Tuesday, March 24, 2009

somebody take us away

I just got off the phone with my mother after an interesting conversation. She was looking for some good books to give to my youngest cousins, ages ten and twelve. The twelve-year-old in particular is the same kind of reader I was at his age - which is to say, he reads a ton, gets easily absorbed in books to the exclusion of most other activities, and loves fantasy.

Did I say the same kind of reader I was at his age? I probably meant the same kind of reader I have always been and still am to this day.

Researching YA books with my mother brought to my attention once again something that I've been noticing more and more recently: YA fantasy is really big right now. I hear it over and over again, and the evidence is right there in libraries and bookstores. Young people are reading a lot of fantasy. I don't know enough about reading trends or marketing to tell you why that might be, but it does seem logical to conclude that lots of young people developing a taste for fantasy now will lead to lots of slightly older people looking for more fantasy in another few years. Of course, to really keep them hooked, the books they're reading right now - and the books they find when they go looking for more - need to be good quality.

I'm sure a great deal of the YA fantasy out there is good quality. I'm also sure that a lot of it isn't. I've read just enough YA recently that I was able to give my mom some good recommendations for my cousins, but it made me wonder what else is out there. I started thinking about the books that led me into fantasy when I was younger, and the ones I somehow missed. And then of course there's this whole new batch of YA fantasy that I've hardly touched. I wonder which current authors have the unfortunate habit of "writing down" to kids, and which ones challenge them to expand both their vocabulary and their thinking. I wonder which stories are written with enough skill and depth that the kids reading them now will look back at them with fond reminiscence instead of mild embarrassment in ten or twenty years.

Well, I don't have the answers. I haven't read a whole lot of YA lately. I'd like to read more, though - both new material and older books I may have missed when I was younger. So here are my questions for you (and don't think you have to limit this to fantasy): What books did you enjoy when you were growing up that you would still enjoy today? What are the common elements in those books? If there are books you used to read that no longer impress you quite so much, where did they go wrong? Can any of you recommend some good recent fiction geared to a younger audience? What are some areas in which the current YA fiction is falling short?

Yes, that's right. It's an interactive blog post. Get used to it, because there are more on the way. :)


Amanda said...

The best recommendation I have for new(ish) stuff is Neil Gaiman. He writes for adults as well, but his children's books are STELLAR. (Seriously, you've read him, right? If not, DO IT NOW.)

meagan said...

Whoa, a comment I actually have to think about? What are you doing?? This is cruel, unusual, and... kind of like being chained to an oar. ;-)

I'll get to answering your questions in just a minute. Your post reminded me of stuff I've been hearing a lot recently about YA fiction. A lot of people are putting most of the credit on Harry Potter (and now Twilight, blegh) for snatching readers while even below the typical YA age range. A big part of the surge in YA books, though, are that adults have discovered them (which is actually pretty likely due to Harry Potter). Overall, the only real differences between adult and YA books (at least, well-written YA books) is that YA books tend to have less sex and violence.

I've read a lot of conflicting theories on why fantasy has blossomed recently. It seems like it's more than just the LOTR movies and Harry Potter. The most interesting things I've read on that trend have said that, essentially, people are sick of realism (could it be from memoirs?). Even mainstream fiction now tends to have more fantastic elements--and more fantasy novels have become mainstream than ever. (Good news for people like us! ha ha)

Now... to your questions.

I'm really awful at rereading books. I mean to reread a bunch, but usually books I haven't read win over. So here's my list of books I think I'd still like...
The Abhorsen Trilogy by Garth Nix (originally released as YA now marketed to both adults and YA)
His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman
The Dwindling Party by Edward Gorey (actually a pop-up book, but still awesome)
The whole Earthsea cycle by Ursula LeGuin
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle
Howl's Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones
Changing Planes by Ursula LeGuin (just read this one recently, actually)
Stardust by Neil Gaiman (although I like his more adult-geared stuff better, in general--the first book of his I read in high school was Good Omens, which I also recommend)
Dracula (technically not YA, but widely read in high schools, I think--and if we're going that route, I have a whole slew of others, like Brave New World, etc.)

I think I was reading more science fiction than fantasy at the time. I know for a fact I still love The Martian Chronicles, which was never really geared towards a YA audience, but a lot of Ray Bradbury's stuff just seems to have a bent in that direction just from his writing style in general (low on sex and violence, character-focused, weirdly optimistic). I think they market a lot of his stuff as YA now.

