“If British children gathered in the glow of the kitchen hearth to hear stories about magic swords and talking bears, American children sat at their mother’s knee listening to tales larded with moral messages about a world where life was hard, obedience emphasized, and Christian morality valued. Each style has its virtues, but the British approach undoubtedly yields the kinds of stories that appeal to the furthest reaches of children’s imagination.
It all goes back to each country’s distinct cultural heritage. For one, the British have always been in touch with their pagan folklore, says Maria Tatar, a Harvard professor of children’s literature and folklore. After all, the country’s very origin story is about a young king tutored by a wizard. Legends have always been embraced as history, from Merlin to Macbeth. “Even as Brits were digging into these enchanted worlds, Americans, much more pragmatic, always viewed their soil as something to exploit,” says Tatar. Americans are defined by a Protestant work ethic that can still be heard in stories like Pollyanna or The Little Engine That Could.Americans write fantasies too, but nothing like the British, says Jerry Griswold, a San Diego State University emeritus professor of children’s literature. “American stories are rooted in realism; even our fantasies are rooted in realism,” he said, pointing to Dorothy who unmasks the great and powerful Wizard of Oz as a charlatan.
American fantasies differ in another way: They usually end with a moral lesson learned—such as, surprisingly, in the zany works by Dr. Seuss who has Horton the elephant intoning: “A person’s a person no matter how small,” and, “I meant what I said, and I said what I meant. An elephant’s faithful one hundred percent.” Even The Cat in the Hat restores order from chaos just before mother gets home. In Oz, Dorothy’s Technicolor quest ends with the realization: “There’s no place like home.” And Max in Where the Wild Things Are atones for the “wild rumpus” of his temper tantrum by calming down and sailing home….
Even well into the 19th and even 20th centuries, many believed they could be whisked away to a parallel universe. Shape shifters have long haunted the castles of clans claiming seals and bears as ancestors. “Gaelic culture teaches we needn’t fear the dark side,” Bateman says. Death is neither “a portal to heaven nor hell, but instead a continued life on earth where spirits are released to shadow the living.” A tear in this fabric is all it takes for a story to begin. Think Harry Potter, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Dark Is Rising, Peter Pan, The Golden Compass—all of which feature parallel worlds.
These were beliefs the Puritans firmly rejected as they fled Great Britain and religious persecution for the New World’s rocky shores. America is peculiar in its lack of indigenous folklore, Harvard’s Tatar says. Though African slaves brought folktales to Southern plantations, and Native Americans had a long tradition of mythology, little remains today of these rich worlds other than in small collections of Native American stories or the devalued vernacular of Uncle Remus, Uncle Tom, and the slave Jim in Huckleberry Finn.”
[“BLA and GB Gabbler” (really just a pen name – singular) are the Editor and Narrator behind THE AUTOMATION, vol. 1 of the Circo del Herrero series. They are on facebook, twitter, tumblr, goodreads, and Vulcan’s shit list.]