I’ve spent a lot of time recently reading, and occasionally reviewing, young adult fiction—mostly fantasy. While doing so, I have lamented several times about the eroding quality of YA literature. After all, I remember reading many fantastic books as a child and preteen. Our local library was near enough that my siblings and I were allowed to bike there, once our mother deemed us responsible enough. We would spend hours pouring over the shelves, and then bike back home with backpacks bursting at the seams. Frequently, especially during the summer, the library system would flash a caution screen, “WARNING: THIS PATRON IS OVER THEIR LIMIT.” The librarians never said anything to us; they just quietly clicked OK, and let us take out as many books as we wanted.
The Hero and the Crown, Crown Duel & Court Duel, Half Magic, The Black Stallion, Redwall, Tom’s Midnight Garden—each of these had characters that seemed to leap off the page and into my imagination. I fell in love with the male leads, or rewrote the story in my mind and superimposed my own characters on their worlds long before I was aware of fan fiction. These were the pinnacle of young adult fiction.
In current YA fantasy, especially, tropes seem to be worn to the bone. The most clichéd of these seems to be one of several variations on the idea that the protagonist is not what he/she appears to be. He can be the “Chosen One,”—the answer to some prophecy, come to save everyone from some great evil—a prince in disguise, or sometimes the unwitting mixed child of a human and a non-human (normal animal, mystical beast, or god). This seems to be considered most believable if he has been orphaned, split from his family by a catastrophe, or abandoned by his caretakers. This becomes even more trite if he discovers his magical powers/super-secret heritage right before or immediately upon puberty.
Currently, the YA trend (thanks to Twilight and the plethora of vomit-inducing books that followed in its wake) seems to be that this protagonist is a human, but has some abnormal characteristic that renders him irresistible to some magical being, and they fall in love. (This plot is actually legit. If I had a nickel for every time a mind-reading vampire informed me that he had to have me then and there due to my opaque frontal lobe activities…)
However, to the young adult reader, many of the plot devices that an adult has seen ad nauseam are fresh and new. Let’s face it, many of these have become so laughably worn out because they can be used with such beautiful effect when written well. The first time I read a Xanthian novel, I laughed over it for days. I recently reread one of Piers Anthony’s books and was horrified at the hackneyed phrases and the threadbare tropes.
What bothers me perhaps the most about cheap YA fiction is that it is no longer being read exclusively by young adults. Grown adults now gush about the events of Breaking Dawn as though they happened to a best friend. When grownups cannot tell the difference between beautifully written world building and fan fiction bound between paperback covers and slapped with a publisher’s logo, then who can? Worse yet, with the advent of online review boards, such as Amazon, terrible books are being recommended willy-nilly. I have learned that just because the majority of appear to be written by adults does not make them trustworthy.
It also bears remembering that for every wonderful YA book, there are literally hundreds of mediocre, or terrible works. Twilight is the obvious example here, but there are many others. For every Anne McCaffrey and Susan Cooper, there are dozens of K. A. Applegates and Suzanne Collinses. Frank LeVoie talks about this in his article, “Is YA the Death of Epic Fantasy?”
“Our first love was what publishers label as Epic or High Fantasy… Despite the unusual nature of our desired reading, it came with a certain quality. The lexicon, the syntax, and the high-literary value of many of these works was something that most ‘kids’ didn’t quite get. To read and understand them was a challenge and an accomplishment… One thing that I always appreciated about Epic Fantasy was its exclusivity. Not everyone could read it.”
YA Fantasy has made fantasy marketable, but it hasn’t improved the content of the genre. My advice to fantasy readers who prefer a higher order of literature to avoid books recommended by obvious bottom feeder readers (on Amazon, these are usually the readers who write reviews full of grammar/spelling/syntax errors and who use too many capital letters and exclamation points), and to be willing to set a book aside if it lacks any pith by chapter three.
What makes you love or hate a YA fantasy book? Do you have any authors you especially love or hate? Let us know in the comments.