I also read the whole Animorphs and Everworld series. (Animorphs was much more daunting, size-wise.) I think I might still read Everworld, but I think I'd now be comparing it to Sandman for how it deals with mythology, and by comparison I think Everworld would collapse into, well, sand. And I read a good bit of the Dune series before it started just getting really bizarre. I've heard they don't stand up to rereads, but I loved them at that age--and they showed how complicated a universe could be.

I've heard Charles DeLint is awesome, and I have acquired several of his books from various places (for free, mostly) but I haven't read his stuff yet.

As for where current YA fiction is falling short... I'm not really that up on it. YA is doing a lot better than it ever has, which is a good thing. I think there will always be too many authors who talk down to their readers in that field (because, really, any who do are too many), but I've seen that in adult-oriented fiction too. I think one of YA's usual pitfalls is assuming its readers don't know things that they probably do already know just as well as the author does.

Also, I don't know if it'll have trouble keeping itself separate from adult fiction in the more long-range future, since more adults are reading it anyway and more books are cross-marketed. We shall see.

How's that for possible answers? lol

Leah said...


The Narnia Series, by C.S. Lewis
The Dark is Rising Series, by Susan Cooper.
Anything by Madeline L'Engle but especially A Swiftly Tilting Planet.
Anything by Robin McKinley but especially The Hero and the Crown and Deerskin- actually, wait on Deerskin, there are adult themes.
So You Want to be a Wizard (and the first two sequels) by Diane Duane
ANYTHING by Tamora Pierce (though I'll admit to preferring the Circle series lately; Tortall has just gone on too long, but don't tell Annette I said that)
The Giver, by Lois Lowry
Jacob Have I Loved, Song of the Nightingale, and Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson
The Indian in the Cupboard by Lynne Reid Banks

...for now :) Those are all from my young-adult-hood. If you'd like something more current, I can ask Annette.

Ruthann said...

Wow, you guys win at the reader participation, and I am loving it! :)

Amanda - Neil Gaiman has been at the top of my reading list for a great many months. I read American Gods a couple years ago and loved it, and I've been meaning to read more of him ever since.

Meagan - Si Caesar viveret... *ahem*

I love that more books are being cross-marketed now, because it emphasizes what you pointed out: the only real difference that should exist between YA and adult fiction is in the maturity level of the actual content. I think it's unacceptable to lower writing standards simply because a book is intended for a younger audience. What on earth does that teach the children reading those books? We learn to write from what we read.

While Harry Potter probably was responsible for drawing a huge number of adults into YA fantasy, I don't think it was one of the first causes of fantasy's recent popularity; I think it was one of the first noticable effects. Same with the LotR movies. Robert Jordan claimed that more people are turning to fantasy because it's an easier medium in which to talk about morality - to say that while there are many shades of grey, right and wrong still exist. I don't know whether that's true or not. As you said, there are many theories.

I'm excited to get such a long list of books from you. Some I've never heard of, and others I read in college. None were books I encountered growing up. Add to the ever-growing reading list!

Near-sister - I'm glad you mentioned Robin McKinley. I'd never heard of her until you told me to read The Hero and the Crown a couple years ago, but I loved that (even though I thought the ending was slightly bittersweet - maybe even because the ending was slightly bittersweet), and everything I've heard about her since then has been incredibly high praise. I was actually browsing her website earlier today as I tried to help my mother find books for my cousins. I haven't read any more of her books yet, though, so it was hard for me to tell what they might like. Since you're familiar with her books, maybe you can tell me: do you think they would appeal to boys as much as girls? Many of them seemed princessy, and I was primarily looking for something for a twelve-year-old boy. These are the difficulties which arise when you try to recommend books you haven't actually read yet. They might be perfectly enjoyable for boys, but I couldn't tell just by reading blurbs. I think my mother decided to get a Robin McKinley book for his younger sister, though. When we hung up she was trying to figure out which ones would work for a ten-year-old.

Also - I remember Bridge to Terabithia and The Indian in the Cupboard from middle school. Those were two of the best books I read at that age. :)

So much to add to the reading list! Thank you all for the recommendations. There's room for more, if anyone else wants to chime in! I think I'll go join a library in the morning.

Leah said...

Will Robin McKinley work as well on boys as girls? Good question. I don't know. I haven't met a boy who has read them. That includes Whit, who said that Annette told him not to read them because they weren't as good for boys as girls- so maybe there's your answer, if you feel like trusting our resident YA-expert librarian :) I've tried to think of a male-protagonist book from her and come up blank. So, perhaps not for him. But YOU should go read The Blue Sword, A Pool in the Desert, and Deerskin. But block out about two days for Deerskin and expect to lose touch wtih reality while you're reading it.

meagan said...

Oo, thought of another one. The Seventh Tower series by Garth Nix. It's fewer than ten books, and they're well-written stories.