Friday, November 25, 2011

What YA Fantasy Means to Me...

A particular famous author once said, after reading a short story of mine, that some people just have YA voices.  After about a year of struggling to write a dark, gritty adult novel (which, in the end, was probably a thriller, only I had never read any thrillers, so I had no idea how they worked), and another year of being depressed about not wanting to write, I decided to write a book that I would like to read.  To do this, I made a list of all my favorite books, which quickly started to trend toward fantasy books with children as the main characters.  Why was I trying to write literary fiction (and failing) I wondered, when that wasn't what I enjoyed reading.

I had been a fantasy reader as a child: Edgar Eager, Patricia Wrede, Diana Wynne Jones.  But when I had finished the Juveniles and wanted something new with a little more meat and depth than the latest Choose Your Own Adventure, I peered into the adult fantasy section and didn't find anything that matched up at all with the books I had read before.  I read Xanth, because it was funny, and did occasionally have an interesting idea, and I adored the On a Pale Horse series, even though I was not entirely prepared for the rape and death and sticky adult situations that I found there.  But I wasn't interested in epic tales about a farmboy with a destiny, or in stories where a culture's sexual mores is the obsessive focus of the author.

Then I found Terry Pratchett.

Terry Pratchett was everything I was looking for as a young adult reader.  All of my favorite J-Fantasy authors had been smart and genre-savvy.  They wrote stories about stories.  They made jokes aimed at readers.  They used fairytales and classic adventure stories as jumping off points to tell wonderful stories of their own.  They were stories written by people who loved books for people who loved books.  And Terry Pratchett was the same.  He wrote books about ideas, with stories, and humor, and intertexts and worldbuilding that brought the ideas to life (sometimes as anthropomorphic personifications.)

Pratchett doesn't write adult fiction or young adult fiction.  He writes fiction, though never without a core of truth.  And honestly, though Edgar Eager and Patricia Wrede and Diana Wynne Jones may have 'young adult voices,' or even juvenile-type voices (probably not DWJ, who has an incredible range of writing styles that vary from J to Adult without ever losing their content), I think all of these authors are writing the same genre: smart fiction.

For me, YA fantasy is what I read when I was a young adult, what I still read and adore.  It isn't distinguished by dragons and princesses or by wizards and elves.  It is marked by the simple quality of being a story about an idea, and pulling it off like a kick-ass champ.  A story without an idea, without a core quality of meaning, isn't YA fantasy for me.  It's some sort of angel-romance, or necromancy-adventure-thriller hybrid.

Now, some of you might be thinking, seriously?  Your definition of YA fantasy is absurd.  It is neither YA, as its usually defined, nor does it fit any sort of definition of fantasy.  (It's non-compositional!  Sorry, linguist joke.)  But I don't think that's true.

Okay, these days YA is defined as 'from the perspective of a person of the ages 15-18 ± 1 year, depending.  But that's the publisher's perspective.  For a librarian, the person in the trenches, interacting with the readers, a YA book is a book middle-school and high-school aged kids will want to read.  Although everyone touts the self-absorption of young people, not everyone wants to read about themselves (or the prettier, whiter version of themselves).  Some of them want to use reading to encounter something new and amazing.  Isn't that a decent definition of YA, something a young-adult would want to read?

And of course, fantasy is caricatured as one of two things, either a Tolkein-derivative (which tend to give Tolkein a bad name, since he was doing something strange and astonishing and new with the oldest stories), or a paranormal (i.e. a murder mystery where people can be sexier than normal humans).  Is this fair?  Of course not.  But when arguing for the purpose of fantasy, I've often heard it said, that it's a place where you can explore ideas without the arbitrary constraints of realism.  So that's my definition of fantasy, an exploration of ideas that has relinquished arbitrary constraints such as no magic, no dragons, no gods.  But it needs to ask the questions "What is magic?  What are dragons?  What are gods?" then it's fantasy.

As this has become a saga, and although I could go on about how this is the type of book I want to write, but it's a lot harder than I thought it would be, etc, etc. instead I'm going to bring up The Book Cellar's YA/MG Fantasy Reading Challenge.  The goal is to read 10 fantasies released in 2012, and review them.  Note well, that I will be reading and reviewing with the goal of finding books that fit my definition of YA Fantasy, and that should, therefore, be awesome.  I'm excited and ready to get started!



  1. I love fantasy - it's so fun to see what it means to everyone! I am so excited for all the fantasy books I've found that came out next year! Thanks for joining up :)

  2. I really appreciate this post. I have been frustrated in the past when I tell someone I write YA fantasy and they assume my story must contain elves, dwarves, paranormal love interest, or dragons. That kind of classification attempts to limit a genre which is, by definition, unlimited.

  3. Oh, how I love you! This describes so perfectly what those of us who were misplaced readers as children like to read and were looking for then. I had the same issues with seeking something in adult fantasy that I couldn't find. I too found Piers Anthony's books, found Anne McCaffrey (who I had trouble getting through). Eventually when I'd gotten a good bit miffed by the whole thing, I began to write what I would want to read. I haven't stopped since, even though it's easier to find YA fantasy that I like. (Just this year I fell head over heels for Terry Pratchett. I only wish I'd discovered him earlier!)

    In the future I plan to blog about my definition of YA fantasy and I'd love to link to this entry of yours! I'm also going to seriously have to check out the Reading Challenge.

    Thanks, lady! I'm now your 10th follower!

  4. @ Susan - It is so frustrating! I love the way you put that, "a genre which is by definition, unlimited."

    @ Donelle - Yay! Thank you! I think in a way to become a writer you have to have both those moments of magic, where you can't believe anyone could have written such a wonderful story, and those moments of frustration, when you couldn't find what you wanted anymore. Then you set out on the quest to fill the hole.

    Link away! And let me know when you write it. I'd love to read yours!

  5. You're welcome, Cara! I'll definitely let you know! I also gave you the Liebster blog award, which you can pick up here.