Children's and young adult literature is usually classified as either 'realism' or 'fantasy'. Realism is generally categorised as a literary work that replicates the real world in a fictional one. Fantasy is seen as the literature of imaginative possibilities and imaginative worlds. While there are many works that clearly fit into one genre or the other, some texts combine realistic and fantastical elements within the same story. This essay will discuss and compare realism and the fantastic in three children's novels - Roll of Thunder, Hear my Cry (1995) by Mildred D.Taylor, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (1997) by J.K. Rowling and Tom's Midnight Garden (1976) by Phillipa Pearce - commenting on how their use contributes to each author's representation and development of the child protagonists'. The selection of texts is primarily based on their diversity; Taylor being one of the first authors to portray minorities in a realistic light, Rowling and Pearce because of their differing representations of fantasy. The essay will begin by summarising how the terms realism and the fantastic have been defined within children's literature, an overview that is necessarily selective in respect of time frame, genres, and issues.
Mildred Taylor's Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry is an example of the new realism of life and problems that appeared in the early nineteen seventies, and explores in frank detail the controversial issues of slavery, racism, and segregation. Events are told from the perspective of the naïve, but spirited, nine-year old Cassie Logan. Through various incidents, Taylor demonstrates how racism and segregation affects daily life: the school bus driver's repeated attempts to humiliate the Logan children on their walk to school, the store owner who tells Cassie to get her 'little black self back to waiting'(Taylor, 1995, p.122), and her forced apology to 'Miz Lillian Jean' (Taylor, 1995, p.127). Taylor has her characters stand up to the more powerful white community and challenge the oppression. The Logan children for example, use their wits and cunning to sabotage the Jefferson Davis bus by digging a trench in the road, in which it gets stuck. Cassie's plot for revenge on Lillian Jean Simms involves guile and deception as Cassie allows Lillian Jean to think she has accepted that she is inferior; then offers to carry her books saying: 'The way I see it … we all gotta do what we gotta do. And that's what I'm gonna do from now on. Just what I gotta' (Taylor, 1995, p.190). Lillian Jean interprets Cassie's words (and behaviour) as being sincere and submissive. But they convey a double meaning as Cassie also communicates her intent to obtain revenge. Cassie's actions, and those of her siblings, allow them to gain some control of their lives and not be totally dominated by the white kids. Taking matters into their own hands demonstrates what Kelly McDowell calls 'child agency', in that the children become agents of resistance within their oppressed culture. Cassie is shown reacting to events, being challenged and changed by them. Taylor contrasts the outside danger and violence, particularly that from the threatening night riders, with the depiction of a warm, comforting and intimate family life within the home. Storytelling and everyday conversations explain historical details and reconstruct the past, as well as instilling strong family and community values.
In the same way that Cassie is an outsider in the white community, Tom Long in Tom's Midnight Garden and Harry Potter in the Philosopher's Stone are also depicted as outcasts, 'displaced' in an environment in which they feel isolated and excluded. Confined to quarantine until his brother recovers from measles, Tom is living unhappily with his aunt and uncle in a flat in what was once a grand manor house. While the supernatural intervenes in Harry's exile, it is time slip that disturbs Tom's quarantine, transporting him into the past and a part of Victorian history. The fantasy begins when the house's antique grandfather clock chimes the odd number of thirteen and Tom finds the house restored to its former glory and a fantastical garden outside. On subsequent nights Tom explores the garden he realises the house's Victorian inhabitants can't see or hear him. The only exceptions are Hatty, who becomes his playmate, and Abel the gardener who initially regards him as an evil spirit. Despite this being a magical excursion into the past, Tom and Hatty engage in childhood activities that could happen regardless of the time slip element, and their relationship is perfectly normal and realistic in its presentation. The garden, induced in the dreams of the elderly Hatty through a nostalgic longing, and in Tom a yearning to escape his miserable confinement, is where their worlds intersect. For both of them it is an ideal, a rural paradise. The concept of the secret garden as a hidden and enchanted place recurs repeatedly in children's literature. It's a potent image of idealised childhood and one that Maria Nikolajeva suggests is relevant in Tom's Midnight Garden, a place like Never Land in Peter Pan, where Tom won't have to grow up. Furthermore, Time operates differently in the garden, what Nikolajeva refers to as mythical time, or 'kairos' which does not obey the rules of Tom's linear time in reality, or 'chronos'. This double nature of Time becomes a pre-occupation for Tom, and is inextricably linked to his two contradicting desires; to stay in the garden and to be with his family: 'He could, after all, have both things - the garden and his family - because he could stay for ever in the garden, and yet for ever his family would be expecting him next Saturday afternoon' (Pearce, 1976, p. 174). Staying in the garden, and in kairos, means he can keep his childhood innocence. Growing up in chronos indicates the loss of childhood and is paradoxically the acceptance of the unknown as reality. Although Tom desires the freedom of the garden for eternity, ultimately it is his anguish at its imminent loss that forces him 'back' to the present-day world and to his home and family.
