Don’t fight your children’s fantasy

Fighting Fantasy books by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone

In 1983 a new craze spread through Britain’s children (mostly the boys). It was a range of books called Fighting Fantasy by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone. Based loosely on the role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons that had taken the US by storm, the books differed in that they were for just one player/reader and they covered a much wider range of adventures and settings than the role-playing games did. The idea was simple. It was a book where you started reading and after a few pages you were given a choice. Did you want to go north or south? Ask the wizard for advice or not? Fight the monster or run away? Each choice would be accompanied by a page number which you would then turn to and continue reading. So you read the book by constantly moving from one page to another in a non-linear way. The aim was usually to survive long enough to solve the mystery. The adventures, whether set in a magical land, the past or the future where always very exciting and vividly described. The prose was always written in the present tense and from your perspective, ‘The door opens and you see stone steps leading down into darkness. Do you enter (turn page 262) or turn back (turn to page 48)’.

Then the backlash began. The books came to be perceived as a problem by many who misunderstood what was really going on. Some criticised the magical elements, feeling it encouraged interest in black magic (the same issue raised its head more recently with Harry Potter). Had these people not read Grimm’s Fairy Tales or Lord of the Rings?

There was also the old chestnut that turns up every time something is popular for children that they weren’t reading ‘proper’ books. English teachers frowned at the style of prose and bemoaned the lack of variety in children’s reading. (They also ignored the fact that the books were award winning and sold millions worldwide.)

What they all failed to realise was that these books got children reading. We read them over and over again. We devoured them. And when we’d been through the thirty or so books in the series we moved onto other books such as Tolkien, C.S Lewis, Terry Pratchet and Douglas Adams and devoured them too. As Philip Pullman has said numerous times, ‘It doesn’t matter what children read, just as long as they read’. Pullman spent his childhood reading Superman comics, another genre traditionally criticised and yet as valid a storytelling medium as any other.

There were other positive side effects of our Fighting Fantasy books too (again viewed by teachers and parents as bad): we started writing our own inventive fantasy fiction. Initially it took the form of writing your own adventure books for your friends. It was easy to do. You plotted out your story, the characters, events, mysteries and twists and then numbered blank pages of an exersise book from 1 to 100 and then got writing, inventing numerous traps and tricks for the reader on the way. I created a large number of these.

One English lesson homework was to write a story based upon the themes of a book we were reading at school about the troubles in Northern Ireland called Across the Barricades by Joan Lingard. My response was to write a story as a ‘choose your own adventure book’, a non-linear story where the reader made choices, just like my Fighting Fantasy books. Effectively what I’d done was explore the themes of the story and the task with a number of outcomes, writing a large pemutation of multiple stories. To do this I would have had to have had a greater level of understanding and comprehension of the source material and characters than just a surface level reading required for a standard piece of homework. And yet it promoted my English teacher to write a letter home to my parents saying ‘We need to stop this indulgence in fantasy’.

Slowly and inevitably we all grew up and no longer had the patience to play the book adventures anymore, wanting instead the passive reassurance of a linear novel. But the concept of the Fighting Fantasy books unlocked a unique form of creativity and imaginative invention in those young minds that should not be underestimated.

We must not fight our children’s fantasy. We need to let them explore it and express it in any way they choose.

(The Fighting Fantasy range have recently been re-published. Click here.)

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3 comments on “Don’t fight your children’s fantasy

  1. Ayd, I couldn’t agree more with the contention that doing things linearly isn’t going to work as a way to be successful and enjoy the future. I despair are the constraints of the linear education system, both at school and university. And likewise the ‘career advice’ the kids get. What is needed is to consider life like one of those Fighting Fantasy stories because that’s pretty much what their futures will be like. Luckily, my own kids have noticed their dad’s recent career as being a bit unconventional, emergent, linear only seen in retrospect and utterly un-plannable in the forward direction. Worth reading about the concept of ‘emergence’ as a useful way to look at how things one might do could interact in an unplanned yet useful way.
    Go well! and thanks for all the posts, a loyal reader, Mike

  2. I think the teacher was typical of certain types of people who I meet working in education, who can’t deal with anything that’s not on the syllabus. It’s an approach to life based on fear and children are then taught to fear taking risks or using their imagination. Terrible.

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