Welcome to Fantasy Island: Population 280 million.
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.
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.
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.).
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).
But Ursula LeGuin's Earthsea series is my baseline: a narrative written with such simple beauty and complex intelligence that it reads at once like fable and spiritual parable. In the first book, A Wizard of Earthsea (1968), a humble goatherd becomes a wizard by chasing an evil shadow he finally recognizes is his. In The Tombs of Atuan (1971), the wizard Ged travels to a foreign land to recover the Ring Erreth-Akbe. In the labyrinthine underground tunnels there he finds an arrogant girl, a living god to her people, trapped in her privilege. In helping to liberate her, he frees a buried female aspect of himself. The Farthest Shore (1972) takes Ged to the land of the dead, where he sacrifices his dearest possession to keep light in the world.
Books have been written glossing LeGuin's influences and references; I'm not going to even try. What's most significant to me is that she went back to her tale to worry one of the most cherished tropes of YA fantasy: the idea of a "chosen," fated hero. In a sense, all protagonists are chosen people, because the author has chosen to focus on them. But the concept of fated heroes, so often male in the past, has been troubling to me as an adult reader of fantasy. I'm not more special than anyone else. My actions do not resonate across the world(s). At the same time we always need heroes to jolt us into movement. (Wellstone, rest in action.) What I find myself craving in YA fantasy is average protagonists, compelled by events to discover themselves capable of heroic acts--the Frodo Baggins type. Perhaps the many writers now entering YA fantasy are looking for that too.
Almost 20 years after The Tombs of Atuan was published, LeGuin wrote Tehanu (1990), which tells the story of the girl Ged freed after the hero's spotlight moved on. Tenar was the "chosen" once, but now she's just a middle-aged woman whose children have left and whose husband has died. She has no power. Neither has Ged, whose great magic has fled. And yet they rub together a power out of their bare hands, out of compassion, and it changes things. Tehanu was not marketed to teens. It should've been.
LeGuin has published two more Earthsea books since. In them, power is mysterious. It doesn't always come, like a dog, to somebody's call. The series keeps shifting and changing, as the writer does.
It's true that Lyra and Will, of Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, are fated heroes in the worst way, with everybody seeing prophecies in them and chasing them. But through The Golden Compass (1995), The Subtle Knife (1997), and The Amber Spyglass (2000), we're told again and again that if the two children come to know in advance the importance of their choices, they will fail. They are fighting in the dark. And so is the reader, who must forge through very bleak times with Lyra, an apparent orphan from a parallel world--18th century Oxford--and Will, a refugee from modern-day Oxford.
Pullman is one of the few writers I know of in any genre who can fully convince the reader that the protagonists will falter. And the stakes here are cosmic: what happens to the dead; who rules heaven and earth; whether humans strive to know their world and themselves, or follow strict commandments; how much the reader will allow her cosmologies to be overturned and dismantled. Thank heaven for the talking bears (in armor), ageless witches, angels decent and nasty, sucking ghosties, and harpies. These characters, too, make choices that shape the outcome of the story.
Lyra and Will's journey is to a new Eden, but the real battle is over who controls "dust"--tiny magic sprinkles that you could clumsily label as self-consciousness, spirit, soul. "Dust loves matter," one scientist observes. She may as well have said, "Dust matters." Or, "Matter dusts." Dust to dust goes matter, and in between we tell stories. Some stories are magic. They go to the border places: twilight and dawn; adolescence and middle age and old age. All the spaces between safety where we are trying to become greater than our present selves. Diana Wynne Jones argues that, in adult fiction, writers are discouraged to mix science fiction with fantasy, witches with physics. But mixing is magic. Let down your foul categories (in books, politics, friendship). Cross the barriers. Listen.
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