Art is the imposing of a pattern on experience, and our aesthetic enjoyment is recognition of the pattern.
Alfred North Whitehead
I collect images of books in art. And, just as philosopher Alfred North Whitehead noted, I love to find patterns and motifs among them. I imagine that’s the pleasure of most collections.
Recently I was looking at some of my images and noticed a type of illustration that is relatively unusual. I think of it as the surreal image.
There are tons of images focused on books and reading that are fanciful and unreal. They might be charming:
But they don’t quite have the quality I’m talking about. I can’t put my finger on it. Maybe the word is “unsettling.”
Perhaps the forest is a little too encroaching, a little too dark.
Or the vines too silently creeping.
With this one, I keep finding myself waiting uneasily for those eyes to open.
Although not all that is out of place is ominous.
The most classically surreal image I have (echoes of Magritte for sure) is mostly just amusing.
Maybe what’s holding these together for me is the thing unnoticed. Something’s odd. Something’s off, but it’s only we, the observers, who are noticing.
In fantasy literature, there’s a type of story that fantasy writer and academic Farah Mendelsohn calls liminal. It’s a type of fantasy that’s a little hard to define, but basically it involves a protagonist who doesn’t quite cross through the portal into fantasy, but stays on the border between the real world and the world of the fantastic. Perhaps these images aren’t so much surreal, as “liminal.”
To pull this post back into the world of writing children’s books, I’ll just add a couple links here. One of the questions that almost invariably comes up when I teach classes in writing fantasy and science fiction is where someone’s story “fits.” Like most of children’s literature, there are defined categories in fantasy that are good to at least be familiar with. As a writer you may choose to match those characteristics or violate them, but it’s good to know what rules you’re breaking.
Here’s a list of 10 good terms to be familiar with if you read or write fantasy. And the other is a link to a little information about Mendelsohn and her books. She’s good to know about if you’re going to go deeply into fantasy writing.
In the meantime, don’t turn too quickly to find out about the rustling from that bookshelf behind you. Perhaps it’s best not to know.