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07 March 2010 @ 10:11 pm
"New-Fashioned" Fantasy: What Does It Look Like?  


Last August, Anna Staniszewski interviewed middle school librarian Sarah Chessman, who stated: "The Harry Potters still go out, which makes sense because most of my students would have been too young to read them when they were new... In a way, it's easier to say what I don't see go out more than what I do... I don't see the Lloyd Alexander, Tamora Pierce and Susan Cooper stuff go out very much at all. I send students there when they say they want fantasy, but I think a lot of it is too 'old-fashioned' for them."

Chessman's words got me thinking about how children's fantasy has changed over the past 50 years. What does today's fantasy look like, and how is it different from the work of decades past? I put my head together with the Inkies, and here are some of the things we came up with:

The New Fantasy is Here, Not There
It's more likely to be set in our contemporary world than in some distant, medieval-style kingdom. High or epic fantasy is mostly out, while low fantasy, based on the real world, is in.

One of the things that an agent said to me was that some types of high fantasy were out—specifically the Tolkienesque fantasy. Where it is set in a completely alternate world with invented language, etc. But high fantasy that has a world within a world—like Harry Potter and Percy Jackson and the Nicholas Flamel series—is still hot. Urban fantasy and low fantasy is still popular. —Ellen Oh

One thing I think of the rise of urban fantasy or real world-related fantasy (even classics like Alice in Wonderland or Narnia) is that readers want to project *themselves* into the possible alternate magical world, which is perhaps easier to do if you can envision yourself here and it has elements of the fantastic (Harry Potter, Twilight, Lament, Shiver, Tithe, Wicked Lovely, etc.)—it's almost as if it could happen to you as opposed to the extra imagination necessary to project yourself into a completely fantastical world through the eyes of a foreign/fantastic creature... I tend to think it's the yearning to have something magic touch us in this world, right now.... —Dawn Metcalf

I wonder if part of that shift [away from traditional fantasy] is a result of books like Harry Potter which many people don't think of as fantasy. I've had students tell me that they hate fantasy but they love Harry Potter. If it has traces of our world in it, many people don't consider it to be fantasy. —Anna Staniszewski

I think the idea of *magic* occurring around us, in a world that is familiar to us, is a big draw. That each of us, average though we are, could have a secret powerful ability. Thank you Harry Potter. —Kiki Hamilton

The New Fantasy Has Feisty Feminist Sheroes
Yesterday's damsels in distress are out distressing the fantasy villains in today's books—e.g., in Kristin Cashore's Graceling or Laini Taylor's Blackbringer.

I definitely think you're onto something with [your] "feisty feminist women characters" theory. The subtle (or sometimes not-so-subtle—don't get me started on Narnia) bias against strong female characters seems to have lifted—even when I read The Dark is Rising series as a young teen I kind of felt Greenwitch was the token girl book and was put off by that. —Marissa Doyle

The New Fantasy is Fast-Paced, with a Commercial, Filmic Flair
Today's young readers, raised on TV and video games, seem to expect a more action-packed kind of storytelling than their parents and grandparents did. Meanwhile, publishers' expectations, fueled by the success of Harry Potter and Twilight, have turned children's books from a tranquil corner of the market into a high-stakes endeavor where agents and editors confer hopefully about movie options.

When we're talking about "new fantasy," I always wonder when the cut-off date is for separating old and new because the only real difference (that I can see) is that the market takes YA and MG fiction much more seriously on a commercial footing than it did perhaps 20 years ago, so there seems to be more interest in satisfying the market and market trends than there was back when C.S. Lewis or even Lewis Carroll, J.M. Barrie or E. Nesbit were writing. —Caroline Hooton

A few summers ago, I attended a children's writers conference (SCBWI) where it seemed every single speaker talked about how "quiet books" were out. Later, an agent rejected a submission of mine because it was "too quiet." I quickly learned that "quiet" meant slow-paced and thoughtful. In a world dominated by Twitter, sound bites, and compact narrative formats such as movies, there's less room for the kinds of stories written 20-30 years ago. (At a more recent conference, the editors were talking about how they didn't want any midlist authors, just bestsellers. Whereupon another editor inquired, "How can you have a list without a middle?") —Kate Coombs

The New Fantasy and Its Variations Are Darker
Whether it's urban fantasy with elves on motorcycles by the likes of Holly Black or Maggie Steifvater; steampunk, such as Scott Westerfeld's Leviathan or Eoin Colfer's Airman; or the new crop of fairy tale retellings, e.g., Alex Flinn's Beastly or Nancy Werlin's Impossible; you'll find that the new fantasy skews darker than in the past, especially for YA readers. Genres like paranormal romance and dystopian fiction seem, more than ever, to be variations of fantasy.

