“I would read other books, of course,” wrote the novelist Neil Gaiman, “but in my heart I knew that I read them only because there wasn’t an infinite number of Narnia books.”
My son sent me that quotation the other day. Partly because he knows I’m a big fan of the Narnia books, too, and partly because he knows I’m in the middle of writing a children’s fantasy. I am not, however, going to claim that my book is even remotely like the Narnia ones.
Why not? First, because that claim has been made so often, and second, because it leaves a disgruntled reader in the wake. It’s very easy to understand why, on front covers, back covers, and in publishers’ blurbs, so many books have been compared favourably to the Narnia series. Since so many readers love the Narnia series, and publishers want to entice us to buy their new books, it makes sense for the advertising copy writer to put, the author is “like Lewis,” the book is “like the Narnia books” or “in the style of the Narnia books” somewhere readers will see it.
Unfortunately, from my perspective, at least, what happens next is that I get disappointed. To date, I’ve never found another book that was compared to the Narnia series that has been anywhere near as good as the original.
So the book I am writing is most definitely NOT intended to be like the Narnia books. It’s simply a book I’m writing at the request of my granddaughter who thought it unfair that I should write books for teens and adults but none for her age group. And it’s in the fantasy genre simply because I thought of this neat character and she happened to be a princess and live in a rather interesting world that wasn’t quite real, so by default it had to be a fantasy.
Do I read fantasy? Well, growing up, I read every fairy tale I could find, over and over again, plus Alice in Wonderland and many others. I’ve read Lewis, of course—over and over. And Tolkien, and many others, including another of my all-time favorite writers, Terry Pratchett. But I’m not trying to write like any of them. I’m hoping my book will simply look like itself.
But today, after reading the Gaiman quotation, I’m thinking about the Narnia series, and why it stands alone at the head of the class. What is it that makes those books so beloved and so difficult to imitate? Is it the setting? the plot? the characters? the themes? the dialogue? the style? Hmm. While I don’t want to imitate what Lewis did, I would like to find a way to write a book that will have the staying power of the Narnia series.
I’m contemplating what that means.