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"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!


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