Can fantasy cause mental illness in children?

You’ve probably heard about the storm an English headteacher has caused by declaring that fantasy novels, such as the Harry Potter series, Lord of the Rings and The Hunger Games, can cause mental illness in children. Graeme Whiting, headteacher at the Acorn School in Gloucester, said in a recent blog post that the aforementioned books:

“…contain deeply insensitive and addictive material which I am certain encourages difficult behaviour in children … and can damage the sensitive subconscious brains of young children, many of whom may be added to the current statistics of mentally ill young children.”

He likens parents buying these books for their children to “…feeding your child with spoons of added sugar, heaps of it, and when the child becomes addicted it will seek more and more…” and ends his post by urging parents to: “Beware the devil in the text! Choose beauty for your young children!”

You can read the rest of the blog here.

Stories for children containing fantasy and magic have always proved contentious, as have those that deal with teenage emotions (I am thinking specifically here about Judy Blume’s books, for example, which talk openly and honestly about what teens and pre-teens really feel). Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but we’re in dangerous waters when we start banning books. Whiting isn’t suggesting a ban but his reference to “the devil in the text’ is a little worrying, and suggests that these books deliberately attempt to corrupt children’s minds.


Fantasy author Samantha Shannon wrote a rebuttal to Whiting’s claims in the Guardian, which rang true for me after a few incidents in the library where I work, where parents have asked for the comic Tintin to be removed because of racism and The Hunger Games to not be available because of the violence. Shannon asks whether we ought to be applying these same moral filters to the works of Shakespeare, for example, which are full of fighting, murders, rape, and worse. Does the fact that his plays are considered classics mitigate their content?

When I pulled the offending books off our shelves, it made me wonder just how much worse it was, for example, to read about how Katniss is forced to defend herself in The Hunger Games (and is, in fact, pretty anti-violence) when in Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist we see child abuse and murder? It seems that perhaps we apply one rule to modern fiction and one to older creations, just because we’ve labelled them classics.

I admit I didn’t buy The Hunger Games for Holly when she was still in primary school as I felt they were a little dark BUT if she had asked for them, I would have, and I would have read them with her. We once read the third book in Judith Kerr’s semi-autobiographical trilogy together because she was desperate to read it, aged 9, but we were concerned that the content might be a little too disturbing for her at such a young age (it dealt with Kerr’s mother’s attempted suicide). I’ve always felt that it’s important to consider the issues books raise and, wherever possible, rather than avoid or ban them, to talk about them and read them together. I can safely say that reading that book did not traumatise Holly but instead helped us talk about the kind of life situations Kerr faced. And none of these were any more horrendous than we see on the news at 6pm.

Which brings me to a final point. Fantasy stories are precisely that – fantasy, imaginary, not real. Therefore, aren’t they less traumatic than watching the horrors unfold in Syria, the recent terrorist attacks in Paris, child abductions and murders? All at a time when even CBeebies hasn’t switched off for the night? Children know that fantasy is not real. Child psychologists such as Bruno Bettelheim have said that fairy tales (and we all know how violent they are!) serve an important function in childhood development – they allow children to experience unpleasant situations and emotions and work them out safely. The same applies to fantasy stories: often the heroes (perceived as powerless – children perhaps?) defeat the villains (the adults who repress them?). If anything, we all need a little fantasy to keep us sane.

What are your views on this topic? Please share them with me!




  1. Thanks, Lynne! I would love to hear the children’s responses – please do share. It’s a tricky area this – I know of a few books where I’ve thought they’re horrible and don’t want H to read them but as she’s grown I’ve seen a place for them.


  2. The only reader of my family, I grew up reading a wide range of genres and age-targeted books. My parents did not check what I was reading, so I read books that would be considered inappropriate for young readers. I turned out normal enough to function in society. Now, I am a bit more careful in choosing the books I allow my children to read. And, I find reading a variety of fiction genres fosters an amazing imagination in children. Furthermore, it has helped my children create some fascinating stories. Children should imagine themselves slaying the dragon, capturing pirates, and flying rocket ships. Do they still say rocket ship? 😉


    • Thanks for the comment! Your story is so interesting and I totally agree that variety in reading can only help nurture children’s creativity and imagination. And I think they still say rocket ship – at least I hope so! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Such an extraordinary thing to say. I followed your link to the original blog and it’s obvious that Graeme Whiting’s fears are grounded in his own tragic, real-life (as opposed to fantasy) experiences of losing his parents, wife and 3 brothers (awful to have so much bereavement), plus memories of bullying and abuse from teachers when he was a young boy. These are the horrors that lead to mental suffering, not stories that children read and recognise as stories. Odd that Whiting, while clearly having learnt to deal with and conquer his pain, doesn’t see the difference between reality and imagination.

    Liked by 2 people

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