In YA: boys, girls, and adventure vs. romance

Publishing follows trends, and the trend in current YA fantasy seems to be toward a blue and pink division, adventures “for boys” (about 40%) and romances “for girls” (about 60%).

Boys get books like John Flanagan’s Ranger’s Apprentice series, Joseph Delaney’s The Last Apprentice series, and James Dashner’s Maze Runner series, in which the emphasis is on a young male protagonist coming into his power, finding his courage, or both. Romance is minimal, if it is present at all. Female characters may show up, but they’re often irrelevant (with very little page time) or untrustworthy (with readers, along with other characters, questioning their allegiance from one chapter to the next). Girl readers may enjoy these books, but because they appreciate the adventure and the strength of the male protagonist, not so much because they admire or identify with the questionable female characters. The writers of these books certainly don’t mind girls reading them, but they mainly have a male audience in mind.

Thanks to the unstoppable juggernaut of popularity that is Twilight, girls get its innumerable knock-offs, stories of ordinary high school girls falling for mysterious, brooding bad boys (e.g. Hush, Hush, Tiger’s Curse, Fallen, Halo, Evermore…). The heroines of these books don’t have an adventurous bone in their bodies, except when it comes to attaching themselves to dangerous, powerful guys. Not all female protagonists in current YA are quite so wimpy; take the girl out of the contemporary high school setting, and she may rise to an adventurous occasion, as in Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games series, Kristin Cashore’s Graceling, Marissa Meyer’s Cinder, Alison Croggon’s wonderful Books of Pellinor, and Laini Taylor’s excellent Daughter of Smoke and Bone. But all these books include romance as a crucial factor. It’s not uncommon for writers to force even the toughest and most independent female protagonists into a love triangle, so that their journey towards self-discovery is tied to their realization of which of two “hot guys” they belong with. Boys are central to these girls’ stories, while girls are more peripheral in the boys’ stories. Yet it is far more common to see a girl reading Ranger’s Apprentice than to see a boy reading Twilight.

What I long to see are more YA fantasy tales with cross-gender appeal, in which adventure and romance may coexist happily and both male and female characters are interesting, believable individuals with vital and sympathetic roles to play. I love the Harry Potter series and its title protagonist, but it’s Hermione Granger, that wonderful magical nerd, that first drew me to the series and has held my heart ever since. Hermione’s allegiance is never for one moment in doubt; she is a trustworthy and resourceful ally. Even when she ventures into damsel-in-distress territory in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, spending the last third of the book petrified by the basilisk, she provides Harry and Ron with the answers they need to defeat the monster. In the next book, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Ron is the one taken out of commission, while Hermione fights at Harry’s side. The Harry/Hermione friendship shows that boys and girls don’t have to fall in love in order to be important to each other. Romance is introduced in the later books, but it never overwhelms the fight or diminishes the agency of the characters involved.  Other series in this mold, with male and female characters sharing the adventure, include Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series, Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaeus Trilogy, and Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl books. All the books have well-developed heroes of both genders — yet in all these stories, the central character is male. Publishers and writers still hold to the notion that boys aren’t likely to read a book with a female lead, however rollicking an adventure it might be.

I love a good romance. After all, I write YA romance fantasy and am very proud of it. But as a reader I catch myself wondering, do all female protagonists in YA fantasy have to fall in love? The genre does include a good many female-led adventure stories, including the aforementioned Graceling and Books of Pellinor, Robin McKinley’s The Hero and the Crown, Gail Carson Levine’s The Two Princesses of Bamarre and her fairy-tale adaptations Ella Enchanted and Fairest, and, of course, Tamora Pierce’s series involving Alanna the Lioness, her daughter Aly, Daine the practitioner of wild magic, Beka the Terrier, and Keladry the Protector of the Small. These are wonderful characters in wonderful stories, the sorts of girls I would have loved to read about as a teen and love to read about now. They are the saviors rather than the saved. Yet I do believe that Keladry is the only heroine of this set who doesn’t end up in love and/or married by the story’s end. If a YA hero can manage to get through a series of adventures without falling in love, why can’t a YA heroine?

I don’t have an answer. But perhaps, before my own writing days are done, I will manage to cool my romantic heart long enough to send a heroine on an adventure in which she finds her strength and courage as well as loyal friends but doesn’t find romance. It’s on my bucket list.


From my bookshelf: Gifts from Down Under

The website Fantasy Cafe gives me something to look forward to when April rolls around: the “Women in SF & F” series, in which female authors and bloggers discuss the work they’re doing in the science fiction and fantasy genres, along with the problems that women still face as both creators and fans of the genres This month, as part of a year-in-review assessment, the website re-posted a blog from 2014’s “Women in SF & F” by Trudi Canavan, author of The Black Magician Trilogy, the Age of the Five series, and Thief’s Magic.

I’ve read and liked some of Canavan’s work, so naturally her blog would catch my eye. But it held my attention first because she echoes frustration that I have felt when I’ve browsed lists on Goodreads with headings like “Best ‘Strong Female’ Fantasy Novels,” “Kick-Butt Heroines,” and “Best Fantasy Books With Strong Women Characters,” only to find these lists overwhelmingly dominated by works of urban and contemporary fantasy. Nothing is wrong with urban fantasy in or of itself. What rouses my objection is the perception on the part of some writers, fans, and publishers that urban fantasy is (or should be) a playground for women authors, characters, and readers, while epic or alternate-world fantasy is (or should be) men’s territory, full of male authors telling men’s stories. When I read for pleasure. I seek out books that feature women doing awesome things. But while I may read and end up loving the occasional UF book (e.g. Daniel O’Malley’s The Rook, a book so much fun it deserves a blog of its own), the urban fantasy genre as a whole just doesn’t interest me. Like Canavan, I much prefer to read (and write) alternate-world fantasy, and finding well-written and engaging alternate-world fantasy in which female characters take leading roles can be a bit challenging.

