My just-turned-nine-year-old son is a voracious reader, and in searching for books that would interest him I’ve become aware of the explosion of quality sf/f books written for the so-called middle reader and young adult audience. More or less at the time we started reading these books together, I also became bored and impatient with a lot of what passed for adult f and sf. As a consequence, over the past three or four years, a lot of what I’ve read recreationally has been fantasy that you will rarely if ever find in the regular genre sections of bookstores. A good deal of it, however, I’ve enjoyed very much, and the reasons are not arcane.
Successful fantasy for kids–meaning books my son loves, which includes but is not limited to books that sell a lot of copies–generally shares several characteristics. First and foremost, Things Happen. Middle reader/young adult fantasy is almost by definition adventure fantasy. Also, Things usually start Happening right away. Kids won’t read past the first page or two if they aren’t drawn into the story right off; this doesn’t necessarily mean that things blow up on page 1, but that the characters and their situation are immediately involving.
Second, the stories usually feature a number of sympathetic characters, who can include parents. (This last surprised me.) Alas, even some of the best fantasy written for kids manifests the same Unpromising Boy Saves Universe From Destruction Syndrome (UBSUDS) that afflicts so much adult fantasy, but there are far more strong female characters in active roles, I think, in the “children’s” section. In Angie Sage’s bestselling Septimus Heap books, she goes so far as to make the iconic powerful-wizard/parent-substitute/teacher figure a highly competent middle-aged woman, whose taste in footwear (purple python skin) is a running joke but is never belittled.
Which brings me to the third characteristic: many (most?) successful MR/YA books have tons of humor. The humor can be situation-, character-, or language based. Interestingly, my son rarely chooses a book that is billed as humor, but he loves adventure fantasy that makes him laugh and burn to find out what happens next.
The world-building can be extremely imaginative. You can find standard Celtic/Arthurian kid fantasy but it tends to be older books. After reading Joan Aiken’s The Stolen Lake and Diana Wynne Jones’ The Merlin Conspiracy, both Arthurian in their raw materials, the more famous The Dark is Rising series (Susan Cooper) seemed quite humdrum. And Aiken, Jones, and Cooper have been around for a while. Many of the books my son and I have been reading were published within the last decade. Very unscientifically, I would say that the tendency has been in the direction of ever more creativity, a sign of a genre that is still flowering.
Think the books will be too simplistic to hold your attention? Except at the upper age limit of YA fiction, there usually isn’t sex or much romance, and bloodletting if it happens tends to be offstage. But the plots can be quite complex, the characters rounded and sometimes quite morally ambiguous. Overall, they are well-written, with adult-level, or nearly so, vocabulary and sentence structure, and the storytelling values are very high. They have been holding my attention far better than has most adult fantasy.
In future posts I hope to talk about some of the authors and books on my son’s (and my) A- and B-lists. At the pinnacle for him is not Rowling and Harry Potter but one of the most popular fantasy writers that (I venture to guess) many readers of the Black Gate blog haven’t heard of: the guest of honor at next year’s World Fantasy Convention, Garth Nix. My son knows many writers, and the only time he has ever shown signs of being impressed was when I told him I’d met Garth at a convention.