Friday, October 22, 2010

From Harry to Scary: Trends in MG Sci-Fi/Fantasy

Wear a little garlic. Carry a couple of amulets. Be nice to black cats. Come closer and see...

EXHIBIT A—As Harry Potter and his friends grew older, Voldemort gained power and the books got darker, with more of a horror vibe.

EXHIBIT B—A girl named Bella and a vampire named Edward fell in love, causing the hearts of teenage girls (and their moms, plus some romantical guys) to go pitter-pat.

EXHIBIT C—Neil Gaiman reenacted the British invasion in children's books: his Coraline was made into a movie, causing some children to have nightmares about the buttons on their clothes. Then The Graveyard Book won the Newbery Award.

EXHIBIT D—If you cruise the shelves of YA (Young Adult) literature at your local bookstore, you just might find that approximately 2/3 to 3/4 of the new books are teen paranormal, mostly with romance involved. [Mini-waves: (1) vampires, (2) werewolves, (3) sneery/urban fairies, (4) ghosts/psychics, (5) zombies, (6) angels/demons, (7) unicorns/pegasi. I suggest we try hauntingly misunderstood sphinxes and moirae next.]

EXHIBIT E—If you cruise the shelves of MG (Middle Grade) literature, not only will you see a lot more paranormal these days, reflecting the YA trend at a slightly slower pace, but you will discover that some of the fantasy has been infused with paranormal, like a leak of dark blood into an unsuspecting little pond.

Not that MG fantasy has always been sweetness and light, by any means. As Diana Wynne Jones satirically puts it in The Dark Lord of Derkholm, an awful lot of fantasy books feature some variation of a Sauron or a Voldemort.

Even so, I would argue that more and more, today's MG fantasy contains elements borrowed from the paranormal or horror side of things, creating what's sometimes referred to as "dark fantasy." (Thank you, Neil Gaiman, AKA The Dark Lord of Minneapolis.) And then there's the fact that high fantasy has fallen out of favor. At the same time, low fantasy is definitely on the upswing. (Thank you, Rick Riordan. That would be the guy who's living in a cloud-shrouded penthouse just above the Empire State Building.) We can see a snapshot of these trends by looking at a year's worth of titles recently nominated for the Middle Grade Sci-Fi/Fantasy Cybils Awards*:

—Low fantasy (42)
—Paranormal/horror (23)
—Traditional or high fantasy (21)
—Science fiction/dystopian (17)
—Historical fantasy (9)
—Anthropomorphized animals (8)
—Time travel (5)
—Steampunk (5)
—Other/hard to categorize (4)**
—Superheroes and supervillains (2)
—Magical realism (2)
—Urban fantasy (1)

Please note that of the 21 "traditional" fantasies, relatively few are completely traditional. They are all set in imagined worlds, often of the pseudo-medieval European variety, but they're a motley crew. About a third of them are partly tongue-in-cheek or flat-out spoofs. Two books are adventures without any magic at all, though the worlds are invented. A few more are hybrids of one sort or another. There are only 9 or 10 books I would consider classic or high fantasy—the kind that evokes J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings a little or a lot.

EXHIBIT F—By way of providing still more non-statistically-significant-yet-intriguing evidence, I'll mention that I caught a glimpse of the MG Sci-Fi/Fantasy listings on Publishers Marketplace the other day, and most of the new books bought for publication over the past year were either paranormal, low fantasy, or dark fantasy. Again, there was only a smattering of books that might qualify as traditional fantasy.

EXHIBIT G—Even the covers seem darker, with a lot of bruised-looking black and blue, also some bloody red and oozy green.

Of course, many children's fantasy books are actually a mix of subgenres. For example, consider Rise of the Darklings (The Invisible Order, Book One) by Paul Crilley, which I'm currently reading. It's set in Victorian London, but a London inhabited/invaded by fairies, and not the nice ones, either. There's a horror element reminiscent of Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere here, with Jenny Greenteeth and Black Annis devouring a boy on page 54. For purposes of my little survey, I classified the book as historical fantasy, but it could also be defined as urban fantasy or as dark fantasy.

