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A Genre for the Ages

Reading in bed by Patricia CastelaoThink back to the first time you picked up a fantasy book. What was it? How old were you? For most of us, the answer is probably pretty young. I remember Sherwood Smith’s Wren To The Rescue and Madeleine L’Engle’s Wrinkle In Time series were some of my earliest favorites. Some of the other middle grade gems on my shelves: Lloyd Alexander’s Westmark Trilogy, Elizabeth Winthrop’s Battle for the Castle, Harry Potter, Ender’s Game, pretty much everything by Rick Riordan, C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia. And so many more in recent years!

Now, think to the books that got you through grade school or high school (Or those you devour now even without those excuses – just because you want to!).

Hunger Games, Divergent, These Broken Stars, Under the Never Sky, Maze Runner. Just walk down the YA aisle at your local bookstore. Chances are, they have an entire sub-section dedicated to YA fantasy.

Naming all the excellent adult SFF titles would take another post or ten, but from The Stormlight Archive to A Song of Ice and Fire to Shades of Milk and Honey or Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series, the genre offers yet another endless range of options for adult readers.

Bookland by amorphisssI don’t think I’m going out on a limb to say no other genre spans reader ages quite like fantasy. Mystery? Maaaybe, though on the younger end, it’s usually blended with another genre. Romance? Nah. Thriller? Most of the best MG thrillers ARE fantasy! It makes me so excited to be in a genre that appeals to such a wide age range and has the ability to fuel the imagination across a lifetime. I grew up with fantasy, and I feel like the genre has only grown with me.

Our authors, too, seem to write across ages more often than authors in most genres. Brandon Sanderson’s a great example—he has the Alcatraz books for middle grade readers, the Reckoners series for YA, and take your pick on the adult side. Garth Nix is another good one. I first came to know him through his MG series, The Seventh Tower, years before Sabriel and the Old Kingdom Trilogy (Though I think he published it in between). I mentioned Sherwood Smith earlier, too. Decades after I discovered and fell in love with Wren to the Rescue, I found her Inda series – it was like her writing had aged perfectly with me!

Why is fantasy such a great match for any age?

Storage Room by reishinI like to think fantasy appeals to larger universal truths, no matter the age for which it’s written. Yes, it can be gritty and crass and paint the world as a dark, dark dystopian place, but more often than not it’s about light and goodness and standing against the odds. Strong friendships. Fighting the good fight. Staring down that bully with nothing but a toothpick. Even in the grittiest of tales, it comes back to this, and those are things to which people can relate at any age.

There’s also something to be said for the sheer power of imagination and the sense of adventure, escape and magic imbued in fantasy. It’s something we crave no matter how old we are. When we’re young, it’s a way of seeing our imaginings and dreams spring to life on the page; as we grow up and shoulder adult responsibilities, that escape somehow becomes dearer, the magic even more needed so that we always remember to keep imagining, keep dreaming. It fascinates us, broadens our horizons, and calls us back again and again.

Spellbook by LoikaFor me, I think it’s also about the characters. Let’s face it, fantasy characters are just plain fun! Who wouldn’t want to read about them? Casts often are so large we follow characters of all ages within a single story or watch young MCs grow up over the course of a series. Some books, like Ender’s Game, even straddle age ranges and could arguably fit in either MG or YA.

Because the stories usually unfold in a series, we get to know characters far better than we would in a standalone. They feel like old friends. Think of the Harry Potter crew or Percy Jackson and friends for the MG reader. Who among teenagers (or adults, for that matter) doesn’t know the name Katniss Everdeen? And let’s not get started on how attached we get to colorful characters like Dresden or Lamora.

No doubt about it, there’s something special about fantasy, and when I have kids old enough to read, I hope they’ll find the same wonder and delight in it for years to come.

What have been some of your fantasy favorites across the ages?

Title image by macinivnw.

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10 Comments

  1. I agree completely. Fantasy is about the only genre that all my family reads. We all are interested in different aspects or subgenres of it, but it all comes back to fantasy! As a kid I read a lot of fantasy, even tackled The Hobbit. Some of my other favorites were the Wayside School trilogy and the Adventures of the Bailey School Kids. It’s been more than a decade since I’ve read those books but I still recommended them to my youngest cousin because she likes Fantasy as well.

