When I was in high school, I spent some time doing service at a local library. For the most part, this meant re-shelving books or looking through the stacks to make certain everything was in order. I remember being asked to shelve a copy of Dragonflight, by Anne McCaffrey. I couldn’t find the place in the computer where it was supposed to go, so asked the librarian. She told me I’d been looking in the wrong place—Dragonflightwas shelved in Children’s, not adult.
That’s right. This award winning story, one of the best spec-fic books of all time, was shelved in Children’s. That bothered me for reasons I couldn’t quite define. It made me feel childish and annoyed at myself for feeling childish. What I was experiencing was something that a lot of literacy professionals have talked about recently—that teens HATE the idea of being thought of as children. (Who knew?)
There’s nothing wrong with the children’s section, and there’s nothing wrong with shelving McCaffrey there. If her books are of interest to teens, then putting them where teens will find them is a good thing. (As a culture, though, I think we still have a tendency to look down on teen/middle grade/children’s authors and books. To shelf something in children’s still strikes many of us as something of an insult. I wonder why that is.)
Anyway, as the ’90s passed, more and more ‘teen’ or ‘YA’ sections started appearing in bookstores and libraries in order to provide a place for teens to go find books without having to enter the dreaded children’s section. About the same time, interestingly, fantasy fiction was invaded by a plethora of fantastic YA and middle grade fantasy novels. His Dark Materials has been brought up, so has Harry Potter. I’m partial to Garth Nix’s work as well, and they’re just the tip of a mound of very good, excellently worldbuilt fantasy novels that appeared in the late ’90s and early 2000s.
As someone working in this genre, all of this leaves me to wonder and speculate. Did the increasing prominence of YA sections add to this explosion? Was it all the Harry Potter bubble? Or were people jumping ship from traditional epic to YA because epic was beginning to feel stale? Perhaps it was all of this.
I think it made the genre better. I think we’ve had to look at our sluggish beginnings in epic, and realize that two hundred pages of wandering around a castle before conflict appears may not be the best way to begin a story. We’ve had to become more creative in our worldbuilding, partially (I think) to compete with the elegance of YA competition. Probably, most epic authors don’t even think about this, though I bet many of them have read Potter and the others. You can’t help but react to, incorporate, and learn from what you read.