Take a look at the bleak, shadowy tone of other fantasy titles from the past five years: e.g., Charlie Fletcher's Stoneheart, Chris Wooding's Storm Thief, or N.D. Wilson's 100 Cupboards. For that matter, what about Adam Gidwitz's upcoming book, A Tale Dark and Grimm? And, speaking of Grimm, let's move on to EXHIBIT H. Check out the flap copy for Inkheart author Cornelia Funke's latest MG fantasy, Reckless:
Beyond the mirror, the darkest fairy tales come alive....
For years, Jacob Reckless has enjoyed the Mirrorworld's secrets and treasures.
Not anymore.
His younger brother has followed him.
Now dark magic will turn the boy to beast, break the heart of the girl he loves, and destroy everything Jacob holds most dear....
Unless he can find a way to stop it.
If you're looking for happily ever after, you've come to the wrong place.
That last sentence pretty much it sums up. It's as if a bunch of children's fantasy books sat around getting depressed, while the wind rose and the sky grew dark and rain streaked the window with fear....

Admittedly, thousands of books over the years have defied description, let alone ready classification, which is one of the nice things about books. Nevertheless, the human mind likes patterns (see Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point), and I think it's safe to state that high fantasy is currently out, while low fantasy and dark fantasy are in. The present popularity of paranormal goes without saying! Today's kids seem to like reading about main characters like themselves, contemporary children who must deal with magic and the supernatural either in their ordinary lives or just off the edges of those lives. And a lot of young readers get a kick out of being scared, at least within the safe space of a book.

But what about those other subgenres on the Cybils list? I agree with the reviewers who've been pleased to observe that more science fiction has been written in the past few years, after a long drought. One type of science fiction that has really taken off in YA and is spilling over into MG is dystopian fiction, as exemplified by Suzanne Collins's bestselling book for teens, The Hunger Games. (This trend is easily linked to contemporary fears both nationally and globally about a dark future, by the by. Looking beyond the Meyer-Gaiman Effect, we might argue that dark fantasy and dystopian fiction powerfully represent the generalized anxiety disorder of our time.)

Urban fantasy seems to be a better fit for YA and adult fantasy, though Lesley M.M. Blume's Modern Fairies, Dwarves, Goblins, and Other Nasties: A Practical Guide by Miss Edythe McFate certainly gives it a good shot.

Some kidlit bloggers have remarked that the supposed rise of steampunk reflects a hankering on the part of grown-ups rather than an actual interest on the part of young readers, and I think they're right. Comparatively few of today's kids are into Victoriana and oversized windup toys, frankly.

Historical fantasy is basically a variation of low fantasy, featuring seemingly ordinary children who are beset by magic. It's just that they live a few hundred years ago instead of in contemporary New York or Los Angeles or Tokyo. Time travel is a closely related subgenre, naturally—or perhaps unnaturally. I suspect that broadly speaking, kids may be a bit less interested in historical fantasy than in low fantasy because some tend to feel like they're getting a history lesson when they read these books. (I know, there's some amazing historical fantasy out there! But it may not be the first thing certain kids reach for.)

Another oddster category in SFF is magical realism. I think this is another one that fascinates literary adults more than it does children, but maybe I'll change my tune when someone writes a really stunning MG novel fully implementing this technique. Because hey: Subtlety, thine age is not 10. But I've seen various agents hopefully requesting magical realism, so we'll see what happens.

While a handful of writers have tinkered with superheroes and supervillains in MG fiction, the characters often feel like they took a wrong turn looking for the door to Marvel Comics. However, I firmly believe somebody's due to write something really astonishing in this niche of SFF.

What is the next trend? Besides those sphinxes and moirae, that is? Well, this might not be a trend so much as a request, but I do think we're still waiting for a really good fantasy featuring kids from somewhere like South America, Southeast Asia, or the Middle East—one that isn't just a travelogue, but that implements a specific culture fully into the narrative without poaching or condescending.***

And then there's the world no one's imagined yet... Which is exactly the promise of fantasy, the thing that keeps SFF fans of all ages coming back for more.

