Don’t Judge Fantasy by its Label by Lee Ann Cuccia

The purpose of this article is to raise the issue of how and why fantasy books are labeled as young adult and others not. The answers to these questions certainly cannot be given here, but the intent is rather to bring them up.
With the advent of the Harry Potter series, the line between Young Adult (YA) and fantasy has been further blurred. Although the children lining up outside the store to get their little hands on a copy of HP & the Goblet of Fire is what made the news, the fact remains that the book is equally enjoyable for adults. Additionally, JK Rowling herself, the books author, insists she did not write the books seeking that young an audience. By categorizing a fantasy novel as young adult, do publishers curtail its potential sales? Obviously not with Harry Potter, but what about others?

There will always be children who read at a more advanced clip then average. When a book is labeled as young adult, advanced readers will sometimes overlook or avoid it, since they consider it ‘childish’. Adults don’t want to bother trying to read a young adult book, because the perception is that they are for kids. This author ignored young adult books, never giving them a thought until a teacher friend convinced her to try Harry Potter.

Since then I have read many fantasy books with the young adult label and discovered that there are so many inconsistencies as to what constitutes fiction with the YA label.

For example, Patrica McKillip is a wonderful fantasy writer. Her recent books are all sold as fantasy, but an earlier work, The Forgotten Beasts of Eld, is published as young adult. The quality of the writing is the same, and complexity of the plot is also about the same. Most of her work deals with betrayal, love and loss, and Forgotten Beasts is no exception.

Robin McKinley is a fine author whose books have fallen under the YA category, and she has won the Newbury Award for The Hero and the Crown, which was an absorbing, well written book. Her latest book, Spindle’s End, a reworking of the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale has no YA indications on the edition at all, yet again, as with the McKillip example, there doesn’t seem to be any difference in the style and complexity of themes to warrant the change.

Another very delightful author, Gail Carson Levine, would have been overlooked by such as myself, because of the YA label. Her Ella Enchanted, is a wonderfully humorous book, and although there is no doubting its appeal to its YA readership, there is much that would appeal to any reader.

Philip Pullman is a popular author of young adult fantasy. His current series, His Dark Materials, is a rich and absorbing read. However, its themes are extremely complex and dark. It is confusing for some adults to understand, let alone 9 to 12 years olds. Set in an alternate version of our own earth, God is arrogant and evil, and the Devil looks to be misunderstood and good. The bad and evil characters in the novels (and they are pretty frightening) are on God’s side. They are performing horrifying experiments on children, experiments that separate the child from his or her daemon or soul. As an adult reader, I love the way this series twists Christian beliefs around and challenges our perception; as a parent, I would be very concerned over how to explain this concept to my child.

I guess it is difficult when first preparing a book for publication to know which category will suit it best. Obviously the publisher wants to market and position a book to maximize its sales potential. And once an author has been established as a YA author, publishers would conceivably be reluctant to change the marketing of a subsequent book. But, one would think that they would attempt to be consistent. One interesting note concerns JRR Tolkien: in some stores his books are in the fantasy section, in others the literature section, and in others still, the YA section.

However, how can one be too critical of the inconsistencies of publishers when the reactions of parents are inconsistent of themselves? Most by now have heard of all the controversies surrounding the Harry Potter novels, where parents in certain areas of the United States rallied for a ban on the books, citing its references to magic and witchcraft. In fact, there are tons of children’s books that deal with a similar topic; fantasy for young adults is a very viable part of the industry. Where were those oh so concerned parents when His Dark Materials came out? The content of that series is far more bewildering for children. Obviously Harry Potter’s phenomenal success had a great deal to do with the hue and cry that ensued.

These same parents also seem to have no concerns with their children reading books with sexual situations, which are certainly prevalent in many YA books. In Tamara Pierce’s Lioness Quartette, her heroine sleeps about with more then one male character. And while sex is certainly a prevalent issue with children today, the lax morals of many engaging characters is probably not a great lesson to teach to our children. Sadly, children see much worse in the movies and television shows they watch, so maybe I am quibbling here.

As stated earlier, I was not expecting to answer any questions, merely to raise them instead. And to encourage all fantasy lovers not to judge the book neither by its cover nor by its category. Trust me, you will miss out on a lot of great books if you do.

Copyright© 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002 Lee Ann Cuccia, All rights reserved. No part of this may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the author.

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