Real gardens with imaginary toads - Domestic fantasy - Forms and genres - children’s literature

Children’s literature

Part II. Forms and genres


33. Domestic fantasy


Real gardens with imaginary toads


Louisa Smith


So the Boggart looked ahead in happy anticipation, not knowing that he was living now in a world which no longer believed in Boggarts, a world which had driven out the Old Things and buried the Wild Magic deep under layers of reason and time.

(Cooper 1993: 67)


Thus Susan Cooper, an author noted for her works of high fantasy, presents the Boggart destined to plague the lives of today’s children: indeed, they have few resources available to explain the perplexing happenings in their logic-centred lives.

If reason and time are not successful explanations for events, then authors can use the genre of domestic fantasy, with its introduction of a touch of magic - a magic that appears in a realistic setting within a realistic family. Frequently, children face a problem common to those experienced in realistic fiction - a broken family, problems at school, a move to a new home. The addition of magic (in its broadest senses) helps both child characters and child readers to a new vantage-point. The essence is that, in domestic fantasy, that magic stays only briefly. For example, by the end of E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web, Fern has become friendly with Henry Fussy and no longer needs to spend her time in the barnyard, listening to the animals talking.

Children’s literature of the fantastic suggests either high drama - battles between the powers of lightness and darkness - or stuffed animals capering about a nursery world after hours. Generally the chief human actors in these fantasies are children imbued with the key attribute of being parent-free; parents, after all, would get in the way by providing cautions which would inhibit the child characters from stepping through wardrobes or time-travelling. An intact family unit almost defeats the concept of fantasy, but it commonly points out the fundamental conflict between fantastic and rational views of the world, or between (stereotypically) the child’s view and the adult’s.

Domestic settings have been traditional in wonder tales, where ‘magic’ operates in everyday life to right a wrong. Parents - or, frequently, step-parents - in such tales can be the cause of the problem; usually a young person with limited capacities - no money, no position - is rewarded because of virtues regarded worthy by the culture, such as kindness, wit or beauty. However, when a book is set in an actual place and in an actual time, with a real family, then those virtues may not be enough. Despite the fact that the suspension of disbelief is harder to achieve, the intervention of the person with special powers or a magic object may be the catalyst that solves the problem and brings a satisfactory resolution.

When the fantasy occurs largely or completely in a ‘secondary’ world, such as C. S. Lewis’s Narnia, or L. Frank Baum’s Oz, or A. A. Milne’s Hundred Acre Wood, where links with normality are relatively insignificant or irrelevant, or make their point peripherally, the author has the luxury of creating a world complete with its own rules, borrowing only that reality necessary to relate the action to children. Fantasy set more solidly in ‘reality’ has to be more circumspect; it may be given an ambiguous status, as in Mary Norton’s Borrowers sequence (from 1952) with its complex frame of hearsay evidence; or it may simply be discounted as a dream, as in John Masefield’s The Box of Delights (1935), or it may take on a mystical status as in Lucy Boston’s The Children of Green Knowe (1954). Only by great ingenuity can it be integrated into normal life, as in E. Nesbit’s Five Children and It (1902), or Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill (1906), in which the oldest spirit in England brings to the children characters from the past, and their presence is deftly hidden from the adults who carry on their lives around them.

The fantastic mode in domestic life can be employed to solve real problems imaginatively or to provide an escape (as in William Mayne’s A Game of Dark (1971)), or to confront child protagonists with situations which require brave and intelligent responses. However, rather than being a means of imaginative liberation for the child, it can be, and frequently is, the vehicle for moral teaching, made all the more relevant by fantasy’s proximity to reality.

The conventions of the ‘realistic’ domestic story are family, home life and a recognisable setting; Nesbit gave readers a family of five children, a London or rural home with servants, a mother and father (often absent), and then added the Psammead, the Phoenix or an enchanted ring. Rudyard Kipling added Puck to his Sussex home of Bateman’s in Puck of Pook’s Hill (1906) and Rewards and Fairies (1910). At the end of the twentieth century, David Almond has his child characters discover a fallen angel in the most mundane of urban settings in Skellig (1998).

