Friday, 13 July 2012

Frostfire Blog Tour - YA FANTASY

Oh hello! Thank you for popping on the fourth (and penultimate) stop of the Frostfire Blog Tour. Now, my review to this book was up yesterday (go read it!), and today, Zoe Marriott will be taking over, chatting about the recent evolution of YA fantasy. But before she does that, I just want to thank Zoe for taking to the time to write the post and Hannah from Walker Books for allowing me to take part in the tour.

The next stop in the tour is at Book Angel Booktopia next Friday. Just a small heads-up!

Anyway, will throw it over to Zoe now!


I'm a relatively young author. Young enough that when I attended the Lancashire Book of the Year Awards recently, some of the other authors were amusing themselves by placing bets on how old I was (the answer? Not as young as they thought. But nearly!). I was first published in 2007, which means I've only actually been part of the professional publishing community for five years. I cannot claim to have seen or done it all - and I certainly don't have the t-shirt.

Publishing is generally considered to be an extremely slow moving industry. It certainly feels that way when you're waiting for your edit letter, waiting for your cover design, waiting for your book to come out. But in other ways publishing moves lightning fast, and in the five years that I've been calling myself a writer, I've seen our entire community undergo metamorphosis, seen the profile of children's and young adult writers shoot sky-high, seen the birth of a whole society of adult readers who defiantly and proudly read YA novels in their YA covers, and seen the kind of books that fill the shops sweep from one extreme (brightly coloured middle grade novels chasing Harry Potter) to the other (black and scarlet toned dark fantasies and romances trailing after Twilight). 

Back in late 2005 I finished a fairytale retelling that I titled 'The Wild Swans' after the Hans Christian Anderson story it was based on. I submitted it to an editor who had offered me encouragement after liking but ultimately rejecting my previous manuscript. He told me he thought it was very good, and invited me down to London to meet him and his boss. But, he warned me, although his boss liked my voice and thought I had potential, she wasn't really sold on the book itself.

You see, it was a lyrical, romantic novel. It was clearly the sort of thing that ought to be marketed at girls. And it was a fantasy. The loose framework of the fairytale had been reworked to allow a magically gifted heroine on a quest to save her Kingdom and her brothers, and the plot encompassed magical battles, and shapeshifters and mortal peril. And it was for readers twelve and above, as it had some very dark themes and some extremely scary scenes.

These things, the editor told me sadly, were a hard sell. It was believed that girls didn't like fantasy and wouldn't buy it. Plus, all the recent publishing success stories (like Harry Potter and His Dark Materials) had proved that the 8-12 market was where the real growth was. Young Adult novels were a bit of a poor relation, unless you could gradually shade into YA with later novels of your series as Philip Pullman and J.K. Rowling had done. No one at the publisher was really sure where my book would fit into their list. It wasn't like anything that had come their way before. He explained that his boss would probably ask me to write something else for them instead, maybe a novel for younger readers to fit into one of their established imprints.

Looking back at these comments, they frankly stagger me. Can you imagine an editor saying NOW that girls don't like and won't buy fantasy? That YA is a hard sell? But back then, that was the way things were. So I went into my terrifying and exciting first meeting with real life publishing people fully prepared to fight my corner. I talked about Tamora Pierce and Robin McKinley, perpetual bestsellers and award winners. I talked about Meg Cabot's '1800-Missing' series and Doctor Who. I talked about the girls who loved Harry Potter as ten year olds turning into twelve year olds and wanting fantasy FOR THEM, fantasy with girl protagonists and strong romantic subplots. 'YA Fantasy,' I said confidently, 'I due for a huge boom'.
Somehow - and I'm still not sure how - my persuasions worked. After listening to me babble on for about forty minutes, the editor's boss said, 'OK. I'm convinced. Let's do some revisions and go for it'. Whooo! Success! 

Well, qualified success. The book got a tiny advance and had no marketing or PR budget. It was given a beautiful, unique cover, retitled The Swan Kingdom and flung into the marketplace quite ruthlessly to see if it would sink or swim. If it had sunk I'm not sure what would have happened to my career. But it didn't. It floated aimlessly for a bit, then developed a slow but strong stroke that allows it to keep selling to this day. So in a way I was right. There was a market for The Swan Kingdom.

But that big huge YA fantasy boom that I had promised my editor and his boss would arrive?

It never quite did.

Twilight came out in the U.K. the very year of my first chat at the publishers office (in an...unusual cover very unlike its eventual iconic re-jacket) bombed, and then exploded worldwide, bringing an overwhelming tsunami of dark paranormal romances and then ripples of urban fantasy which washed up every variety of unearthly boyfriend (vampire, werewolf, demon, angel, elf, pixie, fairy and god). Then the Hunger Games arrived and threw another grenade, opening the way for a Dystopian novels invasion. Science fiction is starting to make a resurgence too.  

All these genres are, in fact, varieties of fantasy. Speculative fiction. Books which embrace the unknown. Some of them focus more on romance, others are gritty in the extreme. Some of them are beautiful works of literature, others guilty reads. But what none of them are is high fantasy - what the average reader would point at when they say the word 'fantasy'. The success of the Game of Thrones series in the U.S. and the intense anticipation for the Snow White the the Huntsman and The Hobbit films seems to hint that there's a demand there for classic fantasy taking place in secondary worlds. But the book that can do for YA fantasy what Twilight did for paranormal romance or Hunger Games for Dystopian, or even what Harry Potter did for the entire middle grade category? It doesn't seem to have been written yet.

I'm waiting for it eagerly. 

In the meantime, I'm left to look around me at the extraordinary landscape of YA fantasy - and if you want to argue with me about whether Hunger Games or Twilight count as fantasy, feel free in the comments - and publishing for children and young people always like this? Does it renew itself completely every seven years as the human body is said to do? Or have I, as a young fantasy writer just starting out in 2007 and just hitting her stride in 2012, been been privileged to witness an extraordinary era of change for my category and my industry?

And most important of all... what's in store for us next? 



  1. Do you know what? I have definitely been noticing a slight boom in YA fantasy this year.. I think it's finally on its' way. We have Graceling, Throne of Glass could well be 'the one'. There's Seraphina, Finnikin of the Rock, Maria V. Snyder in general, Stormdancer, The Gathering Dark.. and a whole market of those of us who gobble us these books and demand more. Strong female protagonists in fantastical worlds featuring assassins, magic, dragons, tyrants, wizards, and all sorts of high fantasy relations. Something's gotta give soon, especially with things like Game of Thrones, Merlin, The Hobbit shaking everybody's love of fantasy.

  2. I started work in a bookshop seven years ago, running the children's department. At the time, 'Children's' stopped at twelve. Now we have both twelve plus and Young Adult, and they're constantly being shopped by adults. I definitely think it's a big change.

    Twilight I'll reluctantly agree is fantasy, And I guess Hunger Games is too...I hadn't thought of it as fantasy before, working on a definition of fantasy as magic and spells and impossible things. Hunger Games is possible, if many things go wrong between now and then. I guess for me that's the difference. :D