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Children’s literature, like adult literature, goes through trends and themes; that means that things that seem fresh and new will one day feel dated. That’s why reading novels like The Once and Future King or Tuck Everlasting can be a challenge to young readers because despite the engaging story and well-written material, the book itself comes from a particular point in publishing, and we have moved away from that. This is also why, for instance, we can point to book series like The Babysitter’s Club and Animorphs as being a unique feature of the 80s and 90s. In fact, many monthly, ghostwritten series appeared in that particular era because it was profitable and easily marketed, where now publishing has shifted away from that model.
This goes along the lines of genre, too, particularly in Young Adult novels. This is most readily and easily seen in YA, in fact, because publishing for this demographic is so clearly delineated and because adaptation is so prevalent, which throws these books into the public eye. The first Twilight book came out in 2005, giving us almost ten solid years of Twilight (a difficult thing to consider), followed relatively quickly by the sequels. This started a spate of paranormal romance novels, where young women were falling in love with werewolves, fallen angels, and fairies by the dozen, and occasionally young men were falling in love with witches – to the point where Paranormal Romance was an accepted genre in bookstores in the Young Adult section. Then in 2008, the Hunger Games launched another trend: dystopia and dystopian romance, which while relatively popular in adult literature of the 1940s, was actually a genre that hadn’t gotten much attention in 70 years, but caused a push in young adult literature.
Now we have seemed to move on to realism with novels like The Fault in our Stars, and Fangirl, or really, anything by Rainbow Rowell. The interesting thing about young adult literature and the trends that emerge from within the genre is that they don’t mimic adult publishing at all. That might be the natural suggestion, but in fact most young adult novelists are not looking at adult work for inspiration, but rather, refreshing the genre from within. This makes young adult work, in essence, some of the most innovative literature being released today, even with the advent of “copycat” writers – that is, writers who capitalize on whatever trend is being marketed aggressively at whatever time they choose to publish.
This innovation, or rather, the shifting of trends in a relatively quick and seamless manner is, in my opinion, comes about because of two specific reasons. The first is authors themselves, particularly authors like Phillip Pullman, Neil Gaiman, and John Green, who are not ashamed (even as bloggers and writers try to shame them and their readership for writing for children and young people) to write exclusively, or maybe in the case of Neil Gaiman as least intentionally for young audiences. Pullman himself has said that people need to stop asking him when he’s going to start “writing for real people,” comparing it to asking pediatricians when they’re going to start treating adults, as if there is something only half-formed and childish about serving a younger population. That implies that these writers understand that literature formed for young people is inherently literature formed for young people and does not need to mirror adult literature or “prepare” young people for adult literature, but rather accepts the genre as a literature world into itself.
The second reason would be the market: young adults, particularly in the United States and Britain, tend to have independent funds, tend to be adventurous readers, and tend to shape their own reading preferences independent of school or adult influences. These factors combine to allow teenagers to shape the market to what fits their needs independent of adult influences. Additionally, when a book for teenagers catches on – like Twlight or The Hunger Games, it’s often read by adults as well – parents who want to know what media their kids are consuming, librarians, college students, postgraduate students, young professionals – usually because popular books are adapted into popular movies. And in an effort to recreate the lightning in a bottle effect of these immensely popular novels, publishing houses then publish a spate of similar titles, hoping that it will cash in (which works to varying degrees).
As realism picks up the question is, naturally, what’s next? This is by no means any kind of cycle – but one wonders if the fantasy overflow of the late 90s will repeat itself with fairytale recreations and circular fantasy, or if we’re looking at a completely new reworking or an old genre (sci-fi, perhaps? Or a blend of the two like Cinder). But whatever it is, young adult literature and the trends that follow are certainly likely to be surprising in many ways, for both the authors and the readers.
I had an interesting conversation with a friend of mine recently, where I posited that George R. Martin, of Game of Thrones fame, had irrevocably changed Fantasy fiction forever by bringing to light the inherent problematic aspects of a fantasy world and examining those issues without pulling his punches. He asked me if I thought that his change was reflected in young adult fantasy, too, and I had to think about it.
Arguably, children’s fiction is historically entrenched in fantasy. John Goldthwaite examines this in detail in his book The Natural History of Make-Believe, which looks at the history of children’s fantasy fiction from Perrault forward, and I would recommend this book to anyone studying children’s literature (despite his disdain for Narnia). If we talk about the history of children’s books, we’re talking about books like Alice in Wonderland, The Water-Babies, Peter and Wendy and even books like The Chronicles of Narnia, despite the fact that these books are probably in the minority of the genre that comprise children’s literature as a whole. But if we examine just the history of fantasy novels, there’s a clear progression from the didactic lectures of The Water-Babies to The Chronicles of Narnia, but after the 70s and 80s, things begin to get a little murky – possibly because of Dianna Wynne Jones, whose excellent Chrestomanci and Howl (or maybe, more accurately, Sophie Hatter) books began to change the perception of children’s fantasy by poking holes in tropes, or because of the inception of American children’s fantasy with authors like Tamora Pierce.
It’s Tamora Pierce who holds a particularly interesting place in young adult fantasy. Her first novels were not originally intended for a child audience, but were then edited down from adult to young adult fiction, which was probably to her benefit. Alanna is an excellent young female protagonist (although admittedly, with purple eyes, magic, divine intervention and two handsome and well-placed love interests, the definition of a Mary-Sue) because she is brave, assertive, stubborn, and in a genre where brave, assertive and stubborn girls often need to be rescued in a strange kind of inversion of feminism, she does a majority of the saving.
But the Lioness quartet was fairly standard fantasy fare, where war and violence was kept relatively at arms length – Alanna may have engaged in violence, but it was the kind of violence that didn’t examine violence for the sake of the examination (which is, arguably, what Martin has tried to shift the fantasy genre towards). Instead it has violence as an aspect of being a knight, and is more focused on topics like destructive patriarchy and misogyny as an inherent feature of fantasy world. In fact, Pierce has been pretty consistent in trying to deliver female protagonists in her Tortall books whose mission is to dismantle the notions of male superiority, and she’s been relatively good at doing it.
But it’s the evolution of her work – from the misadventures of a lady knight who spent her first 8 years as a knight-in-training disguised as a boy to her most current works, which are aware of, and examine issues like cultural misogyny even in kingdoms ruled by women (The Will of the Empress) to the inception of PTSD from war and atrocities (Battle Magic) that begin to demonstrate the real evolution of fantasy from the relatively innocent world of Narnia and Neverland into something more sophisticated an adult. It would have been impossible for for work like Battle Magic to exist without Alanna, but I suspect that it’s not Martin’s world (which, incidentally, was being released around the same time as the Pierce’s early work) but more due to Harry Potter and the observation made by editors that children were in fact capable of not only reading but processing what were previously adult themes.
I hesitate to bring Harry Potter into this post because the analysis of Harry Potter and the impact that Rowling has on the publishing of children’s fiction is a post on its own. But I do think, thinking on this as a whole, adult fiction does inform children’s work, as any majority influences a minority.
More on children’s fiction as minority fiction in my next post.