Domestic fantasy is central to children’s books in many countries, relating as it does the imaginative to the well known, either allowing children imaginative freedom within a safe framework or defamiliarising that framework. There are two very broad categories of domestic fantasy: first, where parents provide and/or accept the magic, and second, where children discover a magic being or thing which has the power to change their lives, but which parents fail to notice. Within these, we can distinguish the didactic and the problem-solving uses of fantasy.

Five books, each with a different approach to fantasy, will be discussed, to stand for hundreds of others of the same type: A Bear Called Paddington (1958) by Michael Bond; Mary Poppins (1934) by P. L. Travers; The Ogre Downstairs (1974) by Diana Wynne Jones; Vice Versa (1893) by F. Anstey; and Freaky Friday (1972) by Mary Rodgers.

The parents who are the most aware and accepting of the fantastic being are Mr and Mrs Brown in A Bear Called Paddington. Almost immediately upon the discovery of a small talking bear on the platform at Paddington Station in London, they agree to take him home to live with them: as Mrs Brown observes at the end of the first book, ‘It’s nice having a bear about the house’ (Bond 1958: 128). As Margery Fisher suggests:


the central absurdity works simply because it is taken completely for granted. Though Paddington remains an animal in appearance and movement, he is more like another child in the family, whose peccadilloes are excused because he is different. Incongruity is the moving force of the stories.

(Fisher 1975: 269)


The premise, according to Paddington, that ‘things are always happening to me. I’m that sort of bear’ (Bond, 1958 etseq.) has sustained the fantasy through more than fifty books.

Humour is important too, as is the case with Mary Poppins. Left abruptly without a nanny for their four children, Mr and Mrs Banks engage Mary Poppins, who arrives without references because, as she observes imperiously, it isn’t fashionable to give them. In quick succession, Jane and Michael observe her flying in on the wind, sliding up the banister, pulling items out of an empty carpetbag and ladling different tasting medicines out of the same bottle. In contrast, the adults appreciate her orderliness and her matter-of- fact managing of the nursery.

On their first outing with her, Michael and Jane visit Mary Poppins’s Uncle Wigg and find him bobbing around on the ceiling, buoyed up by his own good humour. On the bus ride home, Michael and Jane try to talk about the experience. Mary Poppins responds,


What, roll and bob? How dare you. I’ll have you know that my uncle is a sober, honest, hardworking man, and you’ll be kind enough to speak of him respectfully, and don’t bite your bus ticket! Roll and bob, indeed - the idea.

(Travers 1934/1945: 46)


This establishes the pattern of subsequent outings - something out of the ordinary happens, and Mary Poppins denies it and takes offence at the suggestion that it did. The parent Banks are kept in the dark; when Jane tries to tell her mother about shopping with the Pleiads, for example, Mrs Banks replies: ‘We imagine strange and lovely things, my darling’ (193).

The appeal of the books, beyond the humorous situations, may also lie in what Patricia Demers identifies as Michael and Jane’s attachment to Mary Poppins.


The bond between her and the children is cemented as much by her brusqueness as by her firm yet sympathetic adult presence. Neither bored with her charges, nor infan- tilised by their demands, Mary Poppins is clearly at home in the nursery, and entirely capable of dealing with their curious questions.

(Demers 1991: 86)


Certainly the fantasy, often unexpected, enlivens their lives, but it is coupled with the assurance that they will return home, that Mary Poppins will remain unchanged, every hair in place, vain, curt and reliable. The only threat is her possible departure, which is softened when it occurs by her promise of a return.

Although both books are clearly comedies, the incongruence between the fantasy and the ‘reality’ is emphasised in both A Bear Called Paddington and Mary Poppins by the setting - a real London. In Diana Wynne Jones’s The Ogre Downstairs, the setting of a rural market town has a similar effect, and there is further displacement because the book reads like a realistic ‘problem’ novel and the fantasy merges into realistic problem solving.

This book features a combined family, three children of the mother and two sons of the father. The step-father is referred to as ‘the Ogre’ by the mother’s three children. The joining of the two families has not gone smoothly; daily battles and small indignations occur. The mother’s children are sloppy, the father’s neat. The father is reduced to bellowing for silence; he frequently retreats to his study. The mother has headaches. In an attempt to pacify the children, the father gives two chemistry sets, one each, to the younger boys.