Dystopian fiction, to me, has the same allure—it feels relevant. It's hard not to think we're constantly poised on the razor brink of exactly the kind of things they portray plus or minus the odd faerie or two? (Not to mention that the makeover scenes in The Hunger Games sounded like a fairly accurate description of current haute couture.) —Kate Milford

There's a lot more segmentation within what would broadly be considered fantasy—e.g. paranormal romance, urban fantasy, alternate world fantasy.... Tone also seems to be darker nowadays, particularly with YA fantasy, with horror and dark fantasy really coming to the fore. —Caroline Hooton

My instinctual reaction is that the "new-fangled" fantasy tends to include non-fantasy hooks, such as romance (typically with some really hot teen boy), dystopia, or "realism." If you combine all three you get The Hunger Games. (I know, we could debate whether Hunger Games is fantasy or sci-fi ... I kinda think it's both.) —Malinda Lo


The New Fantasy Is Serious about Series

Standalones need not apply in today's publishing world. After all, series make both readers and publishers happy, generating repeat sales through ongoing encounters with beloved characters. Even when a book is published on its lonesome, it apparently needs to have the potential for a sequel or two.

Franchise seems to be a buzz word as well—many of the books released are a prelude to a series or trilogy. I don't think I've read one fantasy for the MG/YA audience that has not at least hinted at series/trilogy potential. —Caroline Hooton

The New Fantasy Is Inclusive
More than one publisher has been criticized recently for depicting light-skinned young people on the covers of books about dark-skinned characters. Aside from these book jacket blunders, children's fantasy today is more inclusive than in the past. It also makes a point of avoiding racism and other types of discrimination. In addition, more writers are drawing on the great storytelling traditions of world cultures.

The new fantasy is more culturally aware. Not only is it more open to adapting/utilising myths, legends from non-western cultures (e.g. Karen Kincy's forthcoming Other) but also in terms of having characters and heroes who aren't white. Much as I loved the Chronicles of Narnia, there's a strong element of race-fail in Prince Caspian that you wouldn't get away with nowadays. —Caroline Hooton

The New Fantasy Is in Love with Cities

One interesting trend is towards "setting as character," especially when it comes to rich, atmospheric cities.

Cities and location play a more important role in contemporary fantasy, often tying in with themes and tone. —Caroline Hooton

For me the lure of city fiction, especially if it's more-or-less contemporary, is that, as someone who desperately loves cities and towns of all sizes, I think there's a weirdness ... to cities and towns of the real world that needs only the slightest twisting and bending to push it over the edge into fantasy. And I think that's the joy of reading things like speculative and urban fiction, maybe especially if you're sensitive to the real-world oddities of place: it feels...I don't know...plausible? Close to home? ... Two examples pop to mind: Neil Gaiman's American Gods, which actually has a phrase in it about how roadside attractions are places of great power (and which I believe—I'd been to one or two of the places he included as settings, and boy, did his use of them just feel right); and Cassandra Clare's City of Bones, which takes place in and around Brooklyn and, again, just gets it right—both the city and the way the world of the story inhabits it. When I read books like these, my sense of the weird and miraculous and odd in the places I already live is sharpened, and I appreciate them all the more. —Kate Milford

The New Fantasy Features Timeless Hooks
Yes, romance still appeals particularly to girls—who are the primary readers of children's and YA fantasy—while action/adventure is often written with the intent of appealing to the elusive boy reader.

I just interviewed two local middle librarians which I will post tomorrow. When I asked what trends they were seeing in fantasy, the answer was: vampires for girls, action/adventure for boys. Specifically: mythology, vampires, dragons, fairy tales, spy stories, and good vs. evil. —Kiki Hamilton

I do think that high fantasy is published less often these days, and I think part of the reason that Cashore has been successful is because she has a big romance hook with hers (more with Graceling than Fire). —Malinda Lo

And One Thing Never Changes...
Amidst these notable trends in children's fantasy, we must return to the reason people love books in the first place: the universal power of good storytelling.

My latest book is high fantasy—because it has queens and castles—but it's more of an adventure romance with some pagan mythology. The focus for me wasn't the genre—but the characters and their stories, if that makes sense. For me, as a reader, I'll read anything if I get pulled in by the characters. —Jenny Moss

Some elements of fantasy—whether old or new—are timeless. A good story with plenty of adventure, a touch of humour and a happy ending will always have a place on the shelves. —Caroline Hooton

There you have it: our epic conversation on how children's fantasy has changed since the days of Lewis and Tolkien. So what do you think? What changes have you seen? Do you agree or disagree with the trends we've discussed? Leave a comment and let us know!

