The Birth of Young Adult Fantasy
I lived in a village which had a caravan library. The caravan did the rounds of local villages and spent two afternoons a week in our village. So if you wanted to borrow a book, you had basically a couple of hours on Tuesday evening to go and get one. The caravan had three walls of books and a librarian’s desk at the far end. Most of the books were adult books or non-fiction books. One column of books was for children, and the very top shelf was reserved for teen fiction. So basically, about twenty books for teenagers. Three Judy Blumes, a plethora of Sweet Valley High, and … yeah, that’s about it. Once you’d read all the children’s books, you had a choice of adult or non-fiction.
My secondary school, in a village three miles from my home, had a library, and also access to that village’s library. The school library I remember very little about. So, I think the choice was minimal. The village library was decent and had a pretty good children’s selection. When you got to the later teens, however, they had one rack that spun round. It had Nancy Drews, Sweet Valley High’s, and some Point Horror.
Some of the books we read in English Literature lessons were written for children but had a literary emphasis. I don’t remember reading anything in lower school that inspired me, although I enjoyed my exam texts. However, school had a way of sucking the life out of books with over-analysis. It was probably ten years before I could read Animal Farm again.
The earliest fantasy books I read were probably aged five onwards when I read Enid Blyton books. The Faraway Tree books were a big favourite, as were the Wishing Chair series.
I was obsessed with the Narnia series from about age eight upwards, probably until my mid-teens. The fantasy alternatives for children at that age seemed to be either Narnia or The Lord of the Rings. And for some reason, it felt very much like girls read Narnia and boys read LOTR. I did read LOTR myself, but it took me two attempts to get through the whole thing. I did manage it in the end! After that, I moved on to Terry Pratchett and Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the more humorous side of fantasy, with both feet firmly in the adult camp.
The closest we ever got to fantasy at school was reading classic dystopian. More a subset of sci-fi than fantasy, I suppose. I read The Handmaid’s Tale, 1984, and Brave New World, and thus began a new obsession with dystopian. Back then, the classics were all there was in that genre. Day of the Triffids, and so on (if you ever get a chance – do watch the 1963 movie version of Day of the Triffids – hilarious!).
Many of the major themes that pulled me into books as a child are those dealt with in today’s vastly more varied and prominent Young Adult fiction section. Coming of age, school themes, learning about yourself, and learning about love and relationships. I don’t think the Young Adult label came to my attention, though, until the Harry Potter books hit the shelves from the year 2000 onwards. It felt like children’s literature had a revival. Unfortunately, I was an adult by then! Suddenly, kids who’d never read a book were reading Harry P. And this spawned a whole range of teenage fiction based around fantasy, sci-fi dystopia, and the paranormal. His Dark Materials, Twilight, and The Hunger Games became THE thing to read.
I can only applaud the good that this particular genre has done in the last fifteen years to encourage children and teens to pick up books again. Whilst I love the internet and the various electronic devices and items of equipment we have these days, curling up with a good book is a huge pleasure. I’m glad that other children have found the joy in whiling away the hours in an alternate universe, to escape from real life for a while. To me, that’s what reading is all about.
However, some of these sub-genres are beginning to feel played out at the moment. Dystopian, in particular, although an old love of mine, struggles to be truly original at the moment. And in my opinion, very few of them stand up to the old dystopian literature classics.
It seems unlikely that Young Adult as a classification will be disappearing, though, especially given that New Adult is also trying to make its mark on the reading scene. I’m more excited about the ‘punk’ variety of books around at the moment – steampunk, magipunk, biopunk – these books have a far fresher feel to them. Try reading Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld, or the Mortal Engines series by Philip Reeve, for something a bit different, if you haven’t delved into these offshoots yet. Urban Fantasy is also worth a look, if you want a more contemporary take on fantasy, or pick up The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss for a modern classic.
The challenge in Young Adult Fantasy today is keeping things fresh but relate-able – that’s every new writer’s dream. And I’m excited that I can be a part of that challenge!