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)
—Traditional or high fantasy (21)
—Science fiction/dystopian (17)
—Historical fantasy (9)
—Anthropomorphized animals (8)
—Time travel (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....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....
For years, Jacob Reckless has enjoyed the Mirrorworld's secrets and treasures.
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.
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.