They are magic sets. First the children fly. The second experiment reduces the size of one of the father’s children; this is followed by a transformation of one boy into the other: each literally learns what it is like to be in each other’s shoes; then one child becomes invisible, and inanimate objects come alive. Finally, the mother departs in desperation, and the children are left to explain the chemistry sets to the ogre. At this point, Wynne Jones links fantasy and reality, for, against the conventions of the genre, he believes them, and together they set about righting their living conditions. The children learn to like each other, to understand the father, and he them; the mother returns, and the last use of the chemistry set turns certain household objects into gold which sell for huge amounts of money at auction, allowing the family ‘to move into a larger house almost at once, where, they all admitted, they were much happier. Everyone had a room to himself’ [sic] (Jones 1975: 191).

The technique of transformation is also used in Vice Versa and Freaky Friday to accomplish similar ends as in The Ogre Downstairs, an understanding of what it is like to be someone else - focusing particularly on the adult-child divide. In Vice Versa, the emphasis is on the father learning how awful it is to be a child attending a public (that is, in Britain, a private boarding) school; in Freaky Friday, the mother actuates the transformation so that the daughter can understand how difficult she is making her mother’s life.

Vice Versa is subtitled ‘a lesson to fathers’. The father, Paul Bultitude, is pompous and overbearing. He finds his son Dick a trial and can hardly wait for him to return to his school, appropriately called Grimstone. On their parting interview, Paul tells his son: ‘I only wish, at this very moment, I could be a boy again, like you. Going back to school wouldn’t make me unhappy, I can tell you’ (Anstey 1893: 22). He gets the wish, and (as Dick) is hauled off to school where he is roundly mistreated by the staff and other boys, and learns what it is like not to have money. Meanwhile, Dick, in his father’s body, thoroughly enjoys himself, treats his younger brother and sister to pantomimes and plays with them. When the transformation is reversed after a week, the father has a whole new view on Dick’s education and reflects that ‘his experiences, unpleasant as they had been, had had their advantages: they had drawn him and his family closer together’ (366).

While Dick learns that being an adult with money is desirable, the opposite occurs in Freaky Friday. Annabel Andrews thinks it is hard being thirteen, but after a day in her mother’s body is happy to remain herself. Only at the end of the book does the reader learn that the mother was, in some unexplained way, responsible for the change. While the book focuses on the daughter struggling to cope with her mother’s appointments and chores, the mother has gone out and had her hair cut and bought new clothes, and had the braces taken off her teeth. Much of the humour in this book is based on what Annabel doesn’t know, just as in Vice Versa Paul, the father, has problems with school friends and school codes and classroom material.

Perhaps the most persuasive modern British example is William Mayne, who in Earthfasts (1967) and its sequels has a Napoleonic drummer boy, Nellie Jack John, move to the twentieth century, where he is accepted into a local society that accepts such vagaries of time and nature (once he has been washed, and his skin conditions have been treated). Mayne’s bold acceptance of the supernatural into the real world (the book also contains a house-spirit, the Boggart) is an important variation on the normally confrontational nature of domestic fantasy.

Some major classic writers fall within my second category of domestic fantasy, in which the children are responsible for discovering the magic being or thing, a good number of which are dug out from the past.

For example, the children in E. Nesbit’s Five Children and It unearth the Psammead in a sand pit in a realistically described Kent where the children are spending the summer. A survivor from the Neolithic age, the Psammead is described as ‘old, old, old, and its birthday was almost at the very beginning of everything’ (Nesbit 1902: 11). The Psammead has the magical ability to grant a wish a day; each chapter presents another wish gone wrong. They retain the knowledge of the adventures and are, it is assumed, wiser about what is essential to happiness. The fantasy is kept well in its place; magic effects wear off at sunset, and both parents are absent; when they return at the end of the book, truthful Jane tries to explain: ‘ “We found a Fairy,” said Jane obediently. “No nonsense, please,” said her mother sharply’ (288). As in The Phoenix and the Carpet (1904) and The Story of the Amulet (1906), the children know better than the adults.

