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Wizards and Demigods and Shadowhunters, oh my!
Remember the days before "paranormal romance" and "teen fantasy" had their own sections at Barnes and Noble? Well, I do -- and I'm thrilled that those days are in the past where they belong.
Plenty of literary lovers are sticking their noses up as Harry Potter, Katniss Everdeen, and Percy Jackson take the reading world by storm. Fact of the matter is, though, young adult lit audiences can't get enough of the supernatural and fantastical. In a generation of Facebook, e-mail, and text messaging, kids and teens are reading books -- and so are their parents! Why not encourage it?
Some people don't like genre work, and that's fine. Everybody has his or her own preference, right? Still, YA genre literature is growing both in popularity and in terms of the influence of its writers and their creations. There's a lot to be gleaned from these books beyond just plot twists and special powers. YA lit imparts strong, smart characters and meaningful purposes, all wrapped up in adventure and imagination.
Just take a look at the series that launched this surge of genre work back in the late '90s: Harry Potter, which -- as literary legend Stephen King says -- is all about loyalty, bravery, and friendship. Good conquering evil. Earning your happy ending. The King has also given the more recent chart-topping trilogy The Hunger Games his stamp of approval, praising its unique setting, intensity, and memorable characters. Having a strong female protagonist who can take charge and kick butt without a boyfriend doesn't hurt, either.
If I may be so bold, I'd like to add some other titles that deserve shout-outs. Fast-paced adventures like Scott Westerfeld's steampunk version of WWI, the Leviathan trilogy, and any of Rick Riordan's contemporary mythology series (Percy Jackson and the Olympians, The Kane Chronicles, and Heroes of Olympus) show the importance of authors doing their homework. Horror buffs, meet the Shanpires and demons of Darren Shan's Cirque du Freak and Demonata series; Shan's clever work modernizes these classic figures while remembering their roots (meaning no sparkling).
Bookstores are stocking up on YA contemporary fantasy, the latest and greatest trend in writing. This movement does unfortunately invite lesser manuscripts into the market so that publishers can jump on the bandwagon of a hot fad. It's frustrating to see brilliant YA series overlooked due to the sheer volume of options within the genre. However, the rise in YA lit popularity also means that talented genre writers like Cassandra Clare (The Mortal Instruments, The Infernal Devices), Holly Black (The Modern Tales of Faerie, The Curse Workers, Zombies vs Unicorns), Jonathan Stroud (The Bartimaeus Trilogy, The Leap, Buried Fire), Cornelia Funke (Inkheart, The Thief Lord, Reckless), and Diana Peterfreund (Killer Unicorns, The Secret Society) are finally, finally getting the attention they deserve!
These authors -- and many, many more -- combine the supernatural vibe readers crave with well-constructed prose and three-dimensional characters. They're bringing literary merit to the commercial audience, quality writing to the casual reader. YA genre authors challenge their readers while introducing them to worlds of imagination.
Recently, Emerson College Performing Arts Asst. Professor Christina Marin hosted a lecture/interactive event based on her passion for YA genre lit. Dozens of students, myself included, attended as Prof. Marin enthusiastically discussed the draw of wizards, werewolves, and tributes. She led the group in a series of theater games, then brought the themes and experiences of those games into context with YA lit. A fantasy-style rock-paper-scissors sparked discussion of gauging and trying to predict other people's actions, while an exercise on choosing enemies and allies elicited questions about trust and security.
Through these interactive games, Prof. Marin drew parallels to popular themes in YA series and commented on how these books address issues teens deal with today. In the year 2011, many children and teens must deal with adult problems: loneliness, insecurity, and betrayal, to name a few. By opening the pages of these books, readers can find friends in characters struggling with opponents who may be supernatural, fantastical, or horrific, and overcoming them with a special kind of magic that comes from within.
Bookish girls like Hermione Granger and Tessa Gray can use their quick wit to save the day. Clumsy guys like Frank Zhang can become heroes and bring honor and pride to their teammates. Even little kids like Nathaniel can summon powerful djinns and stop the evil plots of cruel magicians.
Prof. Marin threw up her hands in her enthusiasm when praising The Hunger Games protagonist Katniss Everdeen's "I don't need a man" attitude as a much-needed girl power addition to the bestseller list. Consider other genre heroes and heroines. What Harry Potter fan wasn’t on his or her feet when Neville Longbottom sliced through Nagini with the Sword of Griffindor? Mr. Sharp’s quick thinking aboard the airship Leviathan has saved Prince Aleksander how many times now? Who wouldn't want to join long-lost brother and sister duo Carter and Sadie Kane as they take on the Egyptian gods and set out to save the world -- all while learning what it really means to be siblings?
At the end of the event, Prof. Marin gave her closing thoughts on how the emotions and characters of YA genre literature impact readers young and old. Readers are learning from their literary heroes how to stand up to the darkness in the world, to be brave, and to react to situations on a much deeper level of understanding.
Through stories of magic and games, the complexity of the world is made that much easier to grasp. The situations fictional characters face mirror the circumstances with which we as readers must grapple, and knowing that The Boy Who Lived, The Girl who was on Fire, and The Son of Poseidon are on our side lets us know that the odds are ever in our favor.
Links for Further Reading:
Emerson College's campus newspaper, The Berkeley Beacon, weighs in on Prof. Marin's event; article written by Sydney Lester • Wizards, Werewolves, and Fighters: Young Adult Literature Unraveled
Emerson sophomore Emily Files reports for the EC homepage: Marin's Talk Examines Young Adult Lit
In The Library with a Lead Pipe blogger/librarian Gretchen Kolderup discusses the rise of YA lit: Are You Reading YA Lit? You Should Be.