Last week I spent way too much time filling out the Locus 20th Century Poll. I had to make two lists: my top ten favorite science fiction novels from the 20th century, and my top ten favorite fantasy novels. (There were short fiction categories too, but I’m less well read in those categories. And the 21st Century poll, since it only covered twelve years, was not as time-consuming.) Locus provided a handy reference list of many eligible novels that I poured over.
What I found fascinating was the difference for me in creating the science fiction list versus the fantasy list. For the science fiction list, I had no trouble coming up with ten titles. In fact, my main problem was I kept coming up with ever more titles, and then I had to choose which ones to actually include in my final list, and in what order. And all the titles I was coming up with are books that I’ve adored, that have had a huge impact on me, that I could obligingly gush on about for some time.
And then I started working on my fantasy list. I eventually added Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Lions of al-Rassan and Robin McKinley’s The Blue Sword, both of which I am deeply enthusiastic about and neither of which was on Locus’s reference list. However, the other novels I listed, while entertaining novels and influential in the field, did not inspire the same gush-worthy feelings. I’ve always thought of myself as an equal lover of both science fiction and fantasy, so this surprised me. Which led me to consider the general pervasiveness of fantasy in my experience of story.
I fell in love with science fiction as an adolescent. I still remember exactly where I was when I finished reading Ender’s Game for the first time, and how I felt about it. I was twelve. And from then on, I swallowed science fiction novels from the library’s adult section upstairs in great gulps.
But fantasy has been with me from the very beginning. I didn’t call it fantasy back then. In my experience, it was a natural and inevitable part of the landscape of storytelling. It was my air. Even the picture books my mom read to me before I could read to myself involved talking animals and portal quests and magical items. And those titles in children’s literature that I now know are part of the fantasy genre? I can gush about them just as long and just as fervently as I can about Dune or The Handmaid’s Tale.
I grew up on fairy tales, so very many fairy tales. I loved them with a passion. My other two favorites? King Arthur stories and Robin Hood stories. I devoured so many of the children’s fantasy classics: Peter Pan; The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and all the other Oz books at the library; The Narnia Chronicles; the Roald Dahl books (I particularly adored The Witches); The Phantom Tolbooth; Mary Poppins; The Sword in the Stone; Tales from Shakespeare by Charles and Mary Lamb (I loved The Tempest and Midsummer Night’s Dream); Freaky Friday; The Dark is Rising series; the Black Cauldron series by Lloyd Alexander; Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland; Mrs. Piggle-wiggle’s Magic, The Princess and the Goblin; E. Nesbit’s novels; Diana Wynne Jones’s novels; The Ordinary Princess; The Hobbit. And eventually I was lucky enough to graduate to Tamora Pierce and Robin McKinley.
So now whenever I am asked about my favorite fantasy novels, or my fantasy influences, or apparently when I try to make lists of fantasy novels, those books and stories from my childhood are what I remember. I remember them from a time before I knew fantasy was a separate thing (which means, of course, that it doesn’t have to be). And a lot of my gush-worthy fantasy feelings are focused there. (Several of my favorite new fantasy novels have also been YA or MG.)
This doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate adult fantasy novels, or even love them. But I do think I approach them with eyes and mind very much informed by children’s literature, those titles that were such a deep and early part of my love of reading and of story.
How about you? Did you read a lot of fantasy or science fiction as a child? How difficult would it be for you to make those two top ten lists?