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.
Kaitlin Bellamy is a freelance actor, indie author, and all-around nerd. Welcome to her world, adventurer. It's gonna get weird.