The tales of an unapologetic nerd
It is no secret to anyone who knows me that I adore Young Adult Fantasy. I am a grown-ass adult woman in my 30's, I run two small businesses and have a full-time job with a specialized skill, I am divorced, and I've buried both of my parents within the space of five years. So, why do I prefer to sink into adventure stories about youthful and chaotic protagonists? Both as a writer and a reader?
There is a sort of spark that comes from losing yourself in a good book, and nowhere is that spark richer and more fulfilling than in YA. That is not to say that I haven't found similar moments of magic and intrigue in adult fiction, or stayed up late into the night reading a cozy mystery or one of Oprah's Book Club choices. But, by and large, my home will always be YA Fantasy. Here's why.
2) The Innocence of Heroes
There's something to be said for following a younger hero or heroine on their journey. They are often written to believe they can do incredible things, things that adults going through the same adventure might be too jaded to accept. Had Harry Potter been in his 30s when Hagrid knocked on the door, he simply would have closed it in the giant's face. And besides, even if he had ended up believing him, chances are Harry would have had a comfortable home life by then. Why would he leave it all just to go learn to be a wizard?
Which leads to an interesting dichotomy in heroes: at what point is risking your health and happiness WORTH the adventure? For a happily married adult with children and a good job, the answer is usually "it isn't." For that reason, we often find adult fantasy heroes who are isolated or alone. Depressed. Stuck in dead-end jobs and finding themselves at a place in their lives where there is no reason NOT to run off on a crazy quest. Nothing is holding them back, so what have they got to lose?
It is because of this mentality that I usually prefer young heroes. Starting your adventure or saving the world when you have your whole life ahead of you is, somehow, more powerful to read. You have everything to lose when you're younger. Your family and friends, your future, your limbs ... By a certain point in adulthood, we're all exhausted and stressed and caffeine dependent, and sometimes life simply could not get worse. Or we're comfortable, solvent, and content with our life path. Either way, there's not the same sort of RISK. You've lived a good life, or you haven't and why not go try and slay a dragon?
Children haven't had the chance to reach that point. They are nothing but untapped potential and, for me, that is a better story. It's a better place to start, and the stakes of any adventure are inherently higher when you could be throwing your whole future away with one mistake. When you're being forced to grow up in the throes of an adventure, rather than in your first post-college job or when you get married and have children.
3) Adventure for Adventure's Sake
Do you remember those good old days when you could pretend a stick was a sword? Or a rock you found in the woods was something more important, like a dragon egg or a portal through time? Well, so often in good YA, our heroes get to make those dreams a reality. Sometimes the world needs to be saved, absolutely. But just as often, the adventure is more localized. The hero in our YA tales is living THEIR adventure, and it's just as powerful to them as a grown man's war would be to adult fantasy.
YA proves time and time again that your adventure doesn't have to be world-changing. Sometimes, adventuring just to try something NEW is worth it! In Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher (a classic that changed my world as a kid) nothing needed to be saved. Jeremy didn't stop a grand dragon war. He didn't save the planet from aliens or change his life all that much by the end. The concept was simple: find egg, hatch dragon, raise dragon. The adventure just happened to be parallel to the things that would have happened in Jeremy's life either way. Things like growing up. Learning to stand up for himself. Taking his own art seriously enough not to let adults crush his spirit. Realizing that love is, sometimes, painful. I could learn those exact same lessons without a dragon by my side, but how much more fun is it to have those lessons partnered with AN INVISIBLE SCALY LIZARD FRIEND?!
Reading simple adventures is good for the soul. It's a reminder that not every hero has to save the world, and they can still be a hero. The weight of the world doesn't have to be on your shoulders for the adventure to matter, or be an important tale worth telling.
4) Shock Value: Hurting or Helping?
Many film critics agree: the invention of the "talkies" slowed the actual art of film down by about a decade. And the same was said of 3D film technology. The realization was this: too many filmmakers focused on the GIMMICK, the cool new toy, instead of the story.
With adult fiction, this is often doubly true. Between shock value, killing off beloved characters "just for the feels" instead of because the story actually demanded it, or slathering it in gratuitous anything (violence, sex, swearing, etc) it's easy to lose the actual thread of the tale. Game of Thrones has grown insanely popular for just that, and I'm not saying it doesn't deserve it. Martin was bold in his choices, and they stuck with people. But when the trend became "shock and awe" in fantasy, writers started to rely on it entirely. We flooded the shelves with unreliable narrators, death and gore just to make you squirm, and horror scenes in books that otherwise should not have had those elements.
YA stories that are strong stand on their own. They don't need shock value, because the authors who write good YA have had to work within the age of the target audience. They can get the same feelings, the same fear, the same tales that really stick with you, only without the crutch of blood and cursing. It's a more difficult balance to manage, in my opinion. How do you make something frightening or twist at the soul, without torture or horror? Well, you get more creative. You up your game. You learn new skills, and you don't hide behind the safety net of HBO shock value. Good romance authors will tell you the same: sometimes, showcasing every sex scene is less exciting than leaving some things to the imagination. Leave people wanting more, not wishing you'd written less.
