Don’t Take the Imagination Out of Literature

Posted: Thursday, May 9th, 2013


The middle school book club I teach on Saturdays just completed a piece of fantasy literature: The Looking Glass Wars by Frank Beddor. The book functions on the premise that Alice in Wonderland is real — but Lewis Carroll distorted Alice’s story while she was here on planet earth. The real Wonderland is a realm of violent warring factions who wage battle using sophisticated magic and technology. It’s a cool concept, and was definitely a nice break from the tougher stuff I tend to give my middle school class (This Boy’s Life was met almost unanimously with groans and I spent way too much time in class explaining why Toby can’t simply be dismissed as “a bad kid”).

The Looking Glass Wars was definitely a fun book, and Frank Beddor (the producer of There’s Something About Mary) basically basically wrote it as a blueprint for a Hollywood film. The book itself loaded with some befitting tropes: characterization happens really rapidly, people in the book embody the classic hero and villain archetypes, and themes like the power of imagination are delivered in a pretty in-your-face manner. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it presented me with a cool opportunity to get kids thinking about the elements of a Hollywood movie and common Hollywood character types.

But then there was this: the publisher inserted several glossy pages featuring very detailed “concept art” in the middle of the book. Upon seeing the illustrations, one of my students exclaimed, “They’re all white!”, a comment that elicited a chorus of giggles from her peers.

I teach in a very diverse area. I’d say about 99% of my students are Americans of Asian, Indian, Pakistani or Middle Eastern descent. Lots of them have parents who are immigrants. I suppose Lewis Carrol’s original Alice character can be presumed to be white, because she’s depicted as a British kid in the 19th century—but does that mean that all the other residents of Beddor’s Wonderland need to be European in appearance? I think it’s a question worth asking because in Beddor’s rendering, Wonderland exists in an alternate dimension.

On my own, I’d find nothing notable about the fact that the characters in Beddor’s Wonderland are white. But then again, I grew up seeing plenty of faces on TV I could identify with. Tons of stuff has already been written about how poorly represented Asians and Asian-Americans are in film and television. Hollywood blew what was an awesome chance to cast minority actors in lead roles for The Last Airbender when the very cool cartoon the film itself was based on features its own fantasy universe heavily influenced by East Asian, Indian, Inuit, and South American cultures.

This is rarely a significant issue in literature—that is, unless you write a book the same way you’d create a film. A picture is worth 1000 words, and therein lies the problem: when you insert hyper-detailed concept art into a fantasy book—whether that art depicts characters, architecture, landscapes, monsters, whatever—the text is no longer able to do the talking, and you deny kids the opportunity to paint the picture themselves. In fantasy, it’s a great thing when we as readers are allowed to render the world as we see fit. It becomes partly our own world—the product of our own imaginations. It’s also pretty cool when we can step into the shoes of characters we identify with and share their adventures with them, so explicitly giving a character an ethnic identity when that identity is in no way essential to the plot is a small authorial choice that can have a significant impact on the meaning a book can have in a kid’s life.

Card soldiers from The Looking Glass Wars, looking a little Star Wars-esque

Card soldiers from The Looking Glass Wars, looking a little Star Wars-esque

The reason why “I thought the book was better” is such a ubiquitous sentiment whenever a book is adapted into a film is that we project our own creativity, identity, and emotion onto what we read, and the end result is something we cherish. A film adaptation of a book almost always feels like an imposition of someone else’s vision, because that’s exactly what it is.

When publishers cram a bunch of interstitial concept art between the pages of a fantasy book, I honestly feel like they’re jumping the gun. Let the book be a book. Kids’ imaginations can do the rest.


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