If you know me at all, you know that I’m a fantasy nut.
I can rattle off title after title I’ve enjoyed in speculative fiction. Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, Lord of the Rings, The Dark is Rising, Donita K. Paul, Bryan Davis, Artemis Fowl, Redwall, and, most recently, Children of Blood and Bone… the list goes on and on.
I was this way as a teenager as well. Sure, plenty of contemporary titles lined the shelves, and I read some, but my eyes were peeled for fantasy.
And lately, I find contemporary YA straight up depressing. I’m forcing myself to read the books I got at Book Expo of America.
I was talking with a friend about it the other day. Though I’m not a huge fan of it, YA contemporary is her favorite genre. When I asked why she loved it, she told me it was because it was so real, raw, and gritty. Because it’s literary. Real people dealing with real problems.
True. And that’s important. I won’t deny that there’s probably some great contemporary YA out there that doesn’t fall under any of my critiques.
But I think a lot of people dismiss fantasy (and we fantasy lovers) as lesser than contemporary and/or literary. Because it’s not “real.” Because it’s a “fun” genre, and doesn’t actually have anything meaningful to share. Well, I would beg to differ.
Here are nine reasons why I think fantasy is a staple in any young reader’s diet. (And nine ways contemporary can step up its game.)
- Fantasy makes us see the world as greater than ourselves.
Elves, dwarves, dragons, fairies, even talking animals. The pages of fantasy are alive with creatures that look a lot different than humans, but still they endear themselves to us. Whether we’re wishing the elves and dwarves could get along in Lord of the Rings or indignant with the rats for picking on the mice in Brian Jacques’ Redwall books, we’re empathizing with people who look and live way differently than we do. Even our human protagonists range from princes to beggars, sorcerers to slaves. Fantasy forces us to leap into these characters lives and stories, no matter how different they are from ours, and cheer them on. Fantasy creates empathy. It creates open minds. It helps us appreciate diverse perspectives. And if we can root for a hobbit or a vampire or a mage, surely we can care for our neighbor next door whose accent and customs are different than ours.
If I’m going to like contemporary fiction, it’s likely because it tackles a difficult topic like race or class. But these messages are far from the sole domain of “realistic” fiction. And sometimes sneaking those principles in through story is more effective than whacking a resistant narrow-minded person over the head with reality.
- Fantasy teaches us that good triumphs over evil.
There are exceptions, of course, such as the recent popularity of grimdark fantasy, but almost without fail, fantasy revolves around a battle between good and evil. And, yes, good always ultimately wins.
But fantasy doesn’t gloss over the cost of that winning. People die. Sometimes, evil wins a battle. Burns a village. Sometimes a true hero has to give up her own life for good to prevail. And sometimes, even after the victory, it’s not a completely happy ending. Heroes will mourn, grieve. The one thing we’re always sure of, though, is that good will win.
I wish I saw that more in contemporary fiction. There doesn’t need to be a happy ending, but at least a little hint that good will win in the end would be nice. As a teenager, I didn’t need to be reminded that the world was messed up. I needed to be reminded that one day, it won’t be.
- Fantasy teaches us to fight for what’s right.
What’s a fantasy without an underdog protagonist facing off against what seems like insurmountable evil? We see heroes ready to lay down their lives for what they believe is right. The world needs that. We need people who are willing to do whatever it takes to fight poverty, slavery, abuse, violence. Occasionally I see this in contemporary fiction, but almost never in contemporary YA. There, I only see self-centered protagonists trying to forge their own happiness and place in the world. As a teenager, I needed something bigger than that. I needed to feel like my life mattered.
- Fantasy primes our minds for wonder and creative problem solving.
As a teen, I saw drama every day. I saw how shallow my peers were and how messy their relationships got. I also saw deeper issues, like poverty and drugs. The last thing I wanted to do was read another book pointing out all the problems in our society. I knew. I was fully aware of those problems.
What I needed was fantasy. I needed a world that would bend my mind and make me think in new ways. I needed to see characters collaborating and thinking creatively to solve problems. I needed to see enormous obstacles overcome by teamwork and problem solving. I needed to be reminded that I could overcome obstacles, too. We just needed to think differently, work together, and come up with solutions. Yes, the world is a mess. Thanks for reminding me, contemporary fiction. Now, what are we going to do about it?
- Fantasy reminds us that the way the world is isn’t the way it has to be.
Fantasy protagonists are bold enough to dream big. They’re willing to take down a corrupt monarchy, defeat a dark lord, bring magic back. They don’t think that just because the world is a certain way that it can’t be different. Through their pain and tears, they fight. Yes, just like our contemporary protagonists, oftentimes they have to come to terms with their trauma and losses. But they don’t stop there. You can’t bring back the dead, but you can fix the system that killed them.
- Fantasy teaches us to care about others.
How many times could your fantasy protagonist have run away from the fight? Do just fine for themselves in a little cabin on a mountain? But they don’t. Because they can’t leave the rest of the world to suffer. Fantasy protagonists lay down their lives for others. They fight evil for the sake of the people, and they throw themselves in front of arrows for their fellow warriors. We might not be in those exact situations, but how much are we willing to give up for others? How often are we thinking about the greater good? As a teen, I wanted to read more than about a choice between two guys or struggling to fit in. Sure, I did want to read about those, but I also wanted to read about making a difference while doing it.
- Fantasy shows us that the underdog can win.
Two hobbits can defeat a dark lord. So can some magical schoolchildren. Fantasy tells us that we’re never too young, too weak, too insignificant to make a difference.
- Fantasy shows us that tragedy can turn to triumph.
Death isn’t the end in fantasy. The mentor figure may be lost, but the land is safe for generations to come. Our village might be burnt down, but we’ll build a new village, in a new, free country. In fantasy, it’s never just about making it through tragedy. It’s about rising above it.
- Fantasy gives us hope.
Ultimately, I always loved fantasy because it gave me hope. At the end of a contemporary novel, I would learn that my “happy ending” might be getting a guy who isn’t terrible, or surviving a new, harsher existence, but yes, I would survive this largely meaningless existence. Frankly in Love by David Yoon, one of the most anticipated YA releases this fall, left me depressed for days when I read the ARC.
But fantasy taught me that love wins. That good triumphs. That no matter how bad it may get, eventually there will be a light at the end of the tunnel. That everyone’s sacrifice means something. That I’m part of something bigger. Because that’s the real truth. Here, in this “real” world, we’re part of something far bigger than ourselves. Each one of us is changing this world whether we mean to or not, and we’re either making it better or worse. Our broken, depraved nature is hurtling us toward our mutual destruction and we, with our dormant magic, the magic of love, peace, and hope, are the only ones who can stop it.
So next time you think of fantasy as a “lesser” genre, not a “literary” genre, something good for entertainment but not much else…
I encourage you. Step back. Take a look at what these fantasy lovers are really reading. These silly people with their head in the clouds.
Maybe they’re more grounded in what really matters than the rest of us.