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YA Science Fiction and Fantasy – Part Three: Why YA Is Important

Instead of looking at the themes and aspects of YA and what makes it what it is (as suggested in the previous article), it felt somewhat redundant to too closely scrutinize the themes alone, without a context. In this series we’ve established that YA SFF tackles SFF slightly differently, but other than saying it involves younger characters and pacier stories, there’s little to highlight that hasn’t already—or will be—covered.

The Falconer (cover)There are differences, but this series wants to highlight that despite these—which are few in themselves—readers of a broad age may enjoy YA SFF. However we’re aiming to make clear that, primarily, the genre is there to bridge a gap and fulfil a need that regular SFF might sometimes be unable to. Instead, we’re going to look at why YA (SFF) is important, and herein think about what differences there are, and—to a point—what makes a YA book.

It might seem like an obvious point to make for someone who immerses themselves in YA SFF, but to those who view the genre from the outside, where general fantasy and science fiction form the boundaries of a familiar map, it might seem as though YA is a genre within SFF that caters to a distinct age-group of fantasy fans before regular (adult) SFF becomes accessible and interesting (and sometimes, perhaps, suitable)—and nothing more.

That’s not the case at all: YA is so much more than a sub-genre that caters for an age-group—especially since statistics suggest that 55% of YA readers are in fact over the age of 18.[1]

YA SFF exists as a sub-genre of the YA genre as a whole for a simple reason: because not all geeks are adults past the age of thirty. We’re including a wide age-span for those who enjoy YA SFF—probably wider than the supposed marketing suggests—but that’s because experience indicates that readers from the age of thirteen all the way up to thirty-ish enjoy YA SFF. This touches on the New Adult genre (which is a Thing in contemporary YA fiction) age-range, yet because no such thing really exists within SFF (and maybe never will, because New Adult focuses on themes and issues relevant to its targeted age-group, whereas SFF is far more universal and less targeting), we’re generally saying that YA and New Adult can be taken as one entity in regards to SFF. Furthermore, if we touch on psychology for the briefest moment, to say that psychologists believe our psychological age is not determined by our physical age, it’s easy to see how the actual target audience for YA can be so wide and vast.

The Oathbreaker's Shadow (cover)Yes, yes—but why is it important?

Because it does what few SFF authors really do: it experiments. (Here, I could indicate the Strange Chemistry tagline: experimenting with your imagination, to further develop the point.) If nothing else, YA readers need constant and dynamic experimentation with ideas and thoughts and characters and worlds—moreover, they need all of this as well as a fluid reality.

Writers of YA SFF manage to keep everything so very current in their imaginary worlds with their imaginary characters and their imaginary feelings. (There are writers of note, however, such as Mark Charan Newton (Legends of the Red Sun and the upcoming Drakenfeld) who manage to very expertly touch on the kinds of issues we’re talking about, without much effort or showcasing at all.) Essentially, the YA audience needs precisely what the regular SFF audience needs: something to relate to; something that gives comfort and support and guidance and companionship. In whatever measurement, and however small, this is what is sought—subconsciously or consciously—from a reading experience, whether all at the same time, or individually.

Sometimes, reading about older characters makes it difficult to find everything that’s being sought. Not impossible, of course—the YA audience very regularly enjoys exactly the same literature as Dad, Aunt May or Grandma—but there is a certain way in which YA is written that makes it more exciting and dynamic. Plus, the characters are nearly always within the YA range themselves.

Pantomime (cover)Recently, Pantomime author Laura Lam put it perfectly: “I remember reading books and thinking “I’m not alone,” sometimes when I was the loneliest I’d ever been.” In this interview she is talking primarily about diversity in YA fiction and the inclusion of LGTBQ characters, but the point remains the same. In fact, the whole interview, though speaking about her diverse protagonist (interview post does contain spoilers about Pantomime) explains that the age-range for YA fiction presents itself as a time for change and impression and essentially, a lot of introspection about who the heck we are.

Therefore, it’s important that the fiction—in this case, the fantasy and science fiction—hits the spot and gets it right. The YA audience wants and needs books that reflect the world around them. Essentially, this need is increasingly filled in contemporary YA fiction. But that’s not what we’re about: we’re about SFF. We’re also not about “issues books” that home in, laserlike, on a specific issue or minority and write about it—and only it. It’s all about subtle and intricately written characters and worlds that are real and feel relatable.

There’s not enough specific YA SFF. And there should be.

It’s not always easy being a YA geek: young-adulthood is a time of great impression and it is when personalities are built upon, explored and identified, so imagine if there’s nothing to read, nothing you’re drawn to, and nobody who doesn’t really exist to slip into for a few hours a day.