Now, we might ask, are the current trends in middle grade sci-fi/fantasy good or bad? The answer is, both. Trends throw their weight around, influencing acquisitions decisions. As a fantasy author who really likes fairy tale retellings and tongue-in-cheek princess stories, I find myself wondering whether I should be writing the next great MG paranormal instead. Yep, the pressure's on!

Then again, the trends are good in the sense that they have refreshed the genre. Any genre needs to be continually reinvented in order to stay strong and surprising. Even though new trends eventually grow stale, their initial effect is to shock readers in a pleasing way, smacking them awake like the chainsaw-grade alarm clocks I read about in the news last week.

Just don't expect a lot of epic fantasy to be published for young readers in the next few years. And don't be surprised to find a touch of chill seeping into your low fantasy!

*If you count the nominees, then add my numbers and discover I'm off by one or two, don't be shocked. But I think I'm pretty darn close. All of the book covers shown above are from the Cybils nominees list.

**In "Other," I included two collections of legends, a book about a guardian angel, and one that was absolutely everything but the kitchen sink.

***See Cynthia Leitich Smith's interview with Tu Book's Stacy Whitman for more thoughts on the potential for multicultural fantasy. Thanks to Charlotte's Library for the link.

Note: You might want to check out our discussion last March at Enchanted Inkpot about
trends in children's fantasy.

Update 10-24-10: Charlotte's Library also shares the news that British fantasy writer Eva Ibbotson has died. In a recent interview Charlotte links, Ibbotson comments on the trends that are the focus of this post. We read: "The current trend for more shocking stories in children's literature surprises [Ibbotson]. In her own childhood, books were a comfort; an escape route from her "pillar-to-post" existence... [Ibbotson states,] 'My impression is that the writing has got better and better but the books have got darker and darker. I don't know what I think about that, being so addicted to making children happy.'"

Update 10-27-10: Kim Aippersbach of Dead Houseplants has written a post about her thoughts on this issue, "Darkness in Children's Literature: How Much Is Too Much?" Apparently the darkening of children's books was addressed by a panel at the recent Surrey International Writing Conference. Aippersbach suggests that even the darker books should include an element of hope.


Anamaria (bookstogether) said...

This is fascinating stuff, Kate! I've been sorting the nominees into (a slightly different set of) categories, too, and would love to compare notes sometime.

And I definitely agree with you about steampunk.

Kate Coombs said...

Anamaria--Oh yes, I'd really like to get your take on this!

Anonymous said...

Whenever anyone talks about trends in MG fantasy, I can never see long-term trends clearly. I consider myself a lifelong fantasy lover, but when I actually look back at the books I LOVED as a child, very few are high fantasy, except maybe Narnia, and that starts out in the real world. My favorites were actually the scary subgenres-- ghost stories, especially, and light horror. And science fantasy like the Time Quartet, obviously. That was in the late eighties, but I don't know how much of a difference that makes in looking at trends, because I have always been a heavy library user, and my favorite book was (is) a horrid green dustjacketless thing from 1962.

But one of the things I have always loved about middle grade fantasy is that it doesn't HAVE to be one thing or another. Adult "fantasy" is pretty much Tolkien knockoffs. YA fantasy apparently pretty much has to be sexy, meh, at least anymore (is that a trend? Or maybe I'm ignoring the younger YA. Diane Duane's Young Wizards is clearly YA and yet isn't sexy, and I mean that in a good way). But middle grade? It can be whatever you want it to be! A humorous little piece regarding a magic artifact in the hands of an ordinary contemporary kid, or a full-blown epic high fantasy, or a mix of everything in between! I LOVE the freedom of fantasy for this age group. And I honestly don't think kids are as picky about subgenres as grownups are.

Kate Coombs said...

RockinL--Good point! I read/shop all three levels of fantasy, and while I think it's clear that the YA and Adult Sci-Fi/Fantasy shelves are dominated by paranormal right now (sexy in both categories, I have to tell you), MG is still pretty freewheeling. I guess as a writer, I have seen some doors close to me lately because I'm more of a traditionalist, which inclines me to consider which way the genre winds are blowing, possibly in too much detail. Fortunately, I truly DON'T think MG will be overwhelmed by paranormal; the marvelous variety you speak of is essentially holding strong. [Sigh of relief!]

