Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Power of Imagination

I gave myself a long holiday weekend so I could visit my parents. I spent Memorial Day weekend watching old war movies with my dad. There was also much eating and reading. So it was basically the usual weekend with my parents, though there usually aren't so many old war movies running back-to-back on cable.

I was reading my stash of children's/young adult books from the library, and I was reminded of one of the hazards of seeking books in the children's section: what I call the "Power of Imagination" books. These are the ones where the cover talks about a kid escaping some situation by traveling into another world or running off to have great adventures -- and then you read the book and find out that the adventures only come about through "the power of imagination" and the kid doesn't actually do anything. I suppose it's not the fault of the book/author because the books themselves seldom pretend to be anything but what they are -- there's no fake-out in the story where you're led to believe it's anything but imagination. It's a marketing thing. I guess they're afraid that a book about someone imagining doing cool stuff doesn't sound that interesting, so the cover copy makes it sound like the cool stuff is really happening. Those books made me so mad as a kid because I was a huge fan of the "sucked through a portal" books where kids from our world traveled into another world and had adventures, so I'd pick up anything that sounded like that. It was such a disappointment to start reading and learn that these were only imaginary adventures. I was perfectly capable of imagining my own adventures. I didn't need to read about some kid imagining adventures.

I remember one that I particularly hated, though I don't remember the title or author. It had something to do with a boarding school, which was another one of my favorite things to read about as a kid. The cover said something about the heroine escaping the dreadful boarding school by traveling to another world with one of her classmates, and they had to learn a whole new language and eventually became princesses. I was all over that. I loved the idea of escaping school by stepping through a portal to another world. And then it turned out that they just snuck into some old attic, where they found a trunk of old dresses (because all attics in kids' books contain trunks of old clothes) and made up an imaginary world and created their own secret language. I so didn't sign up to read a book about sneaking into an attic. I wanted to go to another world!

What's really depressing, and what makes me even madder, is that these books about the magical power of imagination usually end up undermining themselves because it seldom seems that the flights of fancy have a positive effect. Usually something tragic happens because the games go too far or someone gets caught up in the game and the distraction allows something to happen, and then the imaginative kid gets humbled. I guess this is the children's book version of "literary," as the kid is usually escaping from some relevant real-world problem, and then there's the tragic ending where the child is ultimately forced to face reality and grow beyond such childish things as imagining other worlds. It's like the message is that imagination is a wonderful thing, but you have to let it go to grow up.

I would have thought I would be sophisticated enough now not to fall for that. After all, I work with the publishing industry and have done marketing writing. And yet I still managed to grab a book that sounded like a fun adventure but that turned out to be about a bedridden kid making up stories. At least this one had a happy ending and didn't turn tragic because of the kid's imagination.

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