    It really is a great genre. And this is a great post!

    • Avatar Nicole says:

      Thanks Kendra! Ah, Wayside School was wonderful. 🙂 There are so many great books I couldn’t squeeze into the post. Glad you’re still loving (and recommending) fantasy.

  2. Most of the books quoted above were way after my childhood – I read Harry Potter and some of the others as an adult. I suppose it depends what you mean by fantasy – if Winnie the Pooh counts, that would be my earliest. I fell in love with King Arthur very early and devoured every retelling I could find, without bothering that they all told the same stories (actually, it was a bit disconcerting if one was different).

    As far as 20th century fantasy was concerned, probably the first would have been the Narnia books and E.Nesbit’s trilogy (Five Children & It, The Phoenix & the Carpet, The Story of the Amulet). The Wizard of Oz, too, though I didn’t discover any of the other Oz books till I was adult (I’m not sure they’d been published over here). Again, I read the Alice books as a child, but I didn’t really appreciate them till later.

    In reality, I probably read more historical fiction than fantasy as a kid, up till 15 when I read LOTR for the first time. After that, I started searching out a whole range of classic and modern fantasy authors, but mainly adult books.

    • Avatar Nicole says:

      Hey Nyki, it’s so funny you mention King Arthur. I was just looking at my old illustrated King Arthur book last night and thinking how great it would be for young readers again. Historical fiction is probably my second most-loved genre – so many incredible titles there too.

  3. Avatar Stephanie N says:

    I tend to agree with Nyki about the books quoted being way after my childhood – most of them were published in my adulthood, although I have read most of them. My childhood consisted of The Earthsea Trilogy, The Sword of Shannara (of which I still have a signed copy), Anne McCaffrey, Mary Stewart, Piers Anthony, Susan Cooper, Roger Zelazny, and so on.

    I also went through a phase where I read all of the Oz books too, as well as the C.S. Lewis books. Then my teacher introduced me to Wyndham and several others and I was hooked. I always retreat back to fantasy when I am in a reading slump as I know it will kick start my reading again.

    What can I say? I wanted to be a magician when I grew up. What better way to learn some tricks of the trade!!

    • Avatar Nicole says:

      McCaffrey is one of my all-time favorites! I feel like I mention her in every post, so I must be slacking on this one. 🙂 I’ve seen the Earthsea mini-series but haven’t read the books yet. I really should!

  4. Avatar Bibliotropic says:

    Fantasy and sci-fi age really well. One of the earliest SFF books I can remember reading was one of those early chapter books involving a kid who, witt the help of his science fair project, gets trasported back to the time of dinosaurs and gets to see how they live and have adventures there. Or maybe it was a book about a unicorn that got separated from her herd and was trying to find her way back to them. Not exactly something hardcore, but if you look at SFF in terms of “something happens that doesn’t happen in real life,” then the genre’s far more widespread than it first appears.

    It’s just that kids are expected to “grow out of” liking the genre as time goes on. Adults reading SFF still gets looked down on.

    Which is weird, considering how popular Game of Thrones is, and how some of the great classic novels are sci-fi.

    • Avatar Nicole says:

      Love that interpretation of SFF! And those chapter books sound great. Dinos were huge for me as a kid, and some days I STILL want to be Dr. Grant. 🙂

  5. Avatar Ayman Teaman says:

    Really nice article! It brought back many memories 🙂

    I totally agree; fantasy is a genre that transverse all ages and boundaries.
    I’d like to add that maybe part of the reason is our roots as humans; we just love stories and we relate better to things (and scientifically proven to memorize better) things portrayed as a story.

    It goes back as mythology, around camp fire and whispering stories around ghost, genies, or fairies, etc.

    For me one my favorites remain to be ‘One thousand nights and one night’. I read tons of children literature as a kid.. but I don’t know their equivalent title in English haha. There is one particular story about a girl who goes to a house and meets 3 big animals with varying eye sizes… that is all I remember xD

    Anyway, thanks for the article!

    • Avatar Nicole says:

      Yes! I think there’s something to be said for the mythology and verbal storytelling element as well. It’s such a powerful way to tell a tale.

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