The following are three books, with imagination or fantasy in, that became quite successful:
1. ‘Alice in Wonderland’ by Lewis Carroll (published in 1865): Which interestingly when originally published generally received poor reviews of the story:
“The book Alice in Wonderland failed to be named in an 1888 poll of the most popular children’s stories. Generally it received poor reviews with reviewers giving more credit to Tenniel’s illustrations than to Carroll’s story.
At the release of Through the Looking-Glass, the second Alice tale gained in popularity and by the end of the 19th century Sir Walter Besant wrote that Alice in Wonderland “was a book of that extremely rare kind which will belong to all the generations to come until the language becomes obsolete”.”
2. ‘The Hobbit’ by J.R.R. Tolkien (published in 1937): Published in 1937 to wide critical acclaim but Tolkien did have a draft sequel rejected by editors:
“In December 1937, The Hobbit ’s publisher, Stanley Unwin, asked Tolkien for a sequel. In response Tolkien provided drafts for The Silmarillion, but the editors rejected them, believing that the public wanted “more about hobbits”. Tolkien subsequently began work on The New Hobbit, which would eventually become The Lord of the Rings, a course that would not only change the context of the original story, but lead to substantial changes to the character of Gollum.
In the first edition of The Hobbit, Gollum willingly bets his magic ring on the outcome of the riddle-game, and he and Bilbo part amicably. In the second edition edits, to reflect the new concept of the ring and its corrupting abilities, Tolkien made Gollum more aggressive towards Bilbo and distraught at losing the ring. The encounter ends with Gollum’s curse, “Thief! Thief, Thief, Baggins! We hates it, we hates it, we hates it forever!” This presages Gollum’s portrayal in The Lord of the Rings.
“Tolkien sent this revised version of the chapter “Riddles in the Dark” to Unwin as an example of the kinds of changes needed to bring the book into conformity with The Lord of the Rings, but he heard nothing back for years. When he was sent galley proofs of a new edition, Tolkien was surprised to find the sample text had been incorporated. In The Lord of the Rings, the original version of the riddle game is explained as a “lie” made up by Bilbo under the harmful influence of the Ring, whereas the revised version contains the “true” account. The revised text became the second edition, published in 1951 in both the UK and the US.
Tolkien began a new version in 1960, attempting to adjust the tone of The Hobbit to its sequel. He abandoned the new revision at chapter three after he received criticism that it “just wasn’t The Hobbit”, implying it had lost much of its light-hearted tone and quick pace.
After an unauthorized paperback edition of The Lord of the Rings appeared from Ace Books in 1965, Houghton Mifflin and Ballantine asked Tolkien to refresh the text of The Hobbit to renew the US copyright. This text became the 1966 third edition. Tolkien took the opportunity to align the narrative even more closely to The Lord of the Rings and to cosmological developments from his still unpublished Quenta Silmarillion as it stood at that time. These small edits included, for example, changing the phrase “elves that are now called Gnomes” from the first and second editions on page 63, to “High Elves of the West, my kin” in the third edition. Tolkien had used “gnome” in his earlier writing to refer to the second kindred of the High Elves—the Noldor (or “Deep Elves”)—thinking “gnome”, derived from the Greek gnosis (knowledge), was a good name for the wisest of the elves. However, because of its common denotation of a garden gnome, derived from the 16th-century Paracelsus, Tolkien abandoned the term.”
3. ‘The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe’ by C S Lewis (published in 1950): Interestingly Lewis’ publisher feared the Narnia tales would not sell and might damage Lewis’ reputation and affect sales of his other books. When first published it did not get a favourable reception from the public and initial critical response was muted.
“Lewis very much enjoyed writing The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and embarked on the sequel Prince Caspian soon after finishing the first novel. He completed the sequel in less than a year, by the end of 1949. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe had not been widely released until 1950; thus his initial enthusiasm did not stem from favourable reception by the public.
While Lewis is known today on the strength of the Narnia stories as a highly successful children’s writer, the initial critical response was muted. At the time it was fashionable for children’s stories to be realistic; fantasy and fairy tales were seen as indulgent, appropriate only for very young readers and potentially harmful to older children, even hindering their ability to relate to everyday life. Some reviewers considered the tale overtly moralistic or the Christian elements over-stated — attempts to indoctrinate children. Others were concerned that the many violent incidents might frighten children.
Lewis’ publisher, Geoffrey Bles, feared the Narnia tales would not sell, and might damage Lewis’ reputation and affect sales of his other books. Nevertheless, the novel and its successors were highly popular with young readers, and Lewis’ publisher was soon anxious to release further Narnia stories.
A 2004 study found that it was a common read-aloud book for seventh-graders in schools in San Diego County, California. The novel was also included on TIME’s unranked 2005 list of the 100 best English-language novels published since 1923. Based on a 2007 online poll, the National Education Association in the U.S. named the book one of its “Teachers’ Top 100 Books for Children.” It was one of the “Top 100 Chapter Books” of all time in a 2012 poll by School Library Journal. A 2012 survey by the University of Worcester determined that it was the second most common book that UK adults had read as children, after Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.”
Through the above three examples, it shows that publishers, critics and the public can sometimes be very wrong in their original views and that it can be hard to predict what will become popular.
Nice to know that in C S Lewis’ time: “fantasy and fairy tales were seen as indulgent, appropriate only for very young readers and potentially harmful to older children, even hindering their ability to relate to everyday life.” Well, this is one older child who was ‘harmed’ by fantasy and fairy tales ‘even hindering their ability to relate to everyday life’.