And you're right about the kids--they don't care about subgenres as such. However, I do think certain kids are drawn to certain subgenres even without knowing the terminology, just as you were drawn to ghost stories before somebody coined the term "paranormal" and Twilight took over the universe.

Now I really want to know the name of the horrid green dust-jacketless book! My favorite oldie-but-goodie that no one else seems to have read is Taash and the Jesters by Ellen Kindt McKenzie.

Anonymous said...

Now I really want to know the name of the horrid green dust-jacketless book!

It's pretty obvious if you know anything about me at all, but, here anyway!

Kate Coombs said...

Oh, that's an exceedingly great pick! (And a nice post in general.)

Anonymous said...

"As a fantasy author who really likes fairy tale retellings and tongue-in-cheek princess stories, I find myself wondering whether I should be writing the next great MG paranormal instead."

Nooooo! As a reader who enjoys reading fairy tale retellings and tongue-in-cheek princess stories I am saddened to think that many writers are probably wondering this and writing something else instead.

I have seen these trends emerging too and as a mother of a precocious six year old reader (she reads your books independently) it makes me nervous too. She loves fantasy but isn't emotionally ready for this kind of material yet.

Kate Coombs said...

Well, fortunately, I think Amy's right: MG is a place where there's room for a lot of variety, trends or no trends. And then we'll come to the next wave; who knows what that will be?

(If I ever sell my retelling of The Twelve Dancing Princesses, I'll let you know!)

Anne Ursu said...

Kate, this was fascinating. Thank you so much. And I agree with rockin' librarian--MG feels like there are so many more possibilities. Which is, after all, the joy of fantasy.

Kate Coombs said...

Anne--Oh, yes! And though I'll confess to trying my hand at a YA paranormal a year or so ago (no vampires, though), I'm about to start a new project, and I've got notes for both a fairy tale retelling and a traditional fantasy. (So ha!) Just thinking about everything I COULD do in MG fantasy has been completely joyful.

While I find dark fantasy intriguing, I'm still a sucker for a happy ending. :)

Kim Aippersbach said...

I started writing a comment, and it turned into a blog post! (I'd link to it but I don't know how.) Anyway, I basically came to Kate's conclusion: I'll take the darkness but make sure it ends happily!

Kate Coombs said...

Kim--Right click your mouse on the post title and select Copy Shortcut, then paste it into your comment as a web address. (Or, in a blog post, highlight your text phrase, then choose the green linky thing from the menu and paste the shortcut into the little box provided.) Nice post, by the way; I'll add it to my updates!

Kim Aippersbach said...

Okay, I'm going to try:

I was going to comment about A Wrinkle In Time (rockinlibrarian's horrid green book): IT is every bit as scary as anything being published these days--a pulsing giant brain that takes over your thoughts? Seriously creepy!

Kate Coombs said...

Kim--Okay! Or, actually, I linked your article to the bottom of my post with an update. (Ta-da!)

Yes, I remember being pretty creeped out by IT when I was a kid. Mostly because it was so smirkily smug on TOP of being "a pulsing giant brain that takes over your thoughts." Marvelous ick factor!

Sometimes the classics really are the best--like the way Where the Wild Things Are is still the best picture book of all time. And Margaret Mahy's book Changeover has been around for years, but I think it's the best teen paranormal romance ever written. (Sorry, Twilight!)

Kim Aippersbach said...

Thanks, Kate!

I loved the Changeover; it's been years since I read it. Mahy is great at creating suspense without violence or gore or monsters.

You know, the funny thing about blaming Twilight for all the recent darkness is that despite the title and cover, it's hardly a dark book. Least creepy vampires, ever! Now Sunshine, by Robin McKinley, that's got dark creepy vampires!

Kate Coombs said...

Kim--I guess with vampires, it's all relative, and you're right, Twilight is certainly much less dark than a lot of the other stuff out there. But it HAS prompted a huge wave of paranormal books. (Whenever I review one of the YA paranormal romances with a good boy-bad boy-ordinary girl love triangle these days, I'm tempted to refer to them as Jacob, Edward, and Bella...) Oh, and I did read Sunshine, which is pretty much the opposite of sunny. Title irony strikes again!