Current Mood: Curiouser
Skylark: exploreskyewishes on March 8th, 2010 07:26 am (UTC)
This was a really interesting read, thank you! I loved hearing all of your opinions.

It makes me sad that 'quiet' books are less popular now, because I enjoy them. Still, happily now and then one slips through the publishing cracks, such as 'The Penderwicks' series.

I actually found some of the earlier Harry Potter books too busy, too active. There were just so many things happening (if you ever reread Philosopher's Stone, count how many events are in each chapter.)and you couldn't just sit back and enjoy the world. Of course this changed dramtically, along with the editing, come book 4.

I feel the magic of that series is summed up nicely in a quote of Jo's "a world within a world that you can only see if you happen to belong.." who wouldn't feel the lure of that?

I love classic fantasy, but I'm glad that authors have more freedom to experiment now and test the boundries of the genre. It is very exciting! I'm a huge fan of the historical fantasy that has emerged lately.
katecoombs on March 8th, 2010 02:23 pm (UTC)
Go, Penderwicks! Yeah, some of the newer stuff feels a bit frenetic, but it is also often sort of swashbuckling and experimental, as you say. And thanks for bringing up the new historical fantasy!
Quiet books - keelyinkster on March 9th, 2010 10:11 pm (UTC) (Expand)
lunalilalunalila on March 8th, 2010 09:22 am (UTC)
Thanks so much for this post. It was really interesting!
Funny how kids don't consider Harry Potter to be fantasy. It made me think about it. I can understand the strength of the sense of belonging to a special group of people who happen to know.
Not so long ago, a kid told me he was expecting to be 11 so he'd get a letter from Hogwarts. That was a cool inter-textual experience, as I was at a school talking about reading and writing with kids.
katecoombs on March 8th, 2010 02:24 pm (UTC)
Glad you liked the post! What a great story about the kid who wants his Hogwarts letter--I hope he isn't too disappointed when all he gets is a video game.

Edited at 2010-03-08 02:55 pm (UTC)
Devadeva_fagan on March 8th, 2010 10:09 am (UTC)
Excellent post! I think there are exceptions to every rule, of course, but I do see a lot of all these trends on the bookshelves.

And I think that last point is the most important. Some book can always come along and blow away all our expectations, as long as it tells a fantastic story.
katecoombs on March 8th, 2010 02:16 pm (UTC)
Deva--Oh, yes! Thank heavens for the exceptions! I guess from a writing standpoint, you just have to be aware that agents and editors might be a little more reluctant to accept your high fantasy unless you've outwritten every kid on the block. But it happens!
Caroline Hootonhooton on March 8th, 2010 11:25 am (UTC)
It's more likely to be set in our contemporary world than in some distant, medieval-style kingdom. High or epic fantasy is mostly out, while low fantasy, based on the real world, is in.

I've been thinking about this some more and I wonder if the popularity of Graceling and Fire by Kristin Cashore and the rise of authors such as Janice Hardy (The Pain Shifter) will see the trend move.

Yes, romance still appeals particularly to girls—who are the primary readers of children's and YA fantasy—while action/adventure is often written with the intent of appealing to the elusive boy reader.

This weekend I got asked to come up with some MG reading suggestions for an 11 year old boy who loves Percy Jackson but for whom the front cover is the key factor that determines whether he'll read it. Anything with a girl on the front page or anything pink is right out and he doesn't want anything romantic either. I really struggled to come up with a list of books that I thought he'd like that were specifically SF or fantasy, but did have more luck coming up with spy thrillers or straight-forward action adventures that I thought he'd like.

I also really struggled to come up with anything that didn't at least have a hint of a romance element. The best I could come up with was Dean Lorey's Nightmare Academy and the HIVE series (the MCs in each seem pretty oblivious of girls generally).

One interesting trend is towards "setting as character," especially when it comes to rich, atmospheric cities.

As a flagrant self-plug, my WIP is set in London and I really wanted to tap into the history (which, if you come here, is literally all around you) so I have flashbacks to historical moments as seen through the eyes of my MC and I use museums and landmarks to centre the action. At the same time, I wanted to draw out some of the modernity as well, which is why I put my villain in his own Canary Wharf skyscraper.
R.J. Andersonrj_anderson on March 8th, 2010 01:42 pm (UTC)
My experience, based on reading to my 9 year old son, is that boys under 12 will often say they don't want even a hint of anything romantic, and if anything romantic comes up in the story that you're reading to them, they'll make faces and moan. But secretly they are a little bit curious and will put up with it or even enjoy it if nobody is watching.

