In the last decade since I’ve been a student of writing and craft, I’ve read more books than I can count, starring all of my favorite YA characters, from faeries and vampires to awkward book nerds and victims of injustice. I’ve swooned over paranormal romances. I’ve bitten my nails as I devoured page after page of dystopian injustice. I’ve cringed and tensed through passages of post-apocalyptic zombie gore. I’ve sniffled and wiped tears after finishing a great summer romance. I’ve boiled into anger and felt called to action by stories of teen abuse, bullying, and bigotry.
But the stories that inspire me to write are those in the realm of speculative fiction, the ones that take me into fantastic worlds with imaginative characters that face impossible obstacles against horrific foes. While market trends in spec fiction are always evolving and tend to ebb and flow like the tides, I have found, as a teacher, a reader, and a writer, that speculative fiction continues to resonate with young adult audiences, regardless of what is currently deemed “the next big thing”.
I will be a big girl and admit that I am just a few months shy of my 35th birthday, and the books I read as a tween and teen, while not as diverse or numerous, were much the same (an often are THE same) as the books my students read now. I devoured paranormal thrillers by R.L. Stine, Christopher Pike, and Richie Tankersley Cusick. I read The Vampire Diaries and The Secret Circle by L.J. Smith before they were popularized by the shows on the CW. Some of my favorite go-to fiction during a dry spell were fantasies by C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. In fact, I have always loved tales of the supernatural and have many childhood memories of being glued to old reruns of Bewitched and The Munsters. These stories inspired me as a 16 year-old to read works by Irving, Poe, Lovecraft, and Stoker. They are what led me to major in English, teach writing and literature, and embark upon my own exploration of craft.
As a high school English teacher and freshman comp professor, I can attest to the fact that teens and twenty-somethings are still reading as much, if not more, speculative fiction than books of other genres. I hear parents, other educators, religious leaders, and even industry professionals questioning the “why?” of these preferences all the time.
Here are a couple of thoughts on why speculative fiction continues to have a stronghold on the teen market:
First, speculative fiction–whether it’s a paranormal romance or science fiction–offers a means of escape for teens who face more and more academic and social pressure with each passing year. Reading about demon hunters or aliens sent to carry out missions on earth stimulates their imaginations and offers them adventure, romance, and action in a world away from and outside their own. For a few chapters (or more) each day, these kids get to forget their own complicated realities and engage in the magic of someone else’s.
Teens deal with a ridiculous amount of pressure every day. Unfinished homework, sports practices, test scores, GPA, SAT registration, bullying, racism, bigotry, sexism, sexuality, abuse, and the struggles of figuring out what sort of future they want are just a few of the issues swirling through their minds on any given day. The great thing about speculative fiction is that it offers the same types of conflict within the realm of a fantastical world or supernatural element that teen readers can relate to but remain separate from at the same time. Natural enemies of the supernatural world who must unite to complete heroic feats represent our need for equality and good will Readers still internalize messages of hope, tolerance, freedom, acceptance, and love, whether those messages are revealed within a contemporary setting or a fantastical one.
Moreover, spec fiction shadows the changes teens are facing or experiencing in their own lives. For example, a werewolf’s physical and mental transformation from human to animal is deeply symbolic of the physical, mental, and social changes a teen experiences during and after puberty. Teens often feel like they live a double life–one at school and one at home. Supernatural characters play to these feelings and offer teens a deeper understanding of their own coming of age. A vampire who resists his natural craving for blood because he loves a human girl speaks to the darker impulses we must all suppress in order live amicably with one another. An ordinary girl who later discovers she is destined to be a hero among a secret society of demon hunters resonates with teen readers who feel awkward and socially unaccepted–teens who wish for all the world to be heroes in their own lives.
I believe all YA fiction matters. I believe the more a teen reads, the more attuned he or she will be to the injustices of the world, and the more likely that teen will be to make a difference now and in the future. But I feel there are fewer limits to how themes are revealed and how plots unfold in speculative fiction than when dealing with strict reality. The possibilities in paranormal, dystopian, horror, fantasy, and other genres within the realm of spec fiction is why I so enjoy writing these types of stories. The challenge of revealing those important universal truths to teens within a story that offers total escapism is something I love to experience every day. The small sliver of my soul that is still a 16 year-old girl, yearning for a chance to be a hero is why I toil away at the computer day after day, hoping that my words, my characters, and my worlds will make the same difference in a teens’ life that my favorite books made in mine.