YA SFF helps YA geeks grow up knowing who they are. Nobody will argue that literature isn’t an important part of forming who we are; what we read in our formative years shapes us. Ask any writer or reader. Literature is impossibly important.

Lately, the landscape has begun to change, with more and more readers and writers of regular SFF taking notice of brilliant new releases and talented new authors who produce excellent fiction. It’s not always groundbreaking stuff like Pantomime, but that’s not important: real characters (who echo real people) are cisgendered and identify as straight, they’re also homosexual and trangendered/transsexual or gender variant.

Masque of the Red Death (cover)They are perfectly ordinary people as well as extraordinary people.

That’s why titles like Amy McCullough’s The Oathbreaker’s Shadow and Elizabeth May’s The Falconer are getting just as much notice as books that tackle the trickier aspects of modern society and the great taboos. This demonstrates that it’s not all about sexuality and gender; stuff like addiction and loss and relationships (romantic or familial or otherwise) and not quite fitting in your own life are just as important—which is why books like Masque of the Red Death by Bethany Griffin should be mentioned alongside T.L. Costa’s Playing Tyler and Julianna Scott’s The Holders, all of which tackle one of more of the above.

Tom Pollock’s The City’s Son, also needs a mention. In addition, Emilie and the Hollow World does a great job of featuring difficult issues (so subtly as to be almost invisible, like a well-sewn seam) such as rebelling against parental (or guardian-al) ideas and damaging enforcements, whilst presenting them in the midst of a Neo-Vernian setting with a protagonist who doesn’t fit into a given mould.

However, before we get carried away with issues and taboos and breaking them, we do need to remember that, just as in regular SFF, we need stuff that’s lighter—not by virtue of the writing (I’m not suggesting the alternative to relevant SFF is fluffy fiction) but rather the topics covered. Fantasy and science fiction is still a way to travel to different worlds and read about people you’ve never met. It’s important to have a vein of YA SFF that doesn’t tackle important issues on the centre stage, but rather offers a YA rendition of true epic (and urban, and historical…) fantasy.

Playing Tyler (cover)Everything has balance, and when that balance is level and not tipped one way or the other, the resulting wealth of literature of extraordinary. Books help form and shape us and without YA SFF, there would be a black hole and the broad young adult age-group would find themselves frustrated.

There is plenty—plenty—of YA fiction, less so for YA SFF. But as with everything, change happens and a completely new surge of such literature is definitely forthcoming. Furthermore, it’s no longer too young, aimed in fact at middle-grade yet labelled as YA, and it no longer patronises and presents nothing more than coming-of-age stories that are simply regurgitations of one another.

If you’ve not read any YA SFF by this point in the series, you really should, because you’re missing out on what could be your new favourite book.

In the final instalment of this series, we’re going to look at a handful of fantastic YA SFF authors—new and established—and cast a spotlight on their characters and worlds, and we’ll be explaining just why they’re noteworthy enough to be under the author spotlight.

– – –

[1] “New Study: 55% of YA Books Bought by Adults”. Publishers Weekly. 13 September 2012

Title image by B1nd1.

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3 Comments

  1. Avatar Charlemagne says:

    Great article. Really encapsulates the way YA influences the world, and in an accessible and simple way. This was enlightening for me, because it showed me what I had previously been thinking, without realizing it (if that makes any sense at all). Anyway, great job, Leo!

  2. Avatar Bibliotropic says:

    When I was in the target age range for YA, there was precious little YA fantasy, sci-fi, or speculative fiction. I can maybe name a small handful of authors who wrote specifically YA SFF at the time, whereas now I would need a handful of pages of names to do the same thing.

    But what I did when my access to targeted-age material was limited was what so many other geeks have done – go to the adult section of the library instead. :p There was plenty there to keep me busy, and very little of it was beyond my comprehension at that point.

    That isn’t to say that YA SFF isn’t important, just because there are alternatives. The fact that there’s so much available is awesome, because those books can serve as a wonderful entry point into a much larger universe of fiction, and the more gateways, the more people SFF reaches. And it’s awesome that younger audiences have the option for reading material that has more relatable characters, situations they can really grasp and dig into, and there’s nothing like a relatable character to get you stuck on books.

    But I only mean to say that as much as it is great that these options exist, they aren’t the only options out there, and plenty of teens will still pass by the stuff that’s targeted to them and shows them people who are as they are, and reach for the book that has people whom they might become instead. Reading adult SFF in my teens was an amazing influence on the adult that I am today, and I wouldn’t change that for all the YA in the world.

    • Avatar Jenny says:

      You’re totally missing the point of these articles if you’re still referring to YA SFF specifically as an entry into the broader SFF world. There’s quality sources out there that serve more than as a stepping stone into ‘adult’ material.

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