Children’s literature and films are rife with stories about magic: from ancient fairy tales to the 1,001 Nights to modern day blockbusters such as the Harry Potter series. A world in which magical things can happen appeals to the imagination of children in part because of their natural wonder at a world that seems big and mystifying.
Thus the appeal of the magical worlds described in such works as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, A Wrinkle in Time, The Chronicles of Narnia, and the Magic Treehouse series, to name just a few. Although these fantasy worlds can be scary at times, they are also filled with such wonders as a chocolate river, talking animals, caves filled with gold and the like. It’s no surprise that in Alice in Wonderland, the titular character is nodding off with boredom during a history lesson when she spies a mysterious white rabbit and follows him down a hole into Wonderland. Charlie Bucket of Chocolate Factory fame also longs to escape a rather poor and dreary existence by entering the wondrous world of Willy Wonka.
Indeed, magic in children’s stories serves as a form of wish fulfillment. For instance, in Edward Eager’s Half Magic, a group of siblings discover a magic coin that they use to make wishes, to both comical and disastrous effect when they realize the coin will only grant half of their wish. Their adventures serve as a diversion from their life with a strict nanny and absent parents. Similarly, in the stories of “Aladdin” and “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves,” the main characters are poor young men who find riches beyond their wildest dreams.
Many characters in children’s literature use magic to escape terrible childhoods. In Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach, James is an orphan being raised by a pair of abusive aunts when he discovers said peach, climbs aboard, and escapes his tormentors. The same is true for young Harry Potter, who is forced to live with his cruel aunt and uncle after his own parents are killed. When dozens of owls bombard Harry with invitations to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, it’s a dream come true. In C.S. Lewis’s iconic Narnia series, the children are escaping the fears of a world at war and the loneliness of being separated from their parents. For the children of A Wrinkle in Time, magic is a way to save and bring home their missing father. All these works speak to the normal fears and anxieties of children, for whom the world is often a scary and confusing place. And they give children something that may be missing in their own childhoods: hope.
Children especially seem to love books that take the whole magic story line one step further: that is, the children themselves discover their own magical powers. Matilda, another Roald Dahl classic, features a young girl whose powers help her overcome negligent parents, nightmare teachers, and schoolyard bullies. In Escape to Witch Mountain, two orphaned children with extraordinary powers discover their origins and the place where they truly belong.
And, of course, there is Harry Potter, the main character in one of the most beloved series of books ever written. Harry discovers that he is a wizard and that there are many other children who have the same types of powers he has puzzled over for years. Over seven books, Harry Potter enters the world of Hogwarts, faces unimaginable perils, and learns to use his powers for good.
The success of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series comes from her keen awareness of the tribulations of childhood. For children, whose world is largely beyond their own control, the idea that they may have it within themselves to escape their fears, shortcomings, and circumstances is a powerful one indeed. As Percy Jackson, a boy who discovers his father is Poseidon in The Lightning Thief, puts its, “The real world is where the monsters are.”