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O'Keefe, Deborah. Readers in Wonderland: The Liberating Worlds of Fantasy Fiction from Dorothy to Harry Potter.

O'Keefe, Deborah. Readers in Wonderland: The Liberating Worlds of Fantasy Fiction from Dorothy to Harry Potter. New York and London: Continuum, 2004. 222 pp. Trade pbk. ISBN 0-8264-1649-7. $19.95.

While Readers in Wonderland is a fantastic survey of fantastic children's literature in the West summarizing some of the best books ever written in the last century in a very personable way, it is not one to delve deeply into any single work. Scholars should not come to this book looking for deep intertextual analysis because that's not its intent; however, this book is an excellent way to discover new books and rediscover old favorites. It would be especially useful for parents and teachers looking for books for their children, students needing a solid foundation of the body of literature available to them, and professors looking to teach introductory classes in either children's literature or the fantastic; and it makes a great quick resource for any library on these topics. O'Keefe admits in her preface that this book is not intended to dig deeply into a few works "because there have been so many good fantasy books published in the last century." The purpose, by her own admission, is "to introduce specific admirable books." She continues, "This is neither a memoir nor a reference book, however; it is an appreciation of the power and delight that lie in children's fantasy fiction" (9). She also admits that she is unable to provide attention to every great book and lists very briefly some of the highlights of books she was not able to discuss more deeply.

Given this introduction, she succeeds in her purpose magnificently. O'Keefe possesses a stunning breadth of knowledge of the books she cites. She looks at over 80 authors and usually looks at more than one work by each author. This provides a solid foundation of basic knowledge of each literary work with some scattering of deeper insight. What is disappointing is that, because of the breadth of literature she takes on, there is little time to do more than scratch the surface of any one work. All the while, the reader senses that she knows much more than she's telling. Instead, she takes the reader on a journey beginning with children's first books such as short tales and picture books, continuing through different stages of reading levels and emotional growth, and finishing with complicated worlds about the fight against Evil. Each chapter builds in complexity, both in the types of books being discussed, as well as the depth she goes into in describing the plots, styles, and themes of each book or scene. While book descriptions can have one to four pages devoted to content, the later chapters feel richer in their detail and analysis than the lighter works which she discusses at the beginning.

Plots of these books are described with varying amounts of detail and O'Keefe interjects her own opinions throughout. For example, she says of Jill Paton Walsh's A Chance Child, "This is not light reading for a child [...]. Yet Paton Walsh writes with such intense, loving conviction that the effect is exhilarating" (148). While most of her personal commentary is positive, she is not afraid to include biting remarks about well known works. Notable, for instance, is her comment regarding Anne McCaffrey's Dragonsinger that "McCaffrey's style lacks economy: trivial scenes are spun out in too much detail and many sentences are ponderous" (119). This personal commentary, both the positive and the negative, is what make this book most worthwhile since she unapologetically provides opinions based on her experiences as well as some research, which makes the text much like a discussion with the author. Her commentary invokes the feeling of discussing a good book over lunch with a friend.

O'Keefe does not try to define fantasy or children's literature in an absolute way. What she does try to describe are the feelings and benefits of reading fantasy fiction. This is a refreshing way to discuss why people read fantasy fiction and also helps articulate arguments in response to those opposed to allowing children to read fantasy fiction. O'Keefe addresses these arguments indirectly and cites examples of benefits she has heard about as well as those from her own experience, adding to the personal touch.

As I have noted, the biggest disappointment is that O'Keefe only scratches the surface of the books she describes and her more enlightening commentary is sporadic. For example, she discusses Alan Garner's The Owl Service, mentioning its connection to tales from the Mabinogion at the end of her description (144-6), yet she discusses the Lloyd Alexander Prydain quintet without any mention of their Welsh folkloric ties (115). The books she selects for attention are generally from the United Kingdom and from the United States, and the majority are from 1950 on; but she does select books for discussion from as far back as the turn of the twentieth century. There is little discussion about how these books interact with each other or with the time in which they were written. She limits any comparison with other works by the same author and often in the context of style and plot devices. However, this is not to say that her in-depth views are less enlightening for being sprinkled throughout.

What is fun about O'Keefe's commentary is that she invites the reader to take a second look at many of the books she covers. She includes a strong Secondary Works Cited bibliography focused on the standard scholarship of both children's literature and the literary criticism one would expect in a resource of this type, thereby providing an excellent bibliography for a new scholar. Her Children's Books bibliography is a thorough list of the best of children's fantastic literature. Even the most avid readers of children's fantastic literature will undoubtedly discover new books to add to their collections by reading this book and referencing the bibliography at the end.

Scholars, teachers, and parents will find this to be a very valuable read. Overall, it's a quick way to get an educated opinion and a quick synopsis of the books children are reading and provides valuable ideas for further reading. But this discussion isn't just geared towards the books that children could be reading; it's also great for nostalgic adults who would like to find more books like the ones already loved. O'Keefe is quick to remind the reader throughout that these books are great not just because they teach children what we'd like them to know, but also because they are enjoyable for adults and children alike.
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Author:Black, Crystal
Publication:Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2007
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