The Comfort of YA Fantasy

This will sound elitist.

I’m reading Hex Hall by Rachel Hawkins and can I just say, the emotion I associate closest with young adult fiction is relief.

There is, of course, the primordial relief of returning to a genre that was part of my development as a reader. YA fiction – specifically YA fantasy, in my case – lay the groundwork for a lot of what makes reading feel good to me. The battles of good vs. evil; the complexity (and boneheadedness) of a protagonist that makes active decisions; the failures that have to arise alongside the successes.

Patricia C. Wrede, Lloyd Alexander, Robin McKinley, Diana Wynne Jones, J.K. Rowling, Tanith Lee and Philip Pullman were my originals, before Lev Grossman or Kim Harrison or Patrick Rothfuss or, more recently, Tamsyn Muir came about.

There’s the relief of speeding through a 100 pages in the same time it would take me to read 20 pages of a “literary fiction” or “high fantasy.”

Then there’s this other relief: a relaxation, a trust, that the story will resolve itself satisfactorily. Not anything as simple as a happy ending, but a satisfactory ending. While I enjoy a convoluted, go-out-with-a-confused-bang ending as much as the next person, there’s something about knowing it won’t end that way. That the story I’m reading won’t end up being allegorically ambiguous or something. At worst, it’ll end up being an allegory for some Jesus figure that completely flies over my Jewish head. (Hi, Pullman and Rowling!)

And that goes even deeper. When I’m reading YA, I know that the romantic relationships are going somewhere! Any potential romantic matches WILL or WON’T resolve with finality. No petering out, no ghosting – they’re either euphoric relationships or the hot person turns out to be evil. Same for double agents. Same for rivals. Again, no ambiguity.

Even more gratifying is that when someone is attractive, they are HOT LIKE THE DESERT. They are SUPERMODELS. They are THE MOST BEAUTIFUL ANGEL WALKING THE EARTH. They are CW SHOW-GRADE OF HOT. None of this adult nonsense of them being “attractive but-”. No crooked noses, no weirdly proportioned torsos; just the best of beauty that humanity has to offer. Maybe a little acne. None of this silly complexity of dumb bimbos, either: if they’re hot, and they’re meant to be the OTP, then they’re also smart enough to keep up with the protagonist and they’re also emotionally intelligent (or they become so over the course of the journey).

I’m not trying to oversimplify the genre! I may end up writing YA one day. I may have already started writing YA without knowing it. (See: an eons-old blog post on falling into genre writing by accident. Is five years after the fact too late to fix the word “tenets”?)

I’m not saying there is no complexity in YA. I think a lot of what appears in YA fiction is more emotionally mature than most adults can handle.

But I do take issue with the fact that much of YA these days is not held to a high enough standard.

Like, why did Hunger Games only need a plot? Why didn’t it have a better variety of characters?

Why was the world building in Divergent so painfully underdeveloped?

Why do so many books (that I really enjoy!) feel as flat as the page they’re written on? Despite a good plot, or good characters, or good relationships, why don’t they come alive?

Think of Uglies, or Throne of Glass. Carry On (Simon Snow). Great books, really fun books, but why don’t they come off the page? Why doesn’t anything feel as alive as A Wrinkle in Time anymore (even the weirder ones)?

I think the problem lies in the fact that the expectations are too low. The powers that be look at the target audience – teenagers and, in many of the above cases, teenaged girls – and presume that a book will succeed regardless of its polish. Regardless of how many edits there would be if it were an adult novel. Regardless of how much better it could be if someone just said to a writer, “Hey, you know what? Your characters kind of sound the same. Maybe mix up the speech patterns a bit?” or “I know this is supposed to be a cataclysmic event in your character’s life, but can we maybe give them more personality than ‘traumatized’?”

These YA books are getting the promotion and disbursement of adult books, but not the editing. We can’t all be legacy writers. But with good editors, we can at least collaborate on really great work.

Writing for young ’uns doesn’t mean the writing should be less than.

It means your vocabulary is less robust, but it shouldn’t be any less tactile.

It means your sexy scenes might be kissing scenes.

It means your fighting scenes are a little less bloody.

It doesn’t mean that your themes are any less complex, or your characters, or your plots.

These are future adult readers. There isn’t a switch that goes off to indicate that they suddenly deserve better quality. The quality should have always been there.