Of the many children’s fantasy books my mother read to me as a child, The Water Babies, by Charles Kingsley was one of my favorites. The story terrified me, and yet I couldn’t get enough of it. I’d wince each time the cruel Mr. Grimes beat Tom, the little chimney sweep. Eyes wide and breath held, I’d pull the quilt around my face and urge Mom to continue. “Are you sure?” she’d ask. I’d nod, and she’d continue reading.
Initially Mom read from a colorful picture book, but around my seventh birthday the pictures were exchanged for Kingsley’s original prose. These tattered and creased books now sit in the bookcase closest to my writing desk, between Isabel Allende’s, House of Spirits and Oscar Wilde’s, The Picture of Dorian Gray.
To this day, any woman who slightly resembles Mrs. Be-done-by-as-you-did, sends a wisp of a shiver up the back of my neck. Luckily, black-caped-stern-faced-spectacle-wearing-fairies, are somewhat of a rare commodity in my neighborhood.
The brilliant film, Pan’s Labyrinth, written and directed by Guillermo del Torro, evokes the same sense of anxiety along my neck as Kingsley’s children’s story. The threatened child, invited to enter a different world, marked with challenges, temptations, and the flirtation of death. The perfect Hero’s Journey.
Charles Kingsley was an Anglican clergyman, university professor and writer who lived during the Victorian Era. This was a time of great positive growth juxtaposed by extreme poverty and much needed social change, particularly in the area of child labor laws. Children aged eight, and often younger, were sent out to find work. Many became chimney sweeps, like the character Tom from The Water Babies. The cruel and often tragic fates of these young children were brought to life by authors such as Kingsley and Charles Dickens.
The cravat-wearing educated men and bejeweled literate ladies of Victorian London could no longer hide behind a lace handkerchief. The invention of the steam-powered printing press opened up the field of journalism, and stories of the impoverished members of society came alive on the pages of popular novels. Readers began asking questions, and the answers were not always pretty.
While Lewis Carroll beckoned readers into the world of fantasy with Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, across the channel, Jules Verne wrote of exploration and science fiction. In the United States, Edgar Allan Poe ensnared his readers on journeys into the darkest alleys of their psyche. The age of the novel had arrived. Truths were told, often under the guise of fiction.
A wisp of a shiver still surfaces when I think of dirty-faced little Tom being struck by Grimes, or a one-eyed fairy-eating villain chasing a little girl. Such is the way of good stories; they linger and haunt us. The books Mom read to me over and over again, and the many times Dad sang Puff the Magic Dragon, introduced me to the wonderful world of fantasy. I consider this my greatest inheritance, a remarkable and life-changing gift.
My husband and I chose to homeschool our two sons during their elementary school years. This was partly due to my observations regarding the amount of knowledge children absorb when they are read stories. Regarding our own sons, I found that long after the fictional stories turned to non-fiction, and kitchen science morphed into lab work, their love of learning grew brighter within and continues to do so. Reading to children is the gift that keeps on giving.
The genre of fantasy taught me, from a young age, that the call to adventure awaits us all. Do we accept the opportunity knowing dark shadows lurk in the path ahead? Or do we shake our heads, step back, and linger in the safety of familiarity? The choice is ours to make. So often real-life imitates fiction, but in the end, even the scary Mrs. Be-done-by-as-you-did mirrored the faces of courage, forgiveness and love.