While Tom may consider himself an orphan, being that he is separated from his parents, he is reminiscent of a war evacuee, apart for an indefinite period but with the prospect of return. Harry Potter is the real orphan, 'fostered' by his only living relatives, the Dursleys. In contrast to Cassie Logan's loving and supportive family, Harry's upbringing with the Dursleys is one of abuse and neglect, as he is forced to sleep in a spider ridden 'cupboard under the stairs' (Rowling, 1997, p. 20), wear his cousin's hand-me-downs, and is spoken about 'as though he wasn't there…' (Rowling, 1997, p. 22). Critic Andrew Blake likens Harry's story to Cinderella's tale: despised and bullied but with the help of magic is rescued and enters an alternate world for a happier life. Remarkably, he does not seem to show any ill effects from his 'Cinderella' experience, and indeed Harry is depicted as a normal, polite and respectful young lad, who has no trouble making friends when he get to Hogwarts. It may be that growing up with the Dursleys contributes to his ability to handle the challenges he meets at Hogwarts. Certainly, on Harry's first train ride to Hogwarts when Draco Malfoy approaches him saying, 'You don't want to go making friends with the wrong sort…' Harry responds with, 'I think I can tell who the wrong sort are for myself, thanks' (Rowling, 1997, p. 81). Harry is well aware of who the 'wrong sort' are because he has been living with them - the Dursleys - for the last ten years. Reality in the Philosopher's Stone reflects English suburbia in a very non-magical way, and according to critic Sumon Gupta, is sadly lacking when compared to the magical world. Inevitably, the magical world consistently presents itself as both preferable and superior. The two landscapes also correspond to Harry's contrasting life experiences; good and bad exist in both worlds, but while living in the Muggle world, the 'evils' he encounters are for the most part beyond his control, but in the magical world he has a measure of power over what happens and the person he becomes. Leaving the Dursleys and entering the wizarding world, his 'true' home, is a vital point to the beginning of Harry's growth and as such is presented as a rite of passage.
There is varied focus in the three books in terms of realism and the fantastic. Taylor's novel connects to the most significant cultural and political problems of its time and place and so the discrimination and oppression experienced in Cassie's life is securely defined as realism. Cassie herself is depicted as a vital figure who embraces her own agency and self-expression, and whose rebellion can be seen as a positive means to provoke change. In Tom's Midnight Garden the themes and characters also originate from the real world, but Pearce effectively blends fantasy and realism into the fabric of Time and dreams. Tom's search for explanations and coherence about the meaning of Time mirror the inner struggles he encounters on his journey to maturity. Depicted as sensitive and vulnerable, Tom is not a typical fantasy hero. He does not possess any special or magical abilities; heroism comes from facing up to his loneliness and insecurity. Through the dreams of old Mrs Bartholomew and the time slip, Tom is able to visit and benefit from the past, then move on. In the Philosopher's Stone realism is the presence of Muggle suburbia and Harry's atrocious life with the Dursleys. Fantasy is Harry himself, Rowling's wizard protagonist who has the power of magic within, and once set free from the constraints of his barren cupboard under the Dursley's stairs, is able to triumph in the magical world in true hero style. While Harry Potter maybe read as a captivating journey into a magical world, it is also a realistic commentary on contemporary human society,