Liminal Science Fiction: Written by Helen Ward and illustrated by Wayne Anderson, The Dragon Machine (London, Templar Publishing, 2003).
Back in February I talked about John Parke's The Moon Ship in which boys played at going into space.
At the time Jeff VanderMeer hit the nail on the head when he said the reason the book worked was that the boys believed in their activities absolutely.
In the book I'm actually writing at the moment (as opposed to this one for which I am "preparing"--like those cookery classes at school which always started "first lay out your equipment") I am discussing ways of creating belief in the fantastic. The group of texts which most fascinate me are those which I've dubbed "liminal fantasy".
The liminal fantasy hovers on the edge of the fantastic, inviting belief by balancing what it shows on the expectations of the reader. One way of doing this is through irony--having the protagonist and the reader with very different ideas of what might be the fantasy in the text. The example I always use is Joan Aiken's "But it's Tuesday" in which the Armitage family look out of the window and see unicorns on the lawn. The reader responds "wow, unicorns". The family respond "but things like unicorns only happen on Mondays!".
I don't see this form of fantasy in books for small children very much. Play and pretend remain play and pretend. Even something like Where the Wild Things Are is essentially a dream. Occasionally though there is something special. In Diana Wynne Jones's picture book, Yes Dear Kay finds a magic leaf. The illustrator. Graham Philpot, has drawn pictures in which wherever Kay is, things become magical. When Kay is not there, the magic fades. But we see a cat licking at the party foods Kay has made in the sandpit, so when Grandma admits she, too, found a magic leaf when she was young, we aren't quite so sure that she is playing.
Back to the subject text: `George--unseen and overlooked--starts seeing dragons everywhere. They are pictured. The dragons multiply and begin to cause problems. George looks up dragons in the library and decides to take them home. He builds a metal dragon and we see plans and tools everywhere. George flies them home to the wilderness and crashes. He is eventually brought home and is no longer overlooked.
He is given a dog, who is secretly a dragon.
So here I have an example of liminal science fiction. Does George build that iron dragon? Who knows. I suspect that a child will read this book as either sf or fantasy, with a solid sense of the realness of George's dragons. What the adult reader will do will depend on their own reader orientation: many will, I suspect, present the book as an example of "let'spretend"
Yes, Dear, illustrated by Graham Philpot. London: HarperCollins, 1992.