Welcome to Fantasy Island: Population 280 million.

On the heels of Harry Potter, young adult books are sweeping the mainland. Why would grownups rather read about sorcery than sex?

 My parents were readers, and in their first two offspring, the ink ran true. Then came my younger brother, the changeling. He preferred soccer and baseball. As an adult, he picks up the occasional Stephen King, Grisham, Robin Cook. And J.K. Rowling, thanks to his son. I figure adult readers of young adult (YA) fantasy come in two breeds: those who have read fantasy since they were children--they never stopped--and those who read Harry Potter.

Which is why, in the critical discussion of Rowling's Harry Potter series, there is often a sense of held-nose tolerance: Yes, it is wonderful to see young and old reading, and reading fantasy even! (So many readers that the New York Times started a new children's bestseller list to get Rowling out of adults' hair.) But can't people see what a Frankenstein of fantasy and boarding-school-novel clichés HP represents? Besides, (fill in the blank) writes better. (I always say Diana Wynne Jones.)

The joke is on us critics, of course. No, most HP readers haven't read Eva Ibbotson, and they don't care if Rowling has lifted a little from here, a little from there. They've stepped into the HP world all innocent and trembly, and every cliché is a sparkling revelation, dammit! Back off with the downer condescension.

Terry Colon

And I say to them, You go, magicians and muggles! And I also say: Keep going! (Even if they wind up reading Eva Ibbotson's The Secret of Platform 13 and thinking, "Wow, she ripped off Harry Potter.") Because the realm of YA fantasy is as rich and strange as the development stage it purports to address. Young adult fantasy is literature, for god's sake. Would you kick Dickens out of the canon? When Philip Pullman won the U.K.'s Whitbread prize for The Amber Spyglass, the final book in the author's His Dark Materials trilogy, he said, "[I]t shows what I have always believed--that children's books belong with the rest in the... general market place for books and in the general conversation about books."

Publishers must be hearing him. Or they're looking at the HP sales. Or they're reading websites with lengthy examinations of Pullman's religious philosophies. (Okay, maybe not that one.) Because publishers are signing adult mainstream authors--Michael Chabon, Isabel Allende, Clive Barker--to write YA fantasy novels. They're altering artwork, in some cases, to appeal to adult readers. They're looking to tout their authors with the line, "If you liked HP, you'll like..."

Are adult YA readers as numerous as publishers hope? I'm not sure. Maybe the HP readers won't want to snoop past Rowling. But if they do, they will be joining plenty of adult YA fantasy fans who don't care about publishing fads. So what's in it for them--make that "us"? I don't think the answer is as easy as "escape," though that may be a part of it. YA fantasies come in different flavors--Rowling shouldn't be in the same sentence as. Ursula LeGuin. But what are their distinct attractions?

Are readers drawn to the innocence of child characters--or is innocence the wrong word for what is enacted here? Many of these stories are bursting with a sense of magical mission. What should we make of their morality--and why would adults seek such models? What pulls grownups into the mythic landscape of YA fantasy, with its transformative mixing of animal and human worlds? Are the kinds of books written for kids more free to experiment creatively than books written for adults?

Regarding that last, I have to admit that there are obvious genre rules to YA fantasy (but see also: "adult fiction"). There must be, for example, a fated hero, or perhaps two, lurching into a foreign landscape where the old rules do not apply. Some of the creatures met there do not have the proto-hero's best interests in mind; some prove to be hale comrades. The protagonist's choices and actions have tremendous consequences: at most, the survival of the world; at least, the survival of the protagonist. (Could these be the same thing?) Magic exists, for good or ill. The hero learns to distinguish between the two, especially as they exist inside her. The hero also learns she has more magical talent than she knew: The first of her bright talents is empathy, and the second, altruism. (Okay, right up there with wiliness.)

The measure of the author's success at fashioning "good stuff" from these genre expectations is how much she consciously confronts them and bends them to her own end. So it is with all successful storytelling, you might say. Because, of course, the roots of these road-tested tropes reach past Alice in Wonderland. Given a little less empathy on the hero's part, the above guidelines could fit the Odyssey. Not to mention some Native American stories. Etc. Etc. We are straying into the country of myth, 100 leagues below rationalism, wherein person and beast meet and mix, and human impulses and qualities wear distinct bodies and faces. So, while adults' current interest in YA fantasy might have begun with the massive hype over HP, the genre's themes resonate like the strains of a long-forgotten folksong.

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