5) The World is Dark ... Fantasy Doesn't Have to Be
Too often, I see adult readers shaming other adults for enjoying YA Fantasy. And nothing breaks my heart more than to see anyone judging any hobby or pastime that brings a little light these days. The bottom line is this: the world HURTS. My world hurts, all the time. It is dark, and filled with death. It is frightening, and filled with nightmares and anxiety. But fantasy is my escape. And while I may deal with real-world issues, kill off my own characters, or write about tragedy, it's written with the light of hope. Hope that is often lost in many adult fantasies, because the people who read them or write them are jaded.
Not every adult fantasy is the same, of course. And I will never shame those authors for writing what they do, or their readers for enjoying the things they love. But I would ask for the same courtesy in return. How we as artists and consumers of art choose to escape is our choice. I want epic, far-reaching adventure without the threat of a worse ending or a grand tragedy. I want princesses with swords and dragons with hearts of gold, and things that are often deemed "out of place" in a dark or adult fantasy novel. Clichés are comforting, and familiar settings and tropes and things that are often more welcomed in YA circles can ease the fear of diving into a new story. It's not about having them, it's about how you spin them. It's about taking the familiar and making it new and exciting. And that, in my opinion, is much harder to do than to simply hack and slash your way through a Grimdark slaughter or a gritty war.
It's time we start taking YA seriously as an art form. Both as writers, and as readers. Because enjoying a grand adventure or a swashbuckling fairy tale shouldn't have an age limit.
Now let's get out there, and make some magic.
There are very few times when internet trolls will so enrage me that I go off on a proper, thought-out, written rant. But, here we are. Recently, I came across a thread on Twitter that brought my afternoon to a full stop. In it, the poster stated with absolute certainty that audiobooks were not REAL books. He then went on to imply (and, later, to outright state) that anyone who listened to a book rather than read it was stupid, lazy, and couldn't possibly grasp the actual story at the end of it all.
And while I would never have said those words exactly, there was a time when I, too, felt something along the same lines myself. A time when, in my false sense of childish intellectual superiority, I truly believed that reading books was the only thing that counted.
Oh you poor, sweet, stupid girl.
To Past Kaitlin, and all the other readers out there who think like her, let me spell out just some of what I've learned over the past few years. Because storytelling, in all its beauty, transcends the page and should be respected in all of its forms. Especially audiobooks.
1. Quality Family Time is Whatever YOU Make of It
My mother loved to read. Not only was it part of her job as Orson Scott Card's office manager and proofreader, but it was a passion of hers. She belonged to book clubs, started a friendly summer reading challenge between me and my siblings, and would fall asleep deep in the pages of her latest book every night. And, as our family took to the road every year for vacations and beach trips, she would have my dad read aloud to us from the passenger seat. Because, unfortunately, she got carsick trying to read for herself. But, of course, Dad could only read for so long before his throat would grow sore and tired. So even those moments were limited.
And then, one year, we discovered Framed, by Frank Cottrell Boyce. The audiobook was read by the most delightful Welsh actor and, on a whim, we gave it a listen. Immediately, we were hooked. We could listen to entire BOOKS without a parent throwing up or losing their voice? We could ALL enjoy, together, the discovery of a brand new story?
That one book changed everything, especially for Mom. She began actively seeking out great audiobooks for long drives, eager to find something we would all love. Drives to and from my college were filled with stories now, and we couldn't wait to take another trip that was long enough to justify a chapter or two. Because, as my parents proved to me time and time again as I was growing up, family time is what YOU make of it. Some parents don't have the energy to read TO their children. Or they feel insecure about their own literacy. They may be tired, overworked, or get headaches from reading too long. But audiobooks allow parents and children to gather around and be told a story together.
2. The Working Class Deserves Escapism
When Mom fell into the world of audiobooks, they expanded her literary world in a way I can't truly put into words. They began to keep her company even as she worked, and gave her more hours in the day to enjoy fictional worlds, autobiographies, and keep up with the stories that were important to her family. She had a full-time job, four children, and a house to manage. Who am I -- who is anybody -- to deny women like her the chance to absorb new stories through any means they can?
When I first moved to Orlando eight years ago, I quickly filled my life with half a dozen jobs. By the end of three years, I had amassed no less than fourteen part-time or seasonal gigs, all just to make ends meet. I barely found time to write my own books, let alone read anyone else's. But I was starved for good literature. My own creativity was drying up, and it sank me into a deep depression. And, on top of which, my mother was dying of cancer at the time. Everything about my life was falling apart, and I couldn't even find the time to disappear into the pages of a favorite book for a few hours.
