Like many other genres, lack of diversity can be an issue in YA fantasy (Reese, 2013). Talk to any expert and you may hear jokes about young white girls in dresses or fighting gear gracing the covers of many a title. In the past, novels that did feature characters of color may have served as “tokens” or have been represented inaccurately. Of course, exception did exist, but there were still far too few books about non-white teens. The same goes for other types of diversity; there were LGBTQ characters in YA fiction, but not as many in fantasy novels.
However, in YA and in publishing, calls for more diversity and #OwnVoices narratives have begun to lead to a plethora of excellent titles that reflect the rich diversity in the U.S. and other countries. Books like Children of Blood and Bones, Ash, The Star Touched Queen, Ember in the Ashes, The Raven Boys, Girls of Paper and Fire, Labyrinth Lost, and Shadowshaper have all introduced characters and cultures outside the norm — and have found thousands of readers eager for more. It’s now almost a given that any new YA fantasy series must feature racial and sexual diversity, and the more, the better.
vampires, mermaids, fae, and witches, oh my!
Every few years it seems as if a new trend takes hold in YA fantasy. With Harry Potter, there were scores of books about witches and wizards, and years later, with Twilight and Vampire Academy, teens (and adults!) were devouring paranormal romance novels by the dozen, entrenching the subgenre as a mainstay (Cart, 2016). Books about other creatures did well, such as mermaids and angels, but in recent years, (the) Fae seem to be the creature du jour. Series like A Court of Thorns and Roses, Throne of Glass, and The Cruel Prince feature the powerful Fae, as well as the classic “chosen one.”
boy oh boy
In the media and popular culture, fantasy as been portrayed as a masculine genre, with romance reserved for female readers. Books that featured strong, complex women that didn’t merely serve as love interests were few and far between. With authors such as Tamora Pierce, however, three-dimensional female characters arose onto the scene, paving the way for the abundance of female-fronted YA fantasy novels. Now, it’s incredibly common for characters like Aelin from Throne of Glass, Hermione from Harry Potter, Safiya from Truthwitch, Katsa from Graceling, or Xifeng from Forest of a Thousand Lanterns to be found in YA novels. While there may be romantic elements in these books, the larger arcs focus on friendship (Truthwitch), coming into your own power and wisdom (Throne of Glass), and accepting your true self (Graceling).
As with “adult” fantasy, YA fantasy explores the fantastic; as Michael Cart notes, “one of fantasy’s most attractive features has been its implicit invitation to escape this careworn world for a visit to a more appealing one, if only in one’s imagination” (pp. 98-99). Teens turn to fantasy to envision seductive Fae, powerful girls-turned-Goddesses, boy wizards, and thousands year old vampires, but find themselves exploring real issues along the way. With these novels, teens learn about the ambiguities between good and evil and right and wrong (Cart, p. 99; Herald, p. 86). For example, in the Throne of Glass series, Celaena/Aelin struggles with the burden of saving her people (and the world), and living her life, which is a common theme in “chosen one” narratives (see: Buffy the Vampire Slayer). Alina Starkov in The Grisha Trilogy struggles to accept the burden of her power and making sacrifices — another theme common in the genre (again, see: Buffy the Vampire Slayer for the TV equivalent). These young teens often find themselves leading their friends, family, and allies into literal and figurative battles, and come of age in the process, thus the “young adultness” of the genre. These heroes and heroines “accomplish deeds that make them larger than life” and “start out as seemingly ordinary individuals who, through sacrifice, hard work, and courage, accomplish heroic deeds” (Herald, p. 98). Whether aided by magic, friendly beasts, or time travel, these young folks save the world and discover their true selves on the journey (Herald).
New adult/young adult
Much ado has been made about the number of adult readers of YA — more than half of the readers of the genre are, in fact, adults (Kitchener, 2017). How has their dominance of the market affected the genre?
As Cart writes, “new adult” has been created to portray the experiences of “nineteen- to twenty-five-year-olds” who are navigating college, jobs, serious romances, and issues with identity (p. 143). One characteristic of the genre (or subgenre?) is the “steaminess” factor, with characters often engaging in more graphic and frequent sexual encounters. As adults yearn for YA fiction, but with heavier and more adult scenes, the blending of general adult fiction and YA is likely to continue. One can see this in the YA-marketed but NA in content A Court of Thorns and Roses series by Sarah J. Maas; in many libraries and bookstores, the series is cataloged/displayed as YA fantasy, despite the frequent adult sexual scenes. As adults continue to have such buying power in the market, we may continue to see the “aging up” of YA, especially as the genre remains so lucrative.
Future trends + conclusion
What’s next in YA fantasy?
Based on my research, and the interests of the teens I work with, the strong female characters seem to popular with no end in sight. Asian and African-inspired retellings seem to be a hit as well, with Children of Blood and Bones’ success signaling many more similar titles to come. We can continue to expect more LGBTQ characters, perhaps even several, as seen in Seanan McGuire’s Every Heart a Doorway series, and with the addition of intersecting identities (Waters, 2016). Romance continues to be a compelling element in the genre, although, as discussed, other themes continue to remain important — in the age of #MeToo and the popularity of feminism, we can expect to see more stories about sisterhood and friendship. The success of Anna-Marie McLemore, Emily X.R. Pan, Leslye Walton, and A.S. King may herald more stories under the magical realism banner, as well as more morally ambiguous characters.
Regardless of the trends, fantasy will continue to be a lifeline to many readers, young and old alike, who seek escape, new world and possibilities, and hope for a better future.
While I hope that my bias is not abundantly obvious, a careful reader may have picked up on some of my favorite authors and/or books. Here are some I recommend, some of which appear throughout this project:
Graceling by Kristin Cashore
Throne of Glass and A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J. Maas
The Raven Cycle by Maggie Stiefvater
The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender by Leslye Walton
Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire
Vampire Academy by Richelle Mead
A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray
The Falconer by Elizabeth May
Truthwitch by Susan Dennard
The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline (Dystopian, with fantastical elements)
The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemison (adult, but if they can read Maas, they can read Jemison)
Orange by Ichigo Takano (manga)
Pemmican Wars by Katharena Vermette (graphic novel; historical fiction/time travel)