World Fantasy Convention 2006, Austin, Texas: Young Adult Fantasy panel

Fantasy is Fundamental: Young Adult Fantasy in the 21st Century

Panelists: Holly Black, Charles de Lint, Lisa Freitag (moderator), Barry Goldblatt, Mark London Williams

Synopsis from the program book: Fantasy is a core component of Young Adult literature. Like all literature, YA fantasy develops in the context of its time. Our panelists discuss how the social, cultural, and political context of the new century is shaping, and will continue to shape, YA fantasy literature.

Harry Potter is credited with inspiring children to read. But has it, really? One of the panelists (it may have been Barry Goldblatt) says kids did not suddenly start loving reading. It wasn’t that they wanted to read more of all sorts of literature. They just wanted to read more of Harry Potter, or something very much like it.

Barry Goldblatt. “Kids eat Harry Potter and all the knockoffs. Kids are voracious readers, and they also very quickly make up their mind about what they like and what they don’t like. It’s is actually very easy to get kids to try new things. What is hard is to get them to like new things. They become set in their ways very quickly.

The trick is to give kids something like Harry Potter so they recognize all the touchstones, but is also perhaps different enough so that they could stretch a little bit. Librarians and educators are struggling to do this, because it’s very hard.”

YA becoming more mature and risque

One of the major themes of this discussion was increased specialization of YA fiction. These days you have young-young adult (12-14 years) and old-young adult (14 years and up). All the panelists remember the time (such as in their adolescent years) when not only these subcategories did not exist, the very category of Young Adult fiction barely existed. Teens who had outgrown children’s books had to quickly start reading grown-up books since there wasn’t much else.

This is a part of a larger cultural debate, says Mark London Williams, on what is a teenager. “It is a category that did not always exist. Similarly, there were times when there was [no literature] for teenagers. I went from Lord Of The Rings to Manchurian Candidate. When I wanted to read books about politics, I took them from my parents’ shelves.”

On the other hand, a lot of books written for grown-ups are nowadays being repackaged as Young Adult, such as books by Andre Norton, or Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game.

Holly Black. “Teenagers were reading Charles De Lint books for many years. His stories that were originally adult stories were republished for kids. I’m looking for a word: spongeability… fungeability…”

A voice from the audience: permeability?

Holly Black: “Yes, that’s what it is.” (Erasing boundaries between adult and young adult fiction.)

Barry Goldblatt and Holly Black

Young Adult Fantasy in the 21st Century panel at the World Fantasy Convention 2006
CIMG4411 Barry Goldblatt and Holly Black

Barry Goldblatt. “A lot of books were published as adult books that now make up the YA cannon. Like “To Kill A Mockingbird”. If you published something like “To Kill A Mockingbird” today, it would immediately be recognized as as YA book. “

He says back then children’s fantasy books were supposed to be sweetness and light. Controversial topics were off limits. In contrast, these days Young Adult literature does not shy away from mature topics. This was a big point of the discussion.

Holly Black. “[It’s been said that] there are two things you can’t do in YA: boring and bestiality. And [whenever I quote it], the entire room immediately starts coming up with titles of books that have bestiality in them. Everything else you can think of has been tried in the YA books. […] One of the reasons why YA is now allowed to publish a lot of controversial material, is because teenagers are spending their own money for it. A little younger kids, for which their parents buy books, you can’t do it. “

Charles De Lint. “[YA books with adult themes] were around always, like Holly said, but they were not in the foreground. But these days kids are exposed to a lot more. [And they want to recognize themselves in the characters of the books they read.] So these days if you have two 14-year-olds in a story [who are hot for each other, and all they do is hold hands, kids are not going to read that book, because that’s not realistic.]”

Charles de Lint

Young Adult Fantasy in the 21st Century panel at the World Fantasy Convention 2006
CIMG4414 Charles de Lint

So it would seem that the Young Adult category is essentially a marketing invention, created in an ongoing attempt of publishers to make teenagers part with their money. Holly Black says, though, that there is an upside to YA marketing. “What I love about YA marketing, is [that in the YA section of a bookstore] you see genre books next to literary books, fantasy books next to mystery books, etc. So kids [don’t get boxed in by the genre].”

A much debated question: do boys read? If not, why not?

A woman from the audience says: “I used to work as a bookseller. In the middle grade boys used to read like crazy, but in the upper teenage years, boys drop out. In the old YA category all the books I sold were almost exclusively to females. I wonder if anything it’s done to address them.”

Barry Goldblatt. “We always look for great books for boys. But it’s like leading the horse to water: you can’t make them drink. We haven’t found a magic bullet to get the boys to read. Boys are taught that everything is more important than reading: sports, dating. Boys who read are considered geeks.

There’s still an understanding from parents that reading is supposed to be educational, not fun. And we work really hard in our educational system to make reading not fun. That’s why a lot of girls still hang on to reading, whereas boys just drop out. Don’t make them write book reports about it. Don’t make them take tests on the books they’ve read.”

Barry Goldblatt

Young Adult Fantasy in the 21st Century panel at the World Fantasy Convention 2006
CIMG4412 Barry Goldblatt

Holly Black. “In defense of boys; when I’ve gotten into classics for teenagers, there are often guy writers in the programs. When I ask them what they are reading, they often say adult. I get an impression that a lot of guys are reading, they are just not reading teen books.”

A woman in the audience would like the panelists to address the question of the gender of protagonist. It seems the girls would read the books with a boy protagonist, but boys won’t read books with a girl protagonist.

Charles De Lint says that even though a lot of fans who contact him are girls, there is a significant percentage of boys, even though his protagonists are girls.

Barry Goldblatt says Scott Westerfeld’s books are eaten up by many girls, but there are also a lot of boys who read it because there’s all those cool gadgets in it. His books, while they have female protagonists on the covers, are very boy-accessible.

(A guy in the audience next to me wonders out loud at the term “boy-accessible”.)

Barry Goldblatt thinks it’s more about what the protagonist does, rather than what gender he or she is. If a girl is obsessing about dating, the boys probably won’t read them. But if she is like Jennifer Garner in Alias, they might read them despite the fact that she’s female.

Lisa Freitag. “The more irreverent the tone of the book is, the better things seem to go [i.e. the more boys are likely to read it].”

Finally, here are some good new YA novel recommendations from the panelists.

Mark London Williams recommends “Boy Proof” by Cecil Castellucci. “It’s a book about a teenage girl growing up as a genre geek-fan, who is a kind of person who goes to World Fantasy Convention.”

Charles De Lint. Ellen Klages “The Green Glass Sea” is a book about what it means to be a 12 year old. She captured it wonderfully.

Barry Goldblatt “Life As We Knew It” by Susan Beth Pfeffer is one of my favorite post-apocalyptic books of all time. At the beginning the girl protagonist is only concerned about going to the prom, and the news about a meteorite that’s about to hit the moon doesn’t really impact her. I’ve never seen a picture of what it’s like wen the world is destroyed, from a point of view of a small town girl, who’s not at the epicenter, but it builds up over time. It’s a wonderful book.

Holly Black. Delia Sherman’s Changeling came out recently, it’s hard to describe, it’s wonderful in many ways.