by Rick Johnson
One of the attractions of writing fantasy for children is that it forces us to experiment with “beyond the box” thinking. We cannot make easy sense of a fantasy story if we cling to our usual common-sense understanding of reality. Fantasy requires us to imagine how the impossible could possibly be true. I believe that this effort at “sense-making,” which is at the heart of enjoying a good fantasy story, is one of the simple ways we “play with reality” and, thereby, encourage our minds to remain supple.
Readers sometimes ask me, “How could a cow possibly use a tool?” or “How could animals of such different sizes and lifestyles interact?” Those questions really do not have single answers. The answers lie in each reader’s own effort at sense-making in a situation that goes counter to basic expectations about what “ought” to be. Our sense-making efforts may be quite conscious—spending considerable time in thoughtful reflection as we try to imagine the ways a cow could use a tool. We may also simply ignore the incongruity and move on. At times, the incongruity may continue to play at the back of our minds for a long while, before we at last surprise ourselves with an answer that satisfies our curiosity, at least for the moment.
How many once-certain “impossibilities” are now so commonplace as to have entered our “common sense” understanding of reality! At some point, supple minds played wildly with what was essentially fantasy, and used creative efforts at sense-making to redefine what was possible. This is the power of imaginative sense-making. We discourage this power, or bind it hand-to-foot in the closed world of prejudices and iron-clad assumptions, at our own peril.
A natural relative of fantasy, and close collaborator, is the sense of humor and need to play that are part of human nature. Humor often playfully sets up situations that strike us as absurd or unexpected. In this way, humor, like fantasy, encourages flexibility of mind. As we set up situations that are incongruous in light of the “givens” in our experience, we both laugh and have the opportunity to see things in fresh perspective.
Essentially, humor is a matter of how we look, and re-look, at things we normally take for granted. When something we “know” is shown from an absurd angle, we find it funny. In my own writing, I use humor to poke holes in the expectations that “keep things in their place.”
All of the problems that haunt us today were created by people with a passionate desire to live in the world as they know it ought be. In such a world, some laughter and fantasy may help us be a little less certain about what we know and want others to think. Simply put, Wood Cows think differently. For me, it takes more of a leap of faith to believe that our current society of “boxes” is healthy and serves us well, than to believe that cows can think and talk. That is why I write.