I was in Chapters the other day, minding Vivian, when I happened to look over to one of the information kiosks and discovered that Neil Gaiman had won the Newbery Medal for his novel, The Graveyard Book. And I have to tell you, I stood there and grinned like an idiot. (Click hear for Neil Gaiman’s reaction upon hearing the news)
The Newbery, of course, is one of the highest honours young adult novels can receive in the United States. Its short list is selected and voted upon by members of the American Libraries Association. It’s just like winning the Governor General’s Award here in Canada, except that the Newbery has a higher prize and an impact that stretches beyond America’s boundaries.
I’m only just reading this novel and am about halfway through. It’s a good novel but I’m still reserving judgement on how good it is. Still it feels good to have a genre novel take one of the most prestigious honours available in the North American young adult book market. It feels good because it’s so rare. From the difficulties The Lord of the Rings had in being recognized at the Oscars (being forced to wait until it had the full weight of three movies behind it before it could win Best Picture), to the way the Emmys used to constantly overlook the achievements of Star Trek or Buffy, science fiction and fantasy have had little respect from the mainstream. The bias is that it’s not literary enough, and that we authors are somehow a little too immature to be respected.
Couple young adult to fantasy and the level of contempt deepens in some quarters. Witness this article from the New Yorker, which expresses surprise that a young adult novel could be good literature, when clearly the problem was that the reviewer hadn’t stuck her nose in a young adult book for a while, thanks to her own preconceptions:
MACY HALFORD: The book totally surpassed my expectations. I tend to think of young-adult fiction as sort of facile—a straightforward style, uncomplicated themes and morals—but this had a complexity, an ambiguity, that surprised me, and I loved Koja’s sentence structure, how she interweaved dialogue and exposition so fluidly.
It fit my expectations in terms of length and enjoyableness, though: I assume that anything branded “young adult” needs to have a plotline that captures a teen’s attention, and also needs to be not too long or challenging.
MISHAN: I’m grateful that Koja didn’t try to make more of the story than it is. Even Lily seems aware that her big decision—whether or not to transfer to another prep school—is not a matter of life and death. But I wonder if this is part of what demarcates young-adult fiction. Surely we demand of “adult” writers (or perhaps what I really mean is “great” writers) higher moral and philosophical stakes?
Young adult author Carrie Ryan doesn’t spare the snark:
But honestly, the greatest relief came when I read this line: ‘Surely we demand of “adult” writers (or perhaps what I really mean is “great” writers) higher moral and philosophical stakes…” The relief comes in knowing that I can lower my expectations for myself and my book. I’m not an adult writer, therefore I don’t have to strive for higher stakes. Whew! Talk about a load off!
Sometimes if you gather a bunch of young adult or fantasy authors together, you get a lineup of Rodney Dangerfields. We get no respect, it seems. The nature of our genres suggests that our books are juvenile, somehow afraid to address the literary realities of the adult world, or perhaps that our willingness to include magic in our world suggests an unwillingness to play by the rules of serious fiction.
The desire to be “literary” extends even the young adult set. Recently, there have been a number of articles that have criticized the Newbery selections as being fine literary works, but not works that actual teenagers would have much interest in actually reading. One wonders if the selection of Gaiman’s work comes in response of this, which again is not to say that a popular book like Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book isn’t of literary value.
Whatever the case, without fantasy, we wouldn’t have either the Narnia sequence to explore the depths of Christianity, or Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials sequence to frame an atheist rebuttal of it. The suggestion that fantasy authors have no rules to play with completely ignores the fact that we as authors have to work to suspend a reader’s sense of disbelief. We have to ground our readers in some way, and just because we have the whole history of the universe available as our canvas doesn’t mean that we are let off the hook in creating something believable.
As for young adult fiction, being young at heart doesn’t mean that we authors fear or can’t address the literary realities of the world. Issues of sex, death, divorce, war, don’t go away but instead take on a new and greater urgency in the eyes of a child. Indeed, I would go farther to say that fantasy and young adult fiction go together because they share a child’s sense of wonder in the world that adult fiction sometimes forgets, and the coming of age novel is one of the most powerful storylines in literature.
Congratulations to Neil Gaiman for crafting wonderful fiction in both the fantasy and young adult genres.