Challenging, but not impossible. Canavan’s blog is not an exercise in banging the head against a stone wall of dissatisfaction. She offers guidance for readers who share our tastes. Some of the best female fantasy novelists come, like her, from Australia, where they haven’t absorbed the notion that alternate-world fantasy should be for and about men while women should content themselves with urban fantasy. I was pleased to spot on her list some authors whose works I’ve greatly enjoyed and can recommend.

1) Alison Croggon — Her Books of Pellinor series, beginning with The Naming, places a gifted girl, Maerad, in a role normally reserved for boys: the questing hero of great potential, around whom the winds of prophecy swirl. Adding to my delight in her story was her musical talent, since, as those who read Atterwald will discover, I have a soft spot for stories about female musicians. A girl/woman in the role of Bard! More, please.

2) Jennifer Fallon — I’ve read The Gods of Amyrantha, The Immortal Prince, and The Palace of Impossible Dreams. (I still need to read the concluding volume, The Chaos Crystal.) Normally I don’t care for “magical guy/ mundane girl” romantic plots and subplots, but in this case the “mundane” heroine is a scholar, a nerd. When I’m reading for pleasure, if I like the heroine, I’ll like the book, and I like Arkady Desean. I look forward to exploring Fallon’s work further, in Wolfblade and The Harshini Trilogy.

3) Kate Forsyth — I discovered her about a year and a half ago, with the Rhiannon’s Ride series, an adventure with several intriguing heroines in its cast of characters. But while those books offered abundant fun, I discovered this year that they offered a mere hint of Forsyth’s capabilities. She is responsible for two of the most moving and thought-provoking reads I enjoyed this past year: Bitter Greens, a retelling of Rapunzel that also tells the story of the remarkable French fairytale author Charlotte-Rose de la Force; and The Wild Girl, the story of Dortchen Wild, neighbor and eventual wife of Wilhelm Grimm, who contributed some of the best tales to his and his brother’s famous collection. Anyone with an interest in fairy tales should read these splendid books.

4) Glenda Larke — So far I have only read one of her works, but that one, The Aware, is a rollicking piece of world-building with a funny, unpredictable, charismatic heroine. Blaze Halfbreed is big, brave, and capable, a formidable force. What would I love to see more of in alternate-world fantasy? More ladies like Blaze Halfbreed.

5) Juliet Marillier — I fell wholeheartedly in love with my first Marillier book, Wolfskin, and that love remained strong through the original Sevenwaters Trilogy (Daughter of the Forest, Son of the Shadows, Child of the Prophecy). I wasn’t quite as taken with The Bridei Chronicles or with the more recent Sevenwaters books (Heir to Sevenwaters, Seer of Sevenwaters), but still, the detailed world-building, the mystical lyricism of style, and the creative, tenacious heroines that populate her books ensure Marillier a continued place among my favorite authors. A new Marillier book is always cause for rejoicing. I can’t wait to read Dreamer’s Pool.

Thank you, ladies of Australia, for not drinking that poisonous Kool-Aid that would convince you that alternate-world fantasy is for men and urban fantasy is for women. You have provided me with a great deal of pleasure.


A Reader’s Perspective: Things YA Writers Should Know — Part 1

Some social critics would say a woman my age should be ashamed to read YA Fantasy. Nuts to them. I read my share of YA Fantasy for three reasons. The first is practical: I read it because I write it, and it helps me to know what other authors in the field are up to. The second is that coming-of-age stories interest me; if told well, self-discovery tales are incredibly potent and easy to relate to, for readers of any age. After all, do we ever stop discovering bits and pieces of ourselves? Are we ever really “finished”? And finally, a well-written YA fantasy adventure is just plain fun to read. One of the authors on a panel at DragonCon pointed out that the difference between adult and YA fantasy can be summed up in a single word: “Hope.”

Yet as I both read and read about YA fantasy, I’ve developed certain preferences, things I would like to see more of, and conversely, less of. I have my own list of things I’d like YA writers (including myself) to know and bear in mind.

1) It’s okay for your heroine to have talents, interests, and ambitions.

When I’m browsing on Goodreads and I click on a book title, only to see the heroine described as “typical” or “ordinary,” my first thought is to pass it by. Maybe it’s not a bad book, and certainly plenty of readers appreciate the blank-slate heroine through whom any and every teenage girl can live vicariously — but it’s just not for me. I gravitate toward heroines like the titular Cinder and Seraphina, a top-notch mechanic and a gifted musician respectively, and the female lead in Daughter of Smoke and Bone, a brilliant and ambitious artist. These are heroines I can enjoy looking up to, even as old as I am.

2) It’s okay to let the reader know what the heroine looks like.

I just finished a popular YA fantasy romance, Robin LaFevers’ Grave Mercy. This book has much to recommend it; for one thing, LaFevers knows Element 1) and shows her heroine to be quite capable in her field — assassination. (I appreciate that this book delves into the ethics of being a skilled assassin.) However, while the novel’s hero is described in handsome detail, I came away with only the sketchiest idea of what the heroine looks like. I think she has dark hair, but I’m not quite sure. LaFevers isn’t the only writer of YA fantasy to be rather sparing in physical descriptions of the heroine. Again, perhaps this is done so that the widest variety of readers possible can dream themselves into her shoes. Maybe this paucity of description doesn’t appeal to me because I’m outside the target demographic, but I’m pretty sure that even as a teenager I liked knowing that Jo March was a coltish brunette and that Anne Shirley was a gray-eyed redhead. I actually find it easier to connect with a character if I can see her in my mind’s eye. I don’t need, or want, every heroine to look like me.

Coming Soon: Part 2