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YA Science Fiction & Fantasy – Part One: The Introduction

This is the first in a series of articles talking about YA science fiction and fantasy. In the coming months we’re going to look at YA as a sub-genre of SFF—and decide if it really is a subgenre at all—and go back to its roots to track its evolution. Finally, we’ll take a look at just what makes YA what it is and examine whether it is a matter of marketing, the age of its protagonists, or if there is something very specific that YA novels exhibit that make it an inherently different genre to standard fantasy and science fiction. In this month’s article, we’re going to lay the foundations for the rest of the series and pave the way for the deeper analysis to come.

The Gift of Knowledge by Jeremy OwenPeople in general don’t talk enough about YA science fiction and fantasy. Perhaps it’s because “adults” balk at reading something they perceive is written for “children” and young adults, due to the lack of choice and progress within the genre supposedly written for them, feel patronised and are desperate to justify themselves as intelligent, opinionated adults by shooting past the YA titles and diving headlong into regular fantasy. I’m not going to call it “adult”; that’s patronising. You’re an adult on a plane or train ticket from age fifteen (sometimes even twelve). It’s not a matter of maturity or experience and choosing a YA title over one found in the regular section does not somehow undermine your intelligence. In fact, statistically, it’s suggested that a great many more adults read YA fiction than teenagers and children.

That’s because a book is a book is a book. But that’s not how people see books anymore, unfortunately. They’re badges; expressions of who we are. Books are accessories, just like everything else. The problem is, sometimes people are ashamed of being seen reading a particular type of book. Some people feel genuinely judged by what they read.

This might be one of the problems surrounding the reception of YA. I was lucky enough to have what seemed like tailor-made YA fantasy right under my nose—but then I grew up with Harry Potter. Older readers of SFF who might feel like approaching YA will look to the choices they had when they were kids to help navigate the new titles and sub-sub-genres found in YA. Until recent years what was available was patronising, childish and entirely limited to fiction that catered only for ages twelve-thirteen, and these potential readers will merely browse the aisles and then quickly get lost when pointed by trends to the en vogue novels of the day. That is not the way to get into reading YA—especially if you don’t appreciate romance to dominate your novels.

The Lure of a Book by FictionChickThere’s nothing wrong with romance: one of the reasons YA can be so rewarding is the development of real and tangible relationships. However, there is a notable branch within YA that focuses on romance (usually paranormal) and this can be alienating. Books like Twilight are invaluable to the YA genre because of the interest they generated and because of how many young readers found a doorway into the genre through the lives of Edward and Bella. But they’re also inaccessible to a whole percentage of the audience that really might find something to love in the YA and teen sections, if they just knew where to look.

It is very true that YA might have had a bit of a comeback over the past few years, but much of it has been very romantic and in the wake of Twilight, similar titles were given similar covers and marketed in similar ways. This is how marketing works. Take the bizarre success of Fifty Shades of Grey and walk into your nearest bookstore: you won’t be able to move for the—shall we say?—classy —ahem!—smut now lining the shelves. The covers are all similar, promising the same ethos of Fifty Shades. This is the same with YA novels, many featuring stunningly pretty heroines dressed in floaty, romantic dresses, all vying to be the next Bella.

Except that they’re not: it only seems that way. None of those YA books are anything at all like Meyer’s series—you’re being tricked into thinking they are.

This is nothing new; it happens with every genre. Lit-fic has its minimalist covers or long, misty piers reaching across lakes. Urban fantasy has leather-clad women glancing over the same shoulder, hips thrust at unnatural angles. Epic fantasy has its hooded men. The problem is, people are stubborn and think they know a book by its cover, or by where it sits on the shelves. I’ve seen people jeering at YA, claiming it’s for children and they’re far too sophisticated for it. What these people don’t seem to realise, is that YA is for everyone.

Books by azammiiThe market has changed a lot. The YA that you think is available is merely the tip of the iceberg: there is so much more than Twilight and The Hunger Games. Personally. I am a huge YA fan and I’ve read neither.

