Alaya Dawn Johnson: What Makes YA Fantasy So Awesome

Alaya Dawn Johnson is a young fantasy writer whose debut novel, Racing the Dark, has been drawing comparisons to authors like Paulo Coelho and Ursula K. LeGuin. You can read one of her shorter works, the novella “Shard of Glass,” at the Strange Horizons website, and in this essay, she explains what attracts her to young adult fantasy, as both a writer and a reader.

alaya-dawn-johnson.jpgI love young adult fantasy. My life underwent a sea-change when I discovered Diana Wynne Jones in sixth grade, and I’ve never grown out of it. What I especially love about young adult fantasy is a certain quality of focus, wherein even epic situations have a very personal orientation. In other words, the world might be about to get destroyed, but instead of hearing the story from the point of view of the king and his advisors and soldiers (the George R.R. Martin model), the young adult fantasy novel focuses on the scribe buried in the library (The Alphabet of Thorn by Patricia McKillip), or the thief falling in love with his greatest enemy (The Thief and sequels by Megan Whalen Turner).

But even better, in YA fantasy the world is frequently not in any danger at all. There’s no more of a “chosen one” in these novels than there is in real life. The problems are closer to those we encounter in our own lives, no matter how exotic the setting. So, in Summers at Castle Auburn by Sharon Shinn, the main character has to confront how she has enabled the slavery of another race. In The Homeward Bounders by Diana Wynne Jones, the main character struggles over nearly a hundred years just to get home.

But in fantasy, distinctions between young adult and adult are functionally porous. Take The Lord of the Rings. It’s a classic of adult fantasy literature, endlessly emulated by thousands of orc-infested wannabes, but by far the majority of people I know read these books between the ages of eight and thirteen. Funny, right? And when you think about the nature of the “simple farm boy/hobbit leaves home and ends up saving the world” formula plot, you can see why it would appeal to the eight or nine year old bored to death at summer camp.

In many ways, I think that the fantasy literature specifically branded as “young adult” is a good deal more intelligent and emotionally insightful than its adult counterparts. While its greater brevity and tighter focus on character might remove some of the epic sweep of the story, it forces an economy of language; the story is all the more powerful for having been pared to its essential heart. I’m speaking in grand generalities, of course. There is plenty of godawful young adult fantasy, and plenty of superlative adult fantasy. But I think it’s not a coincidence that my enthusiasm for young adult fantasy has only grown along with its resurgence in the marketplace, whereas my reaction to most adult fantasy is one of weary curiosity. I just don’t want to read about pot-boys with destinies anymore, or even about a cast of fifty ruthless royal politicians and soldiers all vying for some stupid throne. It turns out that I find politics just as frustrating and mystifying and morally bankrupt in fiction as I do in real life.

When I sat down to write Racing the Dark, I knew I wanted to create the kind of story that had inspired me so much over the years. I wanted to write a coming of age story where the focus was explicitly personal, and the story arc derived from the main character’s relationships, not some destiny slapped on her shoulders by the ill-disguised hand of the author. So Lana makes her life-altering decision in the novel in order to save her mother’s life—not to please a god, or save the world, or fulfill a quest. YA fantasy, to me, is determined by this quality of focus (and the age of the characters, to some extent), not the label on the spine. And it’s why young adult fantasy truly represents the best of its genre.

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16 February 2008 | guest authors |