So what you really want for a boy that age IMO is not necessarily a book with zero romance, just a book that doesn't look like it has any romance in it based on the cover, and where the romantic parts don't dominate the story or drive the plot. :)
(no subject) - hooton on March 8th, 2010 02:04 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - rj_anderson on March 8th, 2010 03:42 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - katecoombs on March 8th, 2010 02:19 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - (Anonymous) on March 11th, 2010 05:11 pm (UTC) (Expand)
dawn_metcalf: Shiny!dawn_metcalf on March 8th, 2010 01:24 pm (UTC)
Excellent post!

The more I've thought about it, the more I consider the P.C. ramifications and its tug-of-war with going "darker." YA (and some MG) fantasy is aimed to be edgier or grittier yet is careful about being equal-opportunity as it can, including strong female protagonists, People of Color, sometimes even a disability or challenge beyond being near-sighted and/or scarred.

I've just been reading DEVIL'S KISS which I applaud for being undeniably dark and heavily-researched with a rich backstory, but especially noting that our heroine is half-Pakistani, Muslim and feels things deeply and daily about her beliefs and her faith, her cobbled-together family and their work.

I think many could identify with these big issues: Who am I? What does Family mean? What do I, personally, believe? These are great questions answered in old favorites like Cooper and Lackey and Pierce and I hope that readers who love the modern record-busters can check out the classics that inspired them!
katecoombs on March 8th, 2010 02:22 pm (UTC)
Thanks, Dawn! I hate to hear that kids aren't getting their hands on Cooper and Pierce et al. as much these days, but if they're serious readers, I suspect they'll run out of bestsellers and bite--then discover what they've been missing.

Edited at 2010-03-08 02:26 pm (UTC)
(Anonymous) on March 8th, 2010 02:42 pm (UTC)
It's funny that people always put Graceling in as an example of "new fantasy," and it's often portrayed as a sexy, action-heroine book.

To me, Graceling was a perfect example of old-fashioned fantasy, in the best possible way. It was a high fantasy other-world setting. It featured a slow-burning romance in which friendship, trust and discovering a personal attitude to love was primary over banter and sexual tension (granted, the romance comes to the fore more than in most old fantasy books, but I think that's largely due to the fact that it's YA, which as a category has more interest in romance than than MG or adult, which most earlier kids' fantasy' books fall into). Although the heroine was certainly an awesome fighter, the feel of the book seemed to me more about quiet determination and thoughtful self-discovery than action.

To me, this focus on self-discovery and finding a way for love and independance to balance in a full life reminded me most of the sweet romance in Ella Enchanted (which isn't that old, but has a similarly old-fashioned-in-the-good-way feel) and the quiet maturity of the later Prydain Chronicles.

I do love the new-style fantasy: real-world settings, action and witty banter and willingness to go really dark when necessary = awesome. But I think there's still a place for fabulous, far-away worlds and subtle, complex maturity. Graceling proves it!

Sorry for the length of that. This is just something that's been nagging at me for a while.
katecoombs on March 8th, 2010 02:49 pm (UTC)
Lianne--You're making me want to go reread Graceling! Thanks for the insights. Of course, any delineation as simple as "old style" and "new style" is going to miss the subtleties of many, many books which fall all over and even clear off the continuum. For example, one of my favorite new fantasies is Shaun Tan's The Arrival, but people mostly talk about it as a graphic novel. :)
(Deleted comment)
annastanannastan on March 8th, 2010 02:43 pm (UTC)
Great post! I love the bit about the "weirdness" of cities translating into fantasy. It's true that they're often filled with odd histories, strange occurrences, and an assortment of wacky characters that make them perfect settings.
katecoombs on March 8th, 2010 02:50 pm (UTC)
Thanks, Anna. I thought Kate Milford's riff on cities was one of the coolest things I've read lately!
ebooraem on March 8th, 2010 04:05 pm (UTC)
Love this post! Particularly since I was a huge Tolkien fan in my youth, but now find I (like the rest of the reading world, apparently) gravitate toward fantasies with one foot in the real world: the Alice-in-Wonderland model, where somebody like us goes someplace bizarre; or the ET model, where somebody/something bizarre enters our world; or the Dark is Rising model, where our world turns out not to be as "normal" as we thought it was.

I wonder if today's world feels a tad more uncomfortable than The Old Days of my youth, so I'm not quite so willing to step into a completely unfamiliar world. I need a guide...Harry Potter, Alice, whoever...to share my amazement and fear at this strange place we're visiting.
chris_brodien on March 8th, 2010 07:18 pm (UTC)
"New-Fashioned" Fantasy
I love this post! It sort of sent my head spinning, there's sooo much to absorb! Dawn Metcalf, I loved what you said about why today's readers are drawn to contemporary fantasy: "the yearning to have something magic touch us in this world, right now."