But I have read Laura Lam and Cinda Williams Chima. And countless others. Some of these names you will find in the adult sections, regardless of their rightful place on the YA and teen shelves. This is a good thing, since it makes readers still sceptical about the genre think, “Well, I loved that book…But wow, was that really YA?”

Yes, actually, it was. The time of YA books being so very far removed from regular fiction is over. YA fiction has never been more sophisticated and in many ways, it’s evolving in ways that standard SFF needs to start thinking about, before it starts being accused of being old and stoic. I’m going to go out on a limb and say you won’t find a story and characters like those in Pantomime in an “adult” SFF novel (from a traditional publishing house), despite the fact that pretty much everyone in the literary world needs the education books like Pantomime offer.

I’m somewhat of an enthusiast for Angry Robot’s YA imprint, Strange Chemistry—and for good reason. No two books in their catalogue are the same. Not even similar. Strange Chemistry has really taken the bull by the horns with regards to the changing and evolving genre of YA and made sure to get there first, to lead the mini revolution within the genre. And I do think that’s what’s happening: more and more people are taking notice of YA and people who previously saw teen SFF and standard SFF as two separate branches are beginning to realise that they form a part of the same tree.

Book Werm by Kristin KestThere’s a lot to talk about when it comes to YA SFF and over the coming months we’re going to give it a broad and detailed consideration, by the end of which you’ll find yourselves more educated as to precisely what YA was and now is and perhaps even where it’s going. From true YA science fiction (which is rarer than you’d think) to YA epic fantasy, and teen urban fantasy that’s not paranormal romance, to everything that falls between the gaps, making a unique statement—we’ll be exploring everything. Without looking at the full map, it’s impossible to really understand the genre…and of course, the exact same thing can be said for standard SFF, which is just as varied and broad. By the end of this series, you might begin to notice that YA and what you consider standard SFF are not so different after all and that it might just be a matter of perception.

In the next instalment we will travel back to the very first instances of YA and teen SFF and see just how it all began.

Title image by Kristin Kest.

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10 Comments

  1. Well said, Leo. And well done for realising how underappreciated YA & especially SFF is. My father raised me on the genre, he collected books like a madman, wrote reviews for Asimov’s monthly when I was a kid. when I got my head down & started to write, there was no ‘real’ contemporary world inhabiting my head…and I rather like that. so what if I’m ‘away with the fairies’? What better place is there to be?

  2. Great article Leo! :-D I love YA as well as the ‘adult’ SFF, and I think many of the people who dismiss it would actually really love it if they’d give it a try. As with everything, there’s bad stuff, but there’s some truly amazing stuff too! Looking forward to the next article. :-)

  3. A good article – though I think dismissing YA till recently as patronising and childish is a bit sweeping – that’s certainly not true of authors like Alan Garner, Susan Cooper, David Severn or Joy Chant. Though back then they were “books for older children”. Looking forward to the other articles.

  4. Zyrah says:

    I generally dislike YA novels because a good portion of them tend to be on the shorter side and they generally lack the themes I like most, though that’s not to say they’re bad. I still read them from time to time.

  5. Excellent article. I think YA SFF gets overlooked because for years, SFF has been majorly for the “adult” market, while teens only had non-contemporary-realistic books marketed at them if there was a large sidehelping of romance included. I’m glad to see it changing, where you have the other worlds and action dominating the plot of SFF. And Strange Chemistry FTW. Looking forwards to the rest of this series!

  6. You touched on a lot of points about YA and SFF. I can’t wait to read the other installments.

  7. Jared says:

    I agree with your conclusion (a lot!) and look forward to seeing how this blog series goes.

    This may be a cruel thing to ask, but I do think that you probably should give Twilight and The Hunger Games a try. As you point out, they are the most visible, most influential books in the genre, so it seems like something you’ll want to cover off (like doing a survey of modern epic fantasy without having read GRRM). You also reference Twilight a lot – so you might as well give it a try, even if only to explain to us specifically *why* it isn’t as good as other books.

