only if the implied reader cannot opt for one or the other possibility, the text is purely fantastic." link -
Probably the two best known examples of this in popular culture are 'The Wizard of Oz' and 'Alice in Wonderland'

Now the mention of those two monoliths of children's fiction is enough reason for this post to pop up on a blog devoted to childhood and parenthood but my real reason for writing this is a more recent and utterly delightful example of the genre my son and I discovered recently. The book is 'Harry and the Bucketful of Dinosaurs' by Ian Whybrow (Author) and Adrian Reynolds (Illustrator).
Amazon UK

Now this book has everything I look for in a children's book:
1) My son loves it
2) It's well written
3) It has beautiful illustrations
4) It reminds me what it was like to be a child

The story is simple - Harry (a young boy who lives in an apparently fatherless house with his sister, mum and grandmother) finds a box of miniature dinosaurs in the attic. He cleans them up, learns all their names and looks after them, but then loses them on the train. In a page that nearly makes me cry for reasons I can't quite put my finger on he convinces the lost property man at the station that they are his by calling all their names. The Todorovian element (and the book may be a perfect example of his definition of the fantastic) is that we never really know if the dinosaurs are real or not. They're certainly not the right size to be real, and it appears that the adults in the story don't see them, but to Harry they are most definitely living breathing creatures. They react to him calling them, we see them playing with him and licking his face and as Harry whispers at the end "they definitely like me". Reading this book and then watching my son as he settles down with his favourite teddy (a dog actually) and talks to it as they both fall asleep reminds me of what an amazing place childhood is. And makes me miss it.

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