If you were to look up fantasy in the American Heritgage Dictionary, you would find nine definitions of the word fantasy. Definition number 4 reads, “Fantasy – n- Fiction characterized by highly fanciful or supernatural elements,” which doesn’t really do much to capture the genre.
Looking up fantasy as a genre, you can find that fantasy is separated into high fantasy and low fantasy. High fantasy contains the elements one “normally” associates with fantasy novels – heroes and villains, quests, action, magical beings (ogres, fairies, witches, dragons), and magic. Low fantasy deals with things that can’t really happen in the world as we know it but leaves out the dragons and such of high fantasy (think Freaky Friday or Tuck Everlasting).
Knowing how to identify the genre still doesn’t speak to the popularity of fantasy novels. My classroom library’s fantasy section is pillaged. I can’t keep fantasy novels on my shelves. It has done me great joy to introduce Lloyd Alexander’s The Chronicles of Prydain to another generation of kids; however, another hole appears on the shelves. Looking down the shelves towards realistic fiction (a genre wildly popular only 3 years ago), those shelves are bursting with books that haven’t been taken out. So what’s really going on here?
I don’t know. I’ll be honest with you. I don’t know.
I saw fantasy interest begin to rise when Twilight was wildly popular about 3 or 4 years ago. Twilight madness has died down amongst the middle school set. I no longer see Team Edward or Team Jacob shirts walking the halls. Team Edward has been replaced with Team Katniss, Team Gale, and Team Peeta, which IMHO is a positive change. Even though Twilight fever has broken, fantasy is more popular than ever. My students have moved on to read The Mortal Instruments, The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flammel, His Dark Materials, The Wolves of Mercy Falls, and a lot of dystopic novels.
I see this as an improvement, but I am leery of purchasing too much fantasy for my library, fearing the trend will end, and I’ll be lacking some other genre.
But why fantasy?
Many writers and scholars (Sarah Beth Durst and John Timmerman to name one of each respectively) feel that when times become difficult – as they have in the past few years – people turn to fantasy as an escape. Do we adults discount the impact of our social woes on our children? Probably. That’s the only explanation I have of its surge. How many of my students go home to places that were once peaceful but are now places full of discord because parents are fighting over money, are worried about losing a job, or worse are worried about losing the house? How many students come from families that are no longer in tact because one parent or one family member has been deployed? What are the worries and anxieties our students carry around with them each day? How do they escape those worries?
I believe our world is very stressful for our students (I might say more stressful than when I was in middle school in the mid-80’s). I believe that today’s teens turn to fantasy to escape. To cheer on the hero. To have a villain to hate. To have something to blame for a poor turn of fate. Our world lacks clear-cut, black and white lines – good vs. bad, safe vs. dangerous. Fantasy has clear lines. However, the lines are not initially clear – is the werewolf foe or friend? As the plot unfolds, the lines become clear and the werewolf question has an answer. In the modern world our questions often have no one answer. Things are complex and confusing. With its complex characters and many plot lines, fantasy is complex to read, but the answers sort themselves out eventually. And, as an added bonus, if you find yourself on the wrong side of fate, there’s something you, the hero, can do to get back on the right side of fate, and a quest becomes necessary. Usually the quest takes many books to be achieved, but right will win in the end. And the world will be put back in order.
Furthermore, adults don’t know everything or control everything in the YA fantasy novel. Oftentimes, it is the teen protagonist and hero who is responsible for saving the adults and putting the world in order. In other words, it gives teens a sense of empowerment. They do have some control in this crazy world we live in.
In simple terms fantasy offers escape and hope.
Somewhere along the way, I think students also learn something about themselves, but more of that in a later blog.
Until next time, See YA!