Roger Lancelyn Green has cited the influence on Nesbit of F. Anstey’s The Brass Bottle and Vice Versa, and of Mrs Molesworth’s novels, especially The Cuckoo Clock. Published in 1887, The Cuckoo Clock is characteristic of the way in which domestic fantasy developed. It features a magic cuckoo crafted by Griselda’s great-grandfather which introduces her to various adventures. As Rosenthal has observed:


Far from separating her from reality, Griselda’s forays into the world of fantasy have a direct and immediate impact on her daily life; her two worlds begin to interlock as in ‘real’ life she begins to obey her aunts’ instructions and do her lessons despite her distaste for ‘musting’.

(Rosenthal 1986: 190)


The Psammead and the Phoenix and the Cuckoo are all argumentative ‘adult’ characters who moralise, but the day of the adult openly moralising to the child (and expecting to have an effect) was over. Thus Puck, called forth by accident by Una and Dan on Midsummer Eve in Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill, is intended to educate more subtly.

Linking past with present has also been achieved ingeniously in the USA. Nina, in Eleanor Cameron’s The Court of the Stone Children (1973), also meets the physical presence of a child from the past, Dominique, who has been transported to a San Francisco museum which has reconstructed the period rooms of her chateau. Displacement is more common, as with Nancy Bond’s A String in the Harp (1984). An American family, mourning the unexpected death of the mother, moves to Aberystwyth in west Wales, and the father buries himself in his work. His three children adjust to living in a foreign country with varying degrees of success; Peter, who is most unhappy, discovers a harp key which starts to show him life from the Arthurian period.


He had thought he’d be safe with other people around - it had always come when he was alone before - but he was helpless to stop it ... The study vanished. In its place, Peter saw the country called the Low Hundred lying flat under the hammering rain ... The Key sang a wild and ominous song that wove through the gale inexorably, showing Peter a series of painfully vivid images.

(Bond 1984: 66)


Bond uses the intrusion of the supernatural into everyday life as both threat and challenge, as Susan Cooper (using similar materials) did in her The Dark Is Rising sequence (from Over Sea, under Stone (1965)). Here, Peter’s sisters first notice that he is drifting off, going blank; eventually, they can see some of what Peter is seeing, and the links to the Welsh epic The Mabinogion and specifically to Taliesin, whose harp key Peter has found, are made explicit.

Once again, the fantasy has a direct effect on reality. By the end of the book, Peter is not reluctant to spend another year in Wales even it means ‘another year of rain and freezing cold houses and a language that’s got no vowels and a bunch of kids who don’t know how to play football’ (Bond 1984: 256). Because the children have had to confide in their father and because he has taken time to re-examine his children, the newly configured family is on stronger footing. As C. W. Sullivan suggests, ‘without the traditional Welsh materials, A String in the Harp would be just another adolescent problem novel; the traditional materials make it a novel about understanding on many levels, levels which would not be present without those traditional materials’ (Sullivan 1986: 37).

Possibly the most subtle and complex use of mythological elements in a modern setting has been by Alan Garner, who had used the device of an intrusive other world in The Weirdstone of Brisingamen (1960), The Moon of Gomrath (1963) and Elidor (1965) before writing The Owl Service (1967). Based on Welsh mythology and set in modern Wales in Llanymawddwy, a valley near Aberystwyth, this book would also fit Sullivan’s description of just another adolescent problem novel without the fantasy. Alison, Gwyn and Roger, brought together by circumstance, are fated to live out the triangle myth of Lleu Llaw Gyffes in the Fourth Branch of The Mabinogion. As Neil Philip states in A Fine Anger: ‘As often in Garner’s writing, children must learn to cope with their parents’ failure to confront their problems’ (Philip 1981: 67). Philip sees Garner’s use of the myth as a symbolic alternative to the weighty pages of psychological analysis which would be necessary to straighten out the complex relationships among children and adults in the book. As Garner has said:


A prime material of art is paradox, in that paradox links two valid yet mutually exclusive systems that we need if we are to comprehend reality: paradox links intuitive and analytical thought. Paradox, the integration of the nonrational and logic, engages both emotion and intellect ... and, for me, literature is justified only so long as it keeps a sense of paradox central to its form.

