Fairy Tales in Secret


James DiBenedetto’s comments to my post about Doctor Who is a nice sequay into this other post I’ve been working on. It is unfair that science fiction and fantasy are looked down on as inferior genres of literature, and it’s even more unfair that those who embrace these genres are sometimes (not always) portrayed as somewhat weird. It’s not the only genre this happens to, however.

My friend Rebecca is one of the best unpublished authors I know (I know a surprising number of good-but-unpublished authors, from Cameron, to Natasha, to Imogen, to Lisa). Recently, Rebecca has had some excellent news about her fantasy novel. Maybe, just maybe, she’ll be vacating my list.

In her post, she says:

“I’d like to announce that after ten years of living in denial for absolutely no good or sensible reason, I have finally broken down and admitted to myself that Knife is fundamentally a Young Adult novel. I didn’t write it with that intention in mind, and for a very long time I resented and resisted all the suggestions made to me that it was or might be better marketed as a juvenile, but now I’ve been given a very good practical reason to reconsider that view, and once I stopped struggling the whole thing suddenly made a lot more sense.”

This post and the comments that follow illustrate a reluctance to consider Young Adult and Children’s literature a valid genre of literature for adults to read, or even write in. The name itself, juvenile, evokes images of books that adults wouldn’t be caught dead reading recreationally. Rebecca’s whole post and the comments that follow acknowledges the irrationality of this opinion, but the fact that these things have to be said shows that such opinions are not uncommon. For some reason, we draw up boundaries between our fiction, and we need passports in order to cross the borders. Some people never even try. It’s a shame, because there is so much these people are missing.

C.S. Lewis said it best: “When I was ten I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.”

Why I Like Young Adult Fiction

In Moncton, Erin had an excellent poetry reading, speaking to a group of book-lovers who were eager to listen and share their thoughts on literature. Even though I was only the chauffeur, I fielded questions about who I was and what I did, and when it came out that I liked to write childrens and young adult fiction, I was asked why I favoured that genre, and the person who asked the question looked genuinely interested in my response. I had to think about it for the first time.

I like writing and reading young adult novels because of the clarity of the story. The author has to establish the plot, the characters and the setting quickly and with no dilly-dallying. This isn’t to say that Young Adult novels are simple, but the focus on the characters is tight and, in many cases, we’re given a strong beginning, an interesting middle and a firm end. Young Adult fiction can be seen as literature without having to indulge in the literary activities of larger, “adult” books. In writing young adult fiction, I’m not very limited in my repertoire, either. Stories can be just as funny, witty or politically satirical as an adult novel (don’t believe me? Read Edith Nesbit, or reread J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter as a visceral attack against Thatcher’s England), and they can tackle issues as serious as the Holocaust or as tricky as sex.

For me, young adult fiction is a challenge to write because every word has to mean something. You can’t afford to pad or delay, you have to get down and tell the story. After reading a number of perfectly fine pieces of adult literature, this clarity can be refreshing.

Young Adult Boundaries

Young adult fiction can be as diverse and as complicated as adult fiction, but there are still some boundaries within young adult fiction that I’ve run afoul of. First and foremost, young adult novels must feature young adults. I’ve no problem with this, since I seem to identify with teenage characters as much as adult characters (perhaps I’ve never grown up), but I find it strange how the age of the characters defines the expected readership.

Supposedly, take the average age of the young heroes, subtract two years, and you have the average age of your readership. It irks me that many adults won’t give the works of Edith Nesbit the time of day, and in terms of marketing, I find this stricture rather limiting.

I’ve also described the clear boundaries between subsets of childrens and young adult literature. Teen novels and middle grade novels might as well have a Berlin Wall between them and, thus far, only Madeleine L’Engle and J.K. Rowling have been big enough to cross those boundaries with their serial characters. Middle grade novels are shorter, more episodic in nature, and have lead characters between the ages of 10 and 12. Teen novels are more like adult novels in their scope and style, and feature characters that are 14 to 17 years old. Love interests are exclusive to teen novels. Rosemary and Time has had its problems because it’s fallen into the cracks separating middle grade from teen fiction. I’ve finally decided to bite the bullet and move Rosemary and Time into younger territory. It’s a shame that I have to, but that’s the way the industry works, and the tweaks don’t detract from the story too much, in my opinion.

When you try to get your novel published, you run up against a surprising amount of rules, but most people will tell you that you have to ignore those rules while writing your novel. You may run afoul of the rules, but you’ll be true to your story. If your story is good enough, it will find its genre and be published with only a few tweaks here and there to make it fit comfortably. And maybe, just maybe, some people will forget their prejudices and enjoy your work.


So, add young adult literature to science fiction and fantasy as the haven of the weird and the “juvenile”. It’s a shame to be overlooked by the literati but, in the end, it’s their loss.

Thank You

To our American friends: thank you for remembering.

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