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?

 

Among us "continuous readers" (SF scholar Farah Mendlesohn's phrase), there are definitely modern YA fantasy favorites with claims to have influenced much of what came after. Lots of people argue for Lewis Carroll's Alice (1865), or C.S. Lewis's Narnia books (the 1950s). I don't deny their significance, but I came too late to them to feel it. My standards were set by Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time (1962) and Ursula LeGuin's Earthsea series (1968 to present). The former, with its nerdy girl protagonist and her weirdly genius brother, can be counted as part of a line of schoolkid magicomedies bookended by E. Nesbit at the turn of the 20th century and Rowling at the turn of the 21st. As for LeGuin, her tale of the loner wizard Ged is elegantly written allegory: a journey to self-knowledge that cuts the Greeks with Buddhist sutras. I place LeGuin in the same shadowy stream swum by Pullman and Patricia McKillip (The Forgotten Beasts of Eld).

Clearly, A Wrinkle in Time's magic comes in the wrapper of science, but even as a 12-year-old I could see right through it. Otherwise, the story hits the usual marks: missing parent, socially ostracized hero, growing friendship with fellow outsider, mysterious spiritlike helpers, scary journey to battle overpowering evil, wry tone. It's the voice and the scope of the tale that distinguish the schoolkid romps from the seeker epics. However dark events become for Harry (and they're getting darker), there's always a Quidditch match around the corner. Whereas after Pullman's Lyra and Will stagger through the land of the dead, their joyous payoff is watching long-trapped souls fly up to daylight and--poof!--nonexistence.

Still, well-written schoolkid fantasies don't condescend to children: They speak on the footing of equals. And in that respectful directness they speak to adults as well, to our memories of childhood and our hopes for adulthood. These books understand what it feels like to be mocked and, perhaps worse, underestimated. They offer funny companions and plenty of ambitious action. Cruising through Diana Wynne Jones's time-hopping Chrestomanci series, I was entranced by the author's empathy with her characters and her readers. Unlike HP and his friends, Jones's small protagonists sometimes behave very badly--and not only while fighting bullies or stealing flying automobiles. They're often sulky, too sensitive, stubborn, and selfish (hilariously so). They may even mock a fellow outsider, trying to protect themselves. The HP crime-fighting trio occasionally strikes me as static in its basic innocence; Jones doesn't do innocence. She describes ignorance evolving into learned compassion.

But if not "innocence," what is the word for that clarity her children discover? In the Chrestomanci title The Magicians of Caprona, it is the children who try to ward off a magical attack against their medieval Florentine city; the adults are busy worrying about politics, romance, and keeping bread on the table. At the same time, the children are much more attuned than the adults (except for the old ones) to the mundane magic of sunshine and sensuality (e.g., the wisdom of cats). The adults can't see the day for the day-to-day (although the author does not write them off like Peanuts parents; these characters are more weary than unresponsive). Reading Jones reminds me to clear a space in my task-ridden existence for listening and being (and their magical result, becoming).

As Jones writes, in a quite funny essay about the difference between writing children's and adult fiction (suberic/net/dwj/ medusa.html), it's a mistake to assume that children's literature is less sophisticated than that of adults. The language may be simpler--to be read aloud--but stories can be more complex and surprising because "children are used to making the effort to understand." Adults, she says, aren't.

Furthermore, people tend to equate literary sophistication with the examination of adult sexual relationships, but that may be wishful thinking. Writer Nnedimma Nkemdili Okorafor and critic Carol Cooper describe their relief, reading YA fantasy, at not being subjected to so much sex and romance, the untiring engines of so much adult fiction. Though, as Jones stresses, children's literature does deal with sex--via parental sex lives, abuse, and first experiments--it's not front and center. This often leaves room for a more profound engagement with issues of generosity and fellowship. Cooper writes in an e-mail: "By having a broader, more cerebral (or should that be more "innocent"?) definition of love and loyalty than most adult novels attempt, YA novels often convey a deeper and more sophisticated grasp of what emotional involvement/commitment really entails."

Perhaps that's why Michael Chabon, of Wonder Boys fame, chose a young Little Leaguer to helm his latest story, Summerland. Ethan Feld is a lousy ballplayer: He shuts his eyes when he swings, and he forgets to field. But he is chosen nonetheless by an Indian scouter of heroes to fight the trickster Coyote for the survival of baseball and (less important, maybe) the known world. White Ethan and his Native American buddy Jennifer T.--a reliable doubles hitter--head out to the eternal "spring" that nurtures the tree of worlds, playing ball along the way with giants, a Sasquatch, troll-like creatures, and some "Big Liars" with a great resemblance to various American folk legends (John Henry, Paul Bunyon, etc.).

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