YA Fantasy – what’s in a name?

A fairy-tale castle. Or really, Inveraray Castle, where the Chief of Clan Campbell resides.

So there are eight zillion and one articles and blogs out there about YA fiction and all the vampires, werewolves, zombies, time travellers, wizards, witches, psychics and other assorted what-have-yous that populate the paranormal subgenre. Who do I think I am to write about such a lofty topic?

First off, let me preface this by saying words cannot express how much I love Harry Potter, and JK Rowling, and how grateful I am her books opened the doors for YA fiction to get kids (and adults) reading. But then, nothing’s ever really going to compare to Harry Potter, though that’s a whole other topic!

I was considering the topic this evening after explaining that my WIP is fantasy but not YA fantasy. The MC is a 17-year-old girl, but possibly because I’ve chosen to write in third person, I’m (hopefully) distancing it from her every whiny thought and emotional whiplash. I have nothing against YA fantasy – I encourage it! I love that fantasy is becoming “cooler” than it was when I was a teen or younger, devouring it as fast as I could. And I think so much of YA fiction out there today is trying to speak to kids on their level, with or without the fantastical elements, and this is what hooks a lot of them. That’s wonderful.

But here’s what I don’t get. When I was 12, I was reading BLUE MOON RISING and everything else by the fantasy/sci-fi legend that is Simon R. Green. I was reading every fantasy I could sneak off the massive bookshelf in my older sister’s bedroom, from Anne McCaffrey to Robert Asprin to Piers Anthony to David Eddings. It was just fantasy back then. Not YA fantasy. There was no such thing (that I am aware of!). It was just either fantasy or it wasn’t.

These days, everything has to be broken down into so many subgenres. Which is fine, if you want to target a very specific audience, which is a whole different topic about the publishing industry that I won’t even try to get into. These days some people will read something simply because it has werewolves in it, and they’re in love with Taylor Lautner. Which, again, is fine. I’m not complaining! Anything that gets people reading, and hopefully, thinking critically and imagining without restrictions, is good! But what I want to understand is . . . (don’t shoot me) is the YA fantasy market turning fantasy itself into a sort of joke? Maybe it’s the nerdy kid in me who loved that not everyone jumped on the bandwagon of books about magic and computer games about dragons. I admit fully that could be the case. But nowadays, jokes about Twilight and vampires and werewolves are a dime a dozen, and always make me cringe. I’m not talking about Twilight here. I’m talking about the reasoning behind people comparing every fantasy book that YAs read with Twilight. That if it’s got werewolves in it, it must be because of the rippling abs and who’ll play which character in the next film adaptation of the next YA fantasy blockbuster.

I know there is some incredibly clever, well-developed YA fantasy writing out there. I’ve read some of it. But my question is, why has it even become “YA fantasy”? Why can’t it just simply be fantasy, and if it holds water within the construct of its own created world, then it’s well done, and will find an audience with any age group? I know, I know, the answer is because there’s a market, and money to be made, and pretty, shiny covers to be photographed and designed, and films to be produced, and stars to be born.

To be honest, I’m not sure I would’ve dug fantasy as a teen that was aimed specifically at my age group. I think that’s partly why Ms. Rowling is such a huge success – while she was writing for kids, and kids who would grow up alongside Harry, she didn’t write down to them. She included the emotional roller coasters they go through, but she filled the books progressively with heavier and heavier themes that adults could just as easily relate to. And take The Hunger Games. While I don’t think that series is perfect, I thoroughly enjoyed reading it and didn’t feel it talked down to the reader.

And the writer I most admire, Tolkien, talks at length about why he was not writing specifically for children in his essay On Fairy Stories (incidentally, on which much of my final year degree dissertation was based, and therefore I could go on for donkey’s years about it but I will try to keep it short). As a side note, if you’re a fantasy writer or reader and haven’t read his essay, do yourself a favour 🙂

The association of children and fairy-stories is an accident of our domestic history. Fairy-stories have in the modern lettered world been relegated to the “nursery,” as shabby or old-fashioned furniture is relegated to the play-room, primarily because the adults do not want it, and do not mind if it is misused . . .

. . . in my opinion fairy-stories should not be specially associated with children. They are associated with them . . . unnaturally, because of erroneous sentiment about children, a sentiment that seems to increase with the decline in children . . .

It is true that the age of childhood-sentiment has produced some delightful books (especially charming, however, to adults) of the fairy kind or near to it; but it has also produced a dreadful undergrowth of stories written or adapted to what was or is conceived to be the measure of children’s minds and needs.

