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