`I THINK children get plain tired of reading about problems,'' says one librarian. ``So much contemporary fiction is focused on the `problem of the year.' If it isn't drugs, it's sexual abuse, or divorce, or anorexia - and kids get to a point where they say, `Enough already!' ``Often, what children really want to read about is other worlds - and fantasy books offer a necessary escape into the realm of imagination.''
Ann Flowers speaks from 20 years' experience as a children's librarian. She's also a regular reviewer for the respected Horn Book Magazine, and many of the 60 books she critiques each year are fantasy titles.
As a genre of children's literature, fantasy and its cousin, science fiction, have deep roots, growing out of ancient mythology and folk tales. The popularity of contemporary fantasy, however, is a recent phenomenon. One critic, in fact, dates the ``coming of age'' of juvenile science fiction to a novel that won the Newbery Medal in 1963 - ``A Wrinkle in Time,'' by Madeleine L'Engle (Farrar, Straus & Giroux).
L'Engle's modern classic is finding new generations of readers in this 25th anniversary year of its publication.
``It's still a ringer,'' says Barbara Thomas, owner of Toad Hall Children's Books in Austin, Texas. ``It continues to sell well, right along with books by C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, probably because it has that nice big gold [Newbery] seal on the cover.''
The continuing success of ``A Wrinkle in Time'' is especially gratifying to its author, who recalls that the manuscript was rejected by ``every major publisher'' before it finally found a sympathetic editor at Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
``Publishers kept telling me it was difficult for adults to understand, so they assumed that kids couldn't understand it,'' L'Engle told the Monitor in a recent interview. ``But my own kids were 7, 10, and 12 while I was writing it - and reading it to them at night - so I knew that kids understood it!''
In ``Wrinkle,'' and in the eight other sci-fi/fantasy novels she has written since, L'Engle describes her goal as ``a pushing open, an exploration'' of her readers' concepts of ``the nature of being and the nature of the universe.''
A lay minister and writer-in-residence at the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York, L'Engle is also an avid reader of books about post-Newtonian particle physics. The science in her sci-fi is ``solid,'' she says, and her storytelling is inextricably linked to her own continually developing theology.
``I think we should never stop asking questions,'' she explains. ``When I wrote `The Arm of the Starfish' [Farrar, Straus & Giroux], for example, I was very interested in the regenerative ability of starfish. I was also convinced that the [human] body has healing properties that we have lost sight of, with our emphasis on technocracy.
``I did a good bit of research and worked with a marine biologist [so that] what I did with the science in the book [would be] consistent with what we know today.''
Whether they explore scientific possibilities, focus on knightly clashes between good and evil or light and dark, rocket into the future, or take their characters on visionary quests, the best fantasy and science-fiction writers have a lot to offer readers.
``Sometimes parents think that fantasy books are a waste of time - that kids ought to be reading a biography or something more meaningful,'' says Jean Karl, an editor with Atheneum Publishers and the author of four science-fiction novels for children. ``But you know, science-fiction and fantasy can expand a kid's mind because they make him think about possibilities.''
Ms. Karl adds that often it's the ``very brightest'' youngsters who are drawn to the genre. ``Fantasy readers are kids with enormous imagination, kids who want to explore and go on adventures and find new ways out of today's problems.''
The best fantasy titles are distinguished by intelligent plots, crisp prose, heroic characters, and brisk narrative pace - all the marks of a truly well-written novel.
In the past two decades, three writers of fantasy novels have won the Newbery Medal in addition to Madeleine L'Engle: Lloyd Alexander, for ``The High King'' (Holt, Rinehart), in 1969; Susan Cooper, for ``The Grey King'' (Atheneum), in 1976; Robin McKinley for ``The Hero and the Crown'' (Greenwillow), in 1985. Alexander also won the National Book Award for Children's Literature in 1971 for ``The King's Fountain'' (Dutton), as did Ursula LeGuin, in 1972, for ``The Farthest Shore'' (Atheneum).
``I think it's probably true that fantasy writing is better today than it ever has been,'' Karl adds. ``There are so many new kinds of stories today - stories where reality and fantasy mix, stories that are funny even!
``It used to be that medieval tales with heavy romantic overtones were the ultimate fantasy. But today many other aspects of fantasy are being recognized as having a right to be considered literature.''
Diane Manuel reviews children's books regularly for the Monitor.