Wood Cows Think Differently
Why I Write Fantasy for Young People
Fantasy: A Liberating Influence Available to All
When we tell fictional stories and put books into the hands of readers, especially young people, we're both providing entertainment and participating in the process of shaping the way readers see the world. I want to use the power of humor and compelling storytelling to nurture new patterns of thought.
Imagination is an under-appreciated tool available to all in breaking through the barriers that limit our possibilities. I would suggest, for example, that the liberating influence of fantasy is socially powerful—especially for children and youth. When we rely on imagination to enter worlds or experiences that are not otherwise available to us, we gain access to an infinite range of degrees of freedom. Running on imagination, our minds and hearts are no longer bound by such “obvious” constraints as common sense, the speed of light, or prejudices of mind. Fantasy enables us to experiment with the infinite frontiers of what is possible and impossible, believable and unbelievable.
I would suggest that the most memorable and extraordinary fantasy tales are not merely entertaining flights of fancy or slight journeys into magical realms for the sake of passing time. The tales that leave a mark on us affect the way we look at the world so drastically that we never quite return to the way we used to see things. We gain new perspectives without which we can no longer explain the world.
The Wood Cow world seeks to explore the deeper truths and ideas that underlie our beliefs and assumptions about such things as justice, equality, freedom, power, and unity. Fantasy at its best is more than just escapism, and my stories strive in that direction. Perhaps the Wood Cow world, as absurd as it may seem, may help us see more clearly some often-overlooked truths about our own world. What really is power? Who has it and who doesn’t? What can change and what can’t? How do we know? What is worth, and who has it? What is equality? What is peace? What are the phases through which these goals are achieved? What changes are necessary to achieve such goals in a lasting way? These are complex questions that seem terribly important, yet which receive very little deeply probing reflection in current society. Perhaps the Wood Cow world, in addition to being an entertaining read, provides a surreal prism through which to consider our current common-sense certainties afresh.
Imagining Worlds Beyond the Box of "Common Sense"
Custom, learned habit, and cultural parameters typically set the limits of what we believe to be good, possible, true, lovely, beautiful, and believable. Often, "common sense" becomes institutionalized, formally and informally, in processes and circumstances that systematically limit contact with information and ways of looking at the world that lie beyond one’s personal prejudices. As Einstein famously observed: “Common sense is the collection of prejudices acquired by age eighteen." It is precisely such unconscious common sense maps of the world that underlie racism, sexism, and other forms of structural prejudice and injustice. In most cases, throughout human history, progress has been possible—indeed, empowered by, the capacity to imagine worlds beyond what most people considered normal, natural, or consistent with common sense. 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.
Inspiring Creative Power to Redefine what is Possible
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.
I’m interested in telling stories that portray the nobility, capacities, and power of unheard voices, marginalized groups, and previously unimagined heroines/heroes. I want to show the valiant courage and creativity of characters who are not particularly exceptional—indeed, are typically portrayed as distinctly unexceptional. To expand the possible range of characters and situations that I can portray, and to maximize my effort to shake up normalized narratives, I use anthropomorphic animals living in a multifaceted, complex world. The goal is to play with the normal narratives of the “real” world. This strategy is not a substitute for exploring issues of equality, power, nobility, respect, freedom, prejudice, and justice with human beings as the main characters. However, it is one tool for providing multiple voices and narratives that make visible the absurdities of our normal, common-sensical, world.
Poking Holes in Walls Intended to Separate and Oppress
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.