Monday, April 11, 2022

Speculative Fiction: Real or Not Real?

"In the quiet that follows, I try to imagine not being able to tell illusion from reality. Not knowing if Prim or my mother loved me. If Snow was my enemy. If the person across the heater saved or sacrificed me. With very little effort, my life rapidly morphs into a nightmare."

 —Mockingjay, Suzanne Collins

Upon one occasion, I spoke with a library patron regarding her concern with allowing her upper elementary-aged son to read Percy Jackson. She was worried that it would cause her son to believe in mythology, thus causing problems with his Christian upbringing. I assured her that he was more than capable of understanding that Percy Jackson and Greek mythology is fiction, and she can simply tell him that it is imaginary. Children understand.

As I researched objections to Harry Potter as a part of my English paper, I came to see that this is not an uncommon concern. Parents are afraid their children are unable to distinguish between fantasy and reality.

While in the early 20th century it was believed that children as old as preteens “struggle with this confusion” between reality and imagination, more recent studies indicate that children as young as three have a good sense of what is real and what isn’t (Taub and Sevarty, 57-62). There certainly may be children who have difficulties distinguishing fantasy from reality, but in most cases, a simple statement from a trusted adult that a particular thing is not real or is imaginary is enough to set the child straight. 

Truly, the only situation in which I can ever remember being confused as to the difference between fiction and reality was Little House. It's a fictionalized account of real people and events, and in any such based-on-a-true-story book or movie it is difficult to discern what is real and what isn't without thorough knowledge of the true events. But I never believed Oz was a real place, or that I could get to Narnia, or that I could tesser across the universe. I never thought I was really in an Annie-like orphanage, or that I lived on the frontier, or that my Barbies were sentient, whether they were running for public office or trekking to Oregon in covered wagons. Nor have I ever interacted with a child—either as a child myself or while babysitting—who appeared to believe their imaginings were real either. In fact, when playing we lived during the American Revolution with a battle raging outside with some friends, one little girl, under five at the time, appeared to be genuinely scared. Slightly worried about it, I asked her if she was really scared or just pretending. She instantly snapped out of it, said "just pretending," then went back to acting terrified.

Imagination is a wonderful thing. Yet some people simply don't see it as such. In fact, there are people who—apparently discounting the creative ability of children—believe that imaginary friends are actually demonic in origin. I had imaginary friends as a two-year-old (I credit Barney with the early development of my imagination; I read in a book once that children don't typically have imaginary friends until they are a year or two older). My sister and real-life friends have had imaginary friends and imaginary adventures. I still in a way have imaginary friends. They're called fictional characters. But I'm fairly certain none of us ever believed that the things we pretended were reality.

Certainly there are mental conditions that can cause people to believe things exist that are not real, but that is not the average child, and not the average speculative fiction reader. I may have enjoyed playing Jedi Temple training, having lightsaber battles, pretending to go on rescue missions chasing down bounty hunters, and wishing there was a live-action series based on Jedi Quest wherein I played Darra Thel-Tanis, but I never once actually thought Jedi were real or that I could use the Force.

So this is as much to say, parents may very well be concerned about their child's ability to distinguish fantasy from reality, but I believe that except in rare cases, they need not worry. And this concern from parents is simply a perfect opportunity to discuss literature and truth and philosophy and much more with their children, something that is beneficial to the building of a worldview regardless of the strength of the child’s grasp on reality and rather increases the benefits gained from speculative fiction.


Taub, Deborah J, and Heather L Servaty. “Controversial Content in Children's Literature: Is Harry Potter Harmful to Children?” Harry Potter's World: Multidisciplinary Critical Perspectives, edited by Elizabeth Heilman, RoutledgeFalmer, 2003, pp. 54–57.

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