What is the difference between Fantasy and Science Fiction?

Richly illustrated, practical ideas for sharing literature with children

“Modern fantasy literature has unexplainable magic, and it is this element that captures the minds and hearts of children.” – Charles A. Temple, Miriam A. Martinez, Junko Yokota in Children’s Books in Children’s Books in Children’s Hands: A Brief Introduction to Their Literature.

I love fantasy and science fiction. Children tend to read a lot of these stories because they are easier to understand and spark kid’s interest with their silly or unique qualities. Many  dream of having magical powers or coming across a mythical beast. The supernatural is so very intriguing to the young mind.  They eat up anything that has magic, dragons, spaceships, wizards, mad scientists, or talking beasts.

The backdrop for this discussion with my preservice teachers is Chapter 8 of the text quoted above.

Nebulous … but distinct

Many stories contain both fantasy and science fiction, making it sometimes hard to tell the difference. Science Fiction is a variety of fantasy in which an author inspired by real developments in science, has conceived by a version of reality difference from one we inhabit. … “Fantasy could never be. Science Fiction has the possibility to be.” Some examples of modern fantasy are Alice and Wonderland, The Jungle Book, Peter Pan, Winnie-the-Pooh. Some examples of Science Fiction are Frankenstein, Anti-Gravity Paint, and a personal favorite, A Wrinkle in Time. Two classic fantasy books are personified, talking animals: Charlotte’s Web and Babe. 

Low Fantasy / High Fantasy

Fantasy can be broken into two categories: Low Fantasy and High Fantasy. These two distinctions help to separate and classify the literature as well as set up expectations.  The authors also give a definition for science fiction and described the difference and relationship between fantasy and science fiction.  Often, fantasy situations are created using the mechanisms of science fiction to create a “willful suspension of disbelief.”

Low fantasy and high fantasy can then be broken down into subgenres.  Low fantasy includes books that take place in our actual world but utilize magical elements to propel the story.  This chapter describes the subgenres of low fantasy in the order that most children encounter them first.

High fantasy is closely related to myths and legends. It  often asks so much of the reader that if the author is not careful in how they craft their story, they can lose the audience. Because of this, the amount of time spent on world building, characterization, plot and believability are so important that a very rich experience can be produced.  On the opposite side of that coin is what happens if those cares are not taken.

The scholars incorporated many of the attributes from the “Hero Cycle” into what makes high fantasy work, tests of identity, tasks, quests, escape from death, journey etc.  I really liked how the chapter mentioned the merits of fantasy and science fiction, “Fantasy is not an escape from reality, but a mirror in which reality is reflected and extended in the imagination” (209).  The amount of extra care that needs to be taken regarding the craftsmanship of fantasy and science fiction is essential to creating a “willful suspension of disbelief.”


I thought it was fitting that personification of animals was the first subgenre. It is often true that the first encounter with fantasy for children involves animals being personified with everyday traits that children and adults possess. This was followed by personified toys.  Who hasn’t read a story about a toy that has come to life? These two were followed by outlandish characters and situations such as “Marry Poppins” and “Pippi Longstocking.”  I couldn’t help but think of “Clifford the Big Red Dog.”

These stories were followed by the subgenre of magical powers.  Scores of people love “Harry Potter!”  Embellished fairy tales are familiar.  This is followed by extraordinary worlds.  The examples of “Alice in Wonder Land” and “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” were given.  I would add “Harold and the Purple Crayon” as well. This brought on supernatural elements.  I was surprised “Goosebumps” wasn’t mentioned. Time slips fittingly finished up the low fantasy subgenre.  Who hasn’t heard of “Magic Tree House” books? I really enjoyed the breakdown of the subgenres of low fantasy.  They are all such different reads, yet each is enriching in their own way.

Good science fiction

Science Fiction is a fascinating and unique genre that takes the elements of real life, such as technology, and creatively builds upon those ideas.  It is amazing that the stories of flight and underwater exploration could be credited with their inventions, “Good science fiction is entertaining, addictive, and inevitably thought provoking” (214).

Science Fiction was broken down into stories that project scientific principles, utopian and dystopian societies, survival of environmental catastrophes, and the combination of science fiction and fantasy. These subgenres all offer different flavor of what science fiction has to offer. The biggest difference between science fiction and fantasy is that science fiction is plausible. There is an explanation given for why something extraordinary can take place.

What to look for

The way to evaluate a good science fiction or fantasy work of literature is pretty close to how to evaluate any work of literature.  First, look at the elements of literature and see how they work with the framework that is laid out by the author.  Then see how the characters interact with the environment and rules that are put into place.  By asking if the elements of the story are “convincing, consistent, and well developed” a sense of the quality of the literature can be determined (210).


Teaching tips

The textbook had a great idea for a lesson for teachers. You have students embellish their own fairytale by finding unanswered questions in the story and asking them “what do you think/wish would happen next?” This gets students thinking and promotes creativity in the classroom.

It is very important to include books like these in the classroom. Teachers need to allow children to go to a world that is not in this one. Fantasy and science fiction really makes the phrase “Escape with a good book” meaningful. Our everyday world is at times quite predictable and mundane.

I enjoy seeing the excitement brewing in students when they cherish these types of stories. I have noticed a different passion for these genres than  for any other type of books. Encourage young learners to use their imagination — to think about what could never be — and to imagine what has the potential to be.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s