Saturday, 18 November 2006

Fantasy Crossover


Or why adults are reading their children's fantasy novels

By Trevor Agnew

Fantasy crossover sounds like a clothes-swapping orgy but the reality is a dramatic shift in the publishing industry, with much to interest readers in Australia and New Zealand.

“The greatest threat to a publisher’s survival is hardening of the categories,” warns Garth Nix. He ought to know. Having been a literary agent and book editor, he has moved from the “dark side” of publishing to become the author of several best-selling fantasy series. In a trend now sweeping the world, Nix’s Keys to the Kingdom series and Old Kingdom trilogy have climbed out of their “young adult” category; they are now popular adult titles in both his native Australia and the lucrative American market. This development, which can be traced back to J.R.R. Tolkien and beyond, hit the headlines with J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and gained its own label “crossover books.”

The old ‘novels for children’ and ‘novels for adults’ division has collapsed and writers once labelled children’s authors, such as Philip Pullman and Ursula Le Guin, are now winning ‘adult’ awards. Bookshops have re-jigged their shelf signs. National newspapers across Australia and New Zealand now run major profiles of authors like Lemony Snicket and Eoin Colfer, along with articles and reviews of books which once would have been shunned as “kids’ stuff”.

Fantasy is the field where the swing is most marked, although some literary critics prefer to cling to “magical realism” as a descriptor. Regardless of labels, fantasy books have moved from being marginalised to becoming an important part of literature and publishing. Writers like Diana Wynne Jones and Susan Price are being belatedly appreciated in the glow from the be-spectacled one. After winning an Oscar for work on the script of Gladiator, William Nicholson went on to write The Wind on Fire, a children’s fantasy trilogy. Terry Pratchett, creator of Discworld, is now Britain’s best-selling writer, and has won the prestigious Carnegie Award, despite being suspected of committing satire.

Margaret Mahy, the immensely popular and category-defying writer from Governors Bay (who has two Carnegies for fantasy novels, The Haunting and The Changeover, in her large sack of awards), was one of the main speakers at the recent Storylines Festival of Children’s Illustrators and Writers. Mahy has no doubt that it is the power of fantasy which draws readers, both young and old. As a young university student, fascinated by folk tales, she accepted M.K. Joseph’s recommendation and spent £3 on Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, instead of buying shoes, and has never regretted it.

Who was Tolkien writing for? Mahy concludes it is “a special kind of reader – adult or child – one compelled by fantasy.” She believes that folk tales, which are strongly fantasy, belong to the whole community, both adults and children. Mahy believes that good fantasy stories reflect the everyday intercourse between the real world and fantasy. “Fantasy is a metaphor. It gives us access to the extremities of the imagination.”

Sherryl Jordan, a top-selling fantasy writer, in New Zealand and the United States (and about to enter the Australian market), has had difficulties with being labelled. “I write not for adults or children, but for myself.” She does not see fantasy as an escape but a way to face emotions, fears and doubts. All of Jordan’s characters are caught up in conflict and struggle. She points out that our children see conflict on television every night. “My books are not fantasy – they are about reality!”

Garth Nix is another writer who has benefitted from the phenomenon of crossover; his fantasy series have achieved wide adult and teenage popularity. Nix rejects the idea that crossover novels are young-adult novels that just happen to appeal upward to adults: “Young adult novels are adult novels that reach down to the young.”

Agnes Nieuwenhuizen, a highly respected literary critic from the Australian Centre for Youth Literature, visiting New Zealand for the Storylines Festival, has her own explanation for adults’ newfound appreciation for Harry Potter and his literary companions. She is not impressed by theories of escapism, “British-ness” and “jolly good school yarns”.

Instead, Nieuwenhuizen notes that adult readers are attracted by the highquality of the writing in young adult novels, as well as the 'joy of stories,' the good plotting and the cheerful freedom of children'sliterature. These are common features in fantasy writing.
She adds a delightfully sinister quote from another crossover fantasy writer, Neil Gaiman, "The former kiddylit ghetto has become fashionable, the cool people are moving in, and property prices are starting to climb!"

Garth Nix has proved to be a profitable property for Australia’s Allen & Unwin publishers, but other Australasian publishing firms are looking to junior fantasy writers for future earnings. Among those whose dragons are taxiing down the runway are Australia’s Carole Wilkinson and Isobelle Carmody, as well as award-winning Christchurch writer V.M. (Vicky) Jones of Christchurch, creator of the fantasy epic, the Karazan Quartet.

Why is fantasy so popular?
“In reading them [fantasies], we learn what it feels like to be afraid, to explore real feelings in the safety of a ‘let’s-pretend’ world,” explains Sherryl Jordan.

Agnes Nieuwenhuizen uses Phillip Reeve’s Mortal Engines, the tale of predatory mobile cities, as an example of how fantasy can move readers to exotic places “swept on by narrative power”. Fantasy enables Philip Pullman’s readers to explore issues of life, faith and death, while Susan Price’s Sterkarm series provide a literal crossover to other times and other cultures.

Addressing a Christchurch audience, Garth Nix summed it all up, “Good children’s books are for all ages!”

Trevor Agnew

A Crossover Fantasy Booklist for Beginners
Some titles suggested by Agnes Nieuwenhuizen:

Isobelle Carmody Obernewtyn
Kevin Crossley-Holland The Seeing Stones
V.M. Jones Serpents of Arakesh
Sherryl Jordan The Raging Quiet, The Hunting of the Last Dragon
Margo Lanagan Black Juice
Ursula Le Guin A Wizard of Earthsea
Margaret Mahy The Changeover, Alchemy
Garth Nix Mr Monday, Sabriel
Terry Pratchett The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents
Susan Price The Sterkarm Handshake
Philip Pullman Northern Lights
Phillip Reeve Mortal Engines
J. K. Rowling Harry Potter series
J.R.R. Tolkien The Lord of the Rings
Carole Wilkinson Dragonkeeper
Diana Wynne Jones The Merlyn Conspiracy, Howl’s Moving Castle

Storyline website:

First published in The Press, Christchurch, New Zealand on June 26th 2004.

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