I think Tolkien was well ahead of his time, particularly with that last statement. I’ve read too many books on the “YA fantasy” shelf (or even just YA) that seem to dumb down the writing, something Ms. Rowling never once did IMO. The writers of these books have a preconceived notion of “the measure of children’s minds and needs” and then proceed to write towards that level. If instead they wrote for anyone who wanted to enter into another realm and understand things from the point of view of someone eating, drinking, living, and having adventures within that other world, then I think they would find an audience of adults, young adults, and children alike.

I’ve stepped down from the soapbox. I hope this post hasn’t offended because I love a LOT of YA fantasy out there, and think there are so many more opportunities these days for authors to find niches in subgenres and with imaginative worlds that wouldn’t have been populating the shelves 10 and 20 years ago. I think it’s all fascinating, and am putting absolutely none of it down. I just felt like having a little compare and contrast moment with the fantasy books of today, and those of my youth (maybe because I’m about to have another birthday, and am wishing I was back in my youth 😉

– – –

As an addendum, while I was reading around the topic earlier, I Googled “what makes YA fantasy YA” (a stupid search I now realise, but it was the first thing my fingers tapped out). I’ve been sleeping about 4 hours per night for a week, so I’m at that point of hilarity on just about any topic and this pushed me over the edge. See below.

(This is the point at which a serious post dissolves into an utterly ridiculous one).

Guess you had to be there. With that, I bid you goodnight 😉

 

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8 thoughts on “YA Fantasy – what’s in a name?

  1. You know, I have a hard time classifying anything I write. I just write. So it will probably be a headache and a half for me when I try to find a home for my novel when it’s ready. :/

    1. That’s the way it should be, I think (though I realise my opinion in the grand scheme of publishing isn’t much). Just getting the story out is the main goal. But don’t worry about that – that’s a bridge for crossing later 🙂 How far along are you now?

      1. I just hit 31k! YAY! but, I fear I may not have enough words…but this is the first draft. Actually, my first novel! And, it’s not finished yet. So, I just gotta get those words out!!!

        1. WooHOO!! That’s fabulous – well done!! No fear, here, just carry on doing it! I know what you mean…my first novel seems like it could go on and on forever, but my WIP, because I plotted the first few chapters and am now pantsing the rest, I worry I won’t have enough. But I don’t worry when I’m actually writing, just when I’m thinking about it. 😉

  2. you bring up some very interesting points.i used to read adult books when i was a kid, too. mystery and fantasy, mostly – and anything my dad had lying around. i think you just have to write what you’re passionate about and not worry so much about how what you write may get categorized by a marketing department. after all, as you said, the most important thing is that people read. period.

    1. Very true. I love that reading seems “cool” to so many more younger people these days, and is being marketed in new ways. I can’t get my head around some of the categorisation, but I understand that the publishing world needs to know to fit it into the right slot, etc. It’s hard not to think about it, though, the way agents require we “know” what genre we’re writing so we know who we’re writing to. I think sometimes you can tell when reading a book (particularly YA) these days whether the author was genre-focused from the first word s/he put on paper, or was just writing to write.

  3. As you suggest, many of the best fantasy novels don’t seem to target a particular audience. For example, Philip Pullman’s Golden Compass is equally compelling to adults and children , and I enjoyed Tolkien as both a nine year old and a twenty-nine year old.

    Also, as you and Tolkien indicate, stories about magic or the supernatural need not be the provence of children. Many writers, including Angela Carter and A.S. Byatt, have penned beautiful, dark fairy stories that are resoundingly not appropriate for young readers.

    And though I thoroughly enjoyed the Harry Potter series, it’s unfortunate that all too many adults are content to equate fantasy with Hogwarts alone. My favorite fantasy novel, Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrel, transcends that genre even as it embodies it. At over 1000 pages in paperback, it’s a witty drawing room comedy and touching love story that, like Rowling’s books, isn’t afraid to overturn certain conventions of fantasy. It’s gorgeously written with haunting – and some truly shocking – images. In short, it’s adult fare and magic I expect I will never outgrow.

    1. Some excellent points, particularly about Harry Potter. I love the stories and the characters and the way its all blended together so compellingly, but fantasy was around a good long time beforehand, and yet for some, you’re right, that’s all there is. And I’m putting Clarke’s novel down on my Kindle to-read list 🙂 I know you’ve mentioned it before and I still have not gotten around to it. Thanks for the recommendations!

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