(Garner 1983: 5)


Reality needs a touch of the fantastic.

Throughout the domestic fantasy books which deal with the older child, choices are made, and one of the most difficult confronts Winnie Foster at the age of eleven in a book by an American author with an American setting, Tuck Everlasting (1975) by Natalie Babbitt: she has the choice of living for ever in the company of an enchanting young man, or of remaining ordinary. The story is set in 1880 in New England; the Tuck family drank from a spring, which Winnie has also discovered, eighty-seven years before and have not aged a day since. They kidnap Winnie to stop her from drinking or telling anyone, and then set about convincing her of the importance and necessity of death. Winnie makes her decision: when she returns home with a bottle of water from the spring, instead of drinking it and gaining eternal life she pours it on a toad. When the Tucks return eighty years later, they find Winnie’s gravemarker and the live toad.

There are many variations on these themes and devices, from Susan Cooper’s electronically aware spirit The Boggart, to the seventeenth-century alchemist The Ghost of Thomas Kemp (1973) with his irascible views on modernity. But the potential complexity of the device is demonstrated by Philippa Pearce’s classic Tom’s Midnight Garden (1958), which moves far beyond social comment on a changing, post-war world to consider large issues of time, religion and sexuality. The fact that only certain types of adult understand as reality what the reader interprets as fantasy makes the point that fantasy, as part of our psychological makeup, is neglected at our peril. Notable more recent variants on this theme have been Margaret Mahy’s The Changeover (1984), Theresa Breslin’s Whispers in the Graveyard (1995) and David Almond’s Skellig and Kit’s Wilderness (1999).

In domestic fantasy, then, some of the books, such as Earthfasts and the Paddington series, retain the magic, in others the magic is undone - sometimes remembered, as in Mary Poppins, sometimes forgotten, as in Puck of Pook’s Hill. But it remains as a possibility in everyday life, a chance of escape, a method of coping with or transforming the everyday world. In domestic fantasy, both the tensions and the possibilities of children’s fiction, the benefits of imaginary toads, are at their most potent.



Anstey, F. (1893) Vice Versa: A Lesson to Lathers, London: Smith, Elder.

Bond, M. (1958) A Bear Called Paddington, London: Collins.

Bond, N. (1984) A String in the Harp, New York: Athenaeum.

Cooper, S. (1993) The Boggart, London: Atheneum.

Demers, P. (1991) P. L. Travers, Boston: Twayne.

Fisher, M. (1975) Who’s Who in Children’s Books, New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Garner, A. (1983) ‘Achilles in Altjira’, Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 8, 4: 5-9.

Green, R. L. (1979) ‘Introduction’, in Nesbit, E. (ed.) Live Children and It, Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Jones, D. W. (1975) The Ogre Downstairs, New York: E. P. Dutton.

Nesbit, E. (1902/1979) Live Children and It, London: T. Fisher Unwin/Harmondsworth: Puffin/Penguin.

Philip, N. (1981) A Line Anger, London: Collins.

Rosenthal, L. (1986) ‘Writing Her Own Story: The Integration of the Self in the Fourth Dimension of Mrs Molesworth’s The Cuckoo Clock’, Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 10, 4: 187-91.

Sullivan, C. W. (1986) ‘Nancy Bond and Welsh Traditions’, Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 11, 1: 33-6.

Travers, P. L. (1934/1945) Mary Poppins, New York: Reynal and Hitchcock.


Further reading

Attebury, B. (1980) The Fantasy Tradition in American Literature: From Irving to Le Guin, Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Dusinberre, J. (1987) Alice to the Lighthouse, New York: St Martin’s Press.

Hunt, P. (1992) ‘Winnie-the-Pooh and Domestic Fantasy’, in Butts, D. (ed.) Stories and Society, Children’s Literature in its Social Context, London: Macmillan.

Kuznets, L. (1994) When Toys Come Alive, New Haven: Yale University Press.

Lochhead, M. (1977) The Renaissance ofWonder in Children’s Literature, Edinburgh: Canongate.