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?

It's a sprawling, ingenious tale, as befits its core subject: the importance of storytelling--recalling and reshaping America's mythologies--in the maintenance of a healthy civic life. (Pullman again: "There's more wisdom in a story than in volumes of philosophy.")

Some of the references may be beyond readers, young and old, yet Ethan and the Big Chief Cinquefoil Traveling Shadowtails All-Star Baseball Club make for appealingly fallible companions. And the narrative's got a pedal on it, despite the seventh-inning stretch. If I find the story--especially the climax--just a little safe, a little smug, it may be because the fading game of baseball has already been so idealized. There's a suspicion of change here that makes me nervous, for all Chabon's racially inclusive fancy dancing.

 

Some would say that adults reading YA fantasy are looking for nostalgic escape: trying to return to a time when good and evil appeared more distinct, when you knew who your friends were, when your world was the world and any one person could save or destroy it. And certainly there is literature of the sort that panders to nostalgic visions of childhood. But a good YA writer reveals the bleak doubts under all those supposed childhood truths--which are adult visions of childhood anyway. If there is a return, it is to models of that beleaguered morality: compassion. (A fantasy: Tomorrow's adolescents, nurtured on HP's helping acts, wake up to their parents' "It doesn't matter if it doesn't concern me or mine" politics of affluence. Hell is raised.)

Perhaps adults feel the need to receive--or investigate--that moral instruction now more than children do. Neil Gaiman and Clive Barker, well-known dark fantasists of the adult persuasion, have released two of the best YA/children's fantasies this year. Both locate evil in the idea of "having it all." (That's also a theme of Isabel Allende's new City of Beasts, which is unfortunately so blandly written, or translated, that it makes Rowling look like a master of scene-building.) Though greed isn't a novel evil in the literature ("Hansel and Gretel," anyone?), the authors dress it in contemporary clothes to stress its significance for today's readers.

Gaiman's Coraline is a tartly funny fable with a harrowing talent for conveying tactile horrors (cobwebby cocoons, furred walls that breathe). Coraline, feeling bored and sated, opens a forbidden door; inside she finds a facsimile of her family's flat, except her parents have black buttons for eyes, and they seem very hungry. The "other mother" offers the girl all sorts of possessions, but Coraline heeds calls for help from her parents and other trapped children. Gaiman's ultimate evil turns out to be a grasping hand.

Abarat, the first in a Barker YA series, follows a gothic Minnesotan teen's leap from the prairie into a parallel world of islands, each of which represents an hour of the day. Candy is no angel: One of her first acts is to steal food. Her first buddy is a master thief. Thus far no absolute force of good is working against Lord Midnight (who wants Candy--ha!--along with perpetual midnight). Instead, Barker provides some meddling priestesses and a ruthless entrepreneur who would be king. Vivid color paintings by Barker adorn the pages. While the ending is rather slight, Abarat introduces a complex and delightfully unexpected narrative. Like Summerland, it concerns the spell of storytelling, and the responsibilities of the spellcaster. As an adult reader, I love the ambiguity of the morality so far--which I should have expected from a guy who appreciates the human capacity to harm.

All these recent titles can fit into my schoolkid subgenre, but they also obfuscate such distinctions. (And where to put the grimy, arthritic angel of David Almond's Skellig? What about Emma Bull and Will Shetterley's punky human/elf skirmishes in their Bordertown?) These books all describe journeys that leave the protagonist and reader alike with the gift of having been recognized (empathized with) and the skill of recognizing others (empathizing).

Because they're good stories, they don't preach, but explore. (Pullman: "Thou shalt not is soon forgotten, but Once upon a time lasts forever.") The narratives explore--enact--transformation. And transformation does not end abruptly at age 19, or 28, or 40. Adults find themselves in between these pages because we continue to need models of becoming--specifically, becoming better people.

But there are YA fantasies that are, hmmm...thicker than most, and I'm not talking page count. (How about that last HP doorstop?) These are tales so bulging with allegory or expansive in ambition that I wonder, as an adult reader, why they're even labeled children's literature. Just how much could a kid comprehend? (Jones reminds me: more than I think.) But perhaps that mystery--that reaching for understanding--is a kind of seductive lure to certain children, and to me. SF writer Amy Thomson notes in an e-mail: "Hey, I never got all of the allusions in Rocky and Bullwinkle when I was a kid, either. But having jokes that you don't get until much later is a kind of invitation to the adult world." For adults, such books provide philosophical jerky: lots to chew on, and peppery flavor besides. Summerland comes close to this reach. Patricia McKillip's dense medieval landscapes, with their cutthroat romances, definitely count (she's now publishing her books as adult fiction).

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