Now, before you start on that "if it's important you'll find the time" garbage, let me just stop you. That is NOT always the case. Our bodies, our jobs, our surroundings ... all of these things get in the way. And for those lucky souls who can balance all those things effectively enough to make time for hobbies, a tip of the hat to you. But many of us are not so blessed. And we are struggling. There were days when I would take my book to work in the desperate attempt to read something between shows or on my lunch break. But the break rooms were loud, I couldn't focus, and I'd find myself re-reading the same sentence over and over again, never grasping any of it.
The same thing would happen at night, as I tried to read in bed. I'd snuggle in, book open, bedside lamp ablaze with the warm, cozy glow that promised hours of solitary reading time. But sleep would claim me almost immediately, and I rarely (if ever) managed more than a paragraph.
But then, audiobooks. On a whim, I subscribed to Audible just to try it out. I downloaded Bloody Jack by L.A Meyer (narrated by the incomparable Katherine Kellgren) and my entire routine was turned on its head. I listened at the gym. I listened as I cooked, or did my morning and nightly routines. I could listen in crowded break rooms and drown out the chaos far easier than I could read to myself, and I DID! One book led to another, and another. In fact, finding the time to listen to an exciting read during my exhausting day kept my energy up in a way page reading could not at the time. I started branching out to other genres. Things I never would have taken the time to physically read, but I listened to and absorbed with gusto. I found books on the sciences, and autobiographies by my personal heroes (usually ready by the author themselves.) I found a corner of my life in which to fit reading again. And sure, it didn't come to me the way I expected or planned, but it was what I needed. Modern problems require modern solutions, and the idea that only physical reading grows the mind and expands your cultural understanding is outdated.
3. On Ableism and Reading
As I've mentioned briefly in my past two points, there are often physical and emotional limitations to reading from the page. But I know from experience that briefly will not be nearly enough to cover the true ramifications of these issues, and how important they are to the reading world. So, buckle in, because this truly is (in my mind) the most important issue I will discuss in this entire post.
Takes a deep breath.
NOT EVERYONE IS AS HEALTHY AS YOU!
It is 2020, we are in the middle of a pandemic that succinctly proves that not every health issue is the same across the board, and yet I STILL have to defend all of us with invisible illnesses and physical limitations. Or, hell, even VISIBLE illnesses! Because, frankly, how dare you make the argument that those who can't read don't have the right to claim audiobooks as real, actual literature? Shaky hands from cerebral palsy or Parkinson's, crippling migraines from staring at small words too long, missing limbs ... every one of them a limitation that would make reading from books impossible. Not to mention severe ADHD, dyslexia, and certain types of learning that require an audible component, rather than a visual one.
When my father was suffering through the final hours of his own cancer journey, he couldn't speak. He couldn't move. He was in a strange place, surrounded by hospice nurses and family coming and going at all hours. In fact, he couldn't even acknowledge my presence by the time I made it to him. Except for once: when I asked if he wanted me to read to him. It was the biggest reaction anyone had seen from him in days, and I read to him my latest book until he died.
In moments of chaos and hurt, there is something deep within us that just wants to be told a story. And there will not always be someone like me at their bedside to read to those who are suffering. Audiobooks are, quite simply, someone reading a story. Like parents have done for their children for ages. Like my father did for me. Like I did for him. The idea that children can learn and absorb stories by having them read aloud, but that adults are not granted the same permission, is upsetting to my very core. And I will fight anyone who says audiobooks are not important, or real, or proper stories.
4. The Roots of Storytelling
Stories did not become important because they were written down; they were written down because they were deemed important. When Homer stood reciting epic tales for his rapt fireside audiences, a new type of culture was just beginning to take shape. And the transition from oral storytelling to written chronicles changed the world forever. But, before that, stories were still told. Perhaps not as elegantly or with such widespread impact, but told nonetheless. The art of storytelling is ever-changing, and it is much, much older and bigger than any of us.
And there was a time, when written fictions were beginning to spread, that books were considered the lesser art form. True storytelling was out loud and in person. Just as films were once considered base and flashy, as opposed to theatre and plays. Now, you're considered uncultured if you haven't seen Citizen Kane. Culture is subjective, and art adapts, friends. We have no choice but to let it.
Audiobooks deserve a true place of honor. For the same reasons ebooks are real, or graphic novels, or reader's theatre: the story is what matters. They bring those stories to places that might never have found them. They can make a world of difference in the right person's life, and shaming someone for only listening to books is narrow-minded, arrogant, and a desperate attempt to cling to your own sense of self-importance.
Now, then, if you'll excuse me, I'm off to record another chapter of my own audiobook, so I can share my stories with anyone who wants to listen.
Kaitlin Bellamy is a freelance actor, indie author, and all-around nerd. Welcome to her world, adventurer. It's gonna get weird.