When I was young I devoured everything I could find by Edward Eager and Madeleine L'Engle. I also loved Margot Benary-Isbert (The Wicked Enchantment). The idea of crossing over from the 'real' world to a fantasy world struck me as scary and thrilling. In my child's mind I always believed that maybe that sort of thing could happen to me.. if I turned a certain corner, climbed a twisty stairway, discovered a magic stone..

I agree with Caroline Hooton that some elements of fantasy, whether classic or modern, are timeless. In the end, after all, it's about telling a whopping good story...
katecoombs on March 8th, 2010 11:48 pm (UTC)
Re: "New-Fashioned" Fantasy
Chris--I LOVE The Wicked Enchantment, but nobody ever talks about it! It was one of those out-of-print books I tracked down as soon as I grew up and figured out where to look. And as you and Ellen B. both suggest, the real world has always seemed pretty mysterious and magical to me.

Edited at 2010-03-09 12:27 am (UTC)
Lisa Greenlisagailgreen on March 8th, 2010 07:51 pm (UTC)
What an awesome post! You are right on in my opinion. It's funny because I too, gravitate toward the "one foot in the real world" kind of fantasy. Both in writing and in reading. There's something about that line of possibility being just that much closer that makes it so tantalizing, I think.

As writers we constantly hear things like, this is too overdone now - stay away from it, or in this case, high fantasy isn't in so don't do it. But I say, write what is best for you and if it's GREAT then it will work.
(Anonymous) on March 8th, 2010 08:57 pm (UTC)
New Fantasy
I found this post fascinating as I am writing a book for 8-12's that is a time travelling historical fantsy. It is rooted in the real world although the main protaganists travel through time. It is encouraging as a 'writer in progress' that my story may well be the sort of thing agents want to see. This is probably because I have been reading little else (Wolf Brother series, Shiver, Septimus Heap etc). Great post thank you
natalieag on March 9th, 2010 12:59 am (UTC)
Re: New Fantasy
What a great post. I loved reading all your comments and the detailed analysis of the trends in fantasy. While it may not be as popular, I still love reading and writing high fantasy.
kikihamiltonkikihamilton on March 11th, 2010 12:19 am (UTC)
Great post Kate! Wow! I loved reading everyone's thoughts on the topic. I was one of those who loved WICKED ENCHANTMENT also and had to hunt down my own personal copy as an adult. Another "old" fantasy that I loved was THE SWING IN THE SUMMERHOUSE. (I'll remember the author's name as soon as I hit 'post'.)

I also agree that GRACELING is high / epic fantasy - proving there is still demand for that segment of the market and underscoring the idea that intriguing characters with a compelling story will find readers.

I wonder if those 'old-fashioned' stories with queens and castles that are perceived to not be in demand now will just be written in a 'faster' style - more action, more danger, more romance - to apply to our modern sensibilities for immediate gratification.
katecoombs on March 11th, 2010 01:06 am (UTC)
Thanks, Kiki! Everybody had such interesting things to say. I'm glad you are also a fan of Wicked Enchantment; now I'll have to go look for The Swing in the Summerhouse. (Wait, Jane Langton! I have that series. It's wonderful.)

And I think you're absolutely right--when we do see high fantasy in the next few years, it will probably often incorporate some of the other elements discussed above, such as heightened action/tension, not to mention that bestselling Edward-and-Bella factor, romance!

Edited at 2010-03-11 01:08 am (UTC)
fidealdh: art: maidenfidealdh on March 11th, 2010 08:58 pm (UTC)
This was a great read with some insightful comments.
Yet I could not help thinking that, surely, even with new trends in fantasy, children are just as likely to read, appreciate and enjoy older works?

I personally find that the emphasis for sequels and franchises is off-putting, as it becomes more about the money and less about the story.
katecoombs on March 11th, 2010 11:43 pm (UTC)
Well, we could talk about different types of readers, too. I suspect that the more serious child readers will gobble up older, subtler works as well as the new stuff, while less dedicated readers might not. I just visited a 6th grader who's been reading 3 books at a time at my instigation, and she gave one of them back, saying, "There's not enough action in this one." Sure enough, it's a marvelous "quiet" book.

And yes, sequel mill syndrome is all too common. It's obviously a challenge to maintain the momentum in a series, so I admire writers who can keep it up. I'm sure most of us avid readers have had the experience of following a series for 3-4 books and then realizing we're just not interested anymore.