My mother confessed to me that at the age of nine or so, she was addicted to fairy stories. You could buy little paper books of them for a penny, she said, and she bought a whole stack and buried herself in them avidly. and her father caught her reading them. He not only took them away. He burned them. Ceremonially, with disgust and loathing. They were not true, he said, not real, and were therefore harming her mind. And he forbade her ever to read such things. So she didn’t. For the rest of her life […]
This grandfather of mine died long before I was born, or I would have had a few things to say to him. Among the first things I would have said is that his belief (which I call the Don Quixote Fallacy) - that reading things that are not true damages your mind - was held by far too many people in the firs half of this century, and I do not think this is unconnected with teh fact that we had two world wars during that time. Certainly my impression is that this burning of books has caused my mother to be one of the most unhappy and maladjusted people I know. And it does bring you hard up against the responsibility adults have, if only because it shows what a truly lasting impression can be made on a child.
But this Don Quixote Fallacy is not dead. It is alive and well and living in Britain. Recently I was reading for the Whitbread Prize and I came upon no less than five books purveying this notion in an even more advanced form than my grandfather’s. In the face of it they were “child with a problem” books. There was this young person who was the wrong colour, or disabled, or with divorcing parents and so on, and each of these kids tried to offset their troubles by imagining some vivid, or better or more exciting life. This was usually a world in which they had splendid adventures. Then, halfway through the book it became clear that the child who had invented this world was not able to tell which bit of life was physically real and which was only in his or her mind. In other words, imagining things had driven this young person mad.
This struck me as such an appalling, irresponsible threat to hold over impressionable people that I tried to find out who these writers were. Two of them seemed to be teachers who were annoyed that their pupils were addicted to computer games and the rest were social workers who seemed to be equating fantasy with drug-abuse, Possibly none of them were quite aware of what they were saying. But the fact is that be making this threat - imagination drives you mad - they were closing off for their impressionable readers their most important route to sanity. The source of their threat seems to lie in a grand combination of all the mistakes I have mentioned so far: the beliefs that the only reality is dull and unpleasant, that young people must be prepared to confront this and this only, and that the way to do this is to close down the imagination. To these, they have added a further error: that what a person has in his or her head does not exist in everyday life.
Diana Wynne Jones on the importance of imagination in the young, A Whirlwind Tour of Australia.