    (Personally, I hate it. But hey, to each their own.)

    “By the end of this series, you might begin to notice that YA and what you consider standard SFF are not so different after all and that it might just be a matter of perception.”

    I couldn’t agree more!

  8. Neaughea says:

    I think this is going to be a really fun adventure! I am looking forward to someone trying clarify “what is YA”. Because the veil has thinned between YA and Adult is it possible that what makes a book YA the age of the characters or will it be the readability of the story as it pertains to age group. Then could possibly have to do with content?

    As a mother of 5 there are some “YA” books that would rather my 13 year old did not read due to content. But other books I have suggested that weren’t necessarily considered YA that were perfect for her reading ability and the content was still very exciting but family friendly. Elfhunter, Raven’s Heart, Amadi, the Phoenix, the Sphinx, and the Djinn are all wonderful stories that she and I have both loved reading.

    I’m curious to see your take on “all ages” books as they coincide with YA and how these types of books can be effectively marketed to both genres rather than just one.

  9. MG says:

    I have to disagree with some of the points in this article. I obviously agree with a lot of things here, too. I’m an avid YA reader, and aspiring YA novelist.

    YA is a largely discussed topic, and has basically been a huge fad for the past few years. The New York Times has even split the Children’s bestseller list into Young Adult and Middle Grade. That is how popular, and how talked about this genre is. Check out the movies coming out this year. I can name 5 YA books to movies that will be doing really well in box offices. I can name these off of the top of my head. If I actually looked up all the SFF YA to movies coming out, I might find more.

    Also Harry Potter is Middle Grade, so are most things for 12-13 year olds. A lot of people confuse the two subgenre’s, but they are very different. YA is for 13-18 year olds.

    I do agree with the fact that too much of YA is PNR. But in terms of the target audience (which as we know, is very different than the actual audience), it makes a lot of sense. I’m not a huge romance fan, I prefer YA Epic Fantasy and YA Urban Fantasy. The non-mushy stuff is out there, if you know where to look.

    I like what Strange Chemistry is doing, but at the same time I don’t think their books are that unusual for the genre. They just focus more of Edgy SFF YA, which is already pretty popular and a good choice for a publishing niche. Edgy YA is what got me reading the genre 5 years ago. Faires, drug abuse and cruelty where a few of the themes of my first favorite YA books. I was a troubled teen, so I find it cathartic to read about them.

  10. Max (Moonshine) says:

    As Jared say above, it’s probably worth reading the big ones just to have something to bounce off – hell, you might even enjoy, certainly the Hunger Games, if not Twilight (I also hated but you never know)

    With regards content as the poster above me argues, I’ve always found YA content to be one of its greatest assets. YA an branch into territory adult fiction must tiptoe around, and can deal with some topic in a far more sensitive, meaningful manner. Further, elements of YA content are much more apt with the YA audience in mind – fumbling sexual encounters, bullying, changing bodies of puberty – all need dealing with internally, and are only really found with any degree of regularity dealt with in YA. Take Tom Pollock’s recent City’s Son for example – it’s depiction of child abuse is subtle yet meaningful, a problem faced head on, but one that neither detracts from nor dominates the story. Similarly his depiction of teacher-student bullying. In an ‘adult’ novel, I’d argue, these themes would necessarily dominate: The City’s Son wouldn’t be the Urban Fantasy/Weird adventure that it is, but an exploration of the nitty gritty of child abuse and race relations.

    On the other side of the same coin, YA can, and indeed does, sometime deal with these heavy situations in a way that can help the confused pubescent – Tabitha Suzuma’s Forbidden is a beautiful tale of romance, brilliantly written. And yet it’s central characters are brother and sister, not just lovers. Incest may be questionable content, yes, but it is something that the Oedipal in all of us must explore, and (possibly) dismiss before moving into the adult world, and Suzuma’s novel gives us that opportunity, safe from society’s stigma.

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