In a story in this Sunday's New York Times ("Fractured Fairy Tales: 'The False Prince' and 'The Hero's Guide to Saving Your Kingdom'"), reviewer Adam Gopnick discusses an observation made by his 12-year-old son: that young adult fantasy novels (in which genre he seems to be including high fantasy as well as horror and science fiction) fall into two basic categories: jokey or spooky. As Gopnick says, "fantasy fiction for younger readers these days bends either toward the whimsical and inventive or the dark and fatalistic."
Now, his assertion is debatable, certainly. I would probably say that any good fantasy -- for kids, for teens, or for adults -- combines elements of both light whimsy and dark dread. Nonetheless, the Gopnicks' categories sure are thought-provoking. My teen daughters and I are all voracious readers of fantasy, and we found ourselves discussing our favorite titles in terms of which camp they'd fall into. Here's the list we made -- five favorite jokey books or series, and five favorite spooky ones:
- The Harry Potter series: Now, this was a difficult one for us to categorize; from the first book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (what the heck is "the Sorcerer's Stone" anyway?), JK Rowling introduced some seriously creepy imagery, and the creepiness only increased as the hero and his friends grew up and the themes became more serious. Still, as Gopnick pointed out in his article, it's the laughter that kept us all going. From Dumbledore ("Blubber, nitwit, oddment, tweak!") to Hagrid to Fred and George to Luna to Harry himself ("There's no need to call me 'sir,' professor") the humor of these books is truly fantastic.
Douglas Adams had a truly bizarre imagination, and he mines the opportunities for increasingly random humor by powering one of his space ships with the Infinite Improbability Drive or by defining flying as "throwing yourself at the ground and missing." The true comic genius of the series, however, lies in the morose, fatalistic ramblings of Marvin the paranoid android.
- Coraline: This is where I admit that my family are wimps. We love a good spooky tale, don't get me wrong, but flat-out horror? Not so much. So no Goosebumps on this list. Also, none of us got past the first few chapters of Twilight, so no sparkly vampires.
Having said that, this book is a family favorite. Anyone who's read Neil Gaiman's adult novels knows that he's got a taste and a talent for the spine-tingling, and this tale of a girl who crosses the line from reality to fantasy in her search for a family she can stand to live with is wonderfully scary and psychologically resonant. A whimsical opening quickly gives place to a suspenseful buildup that gives way in turn to passages of absolute nightmare material.
Lois Lowry's Newbury Award-winning novel, on the other hand, presents a dystopia that's trul horrific, every bit as dark as Susan Collins' -- or Aldous Huxley's, for that matter. The Giver centers around the main character's slow realization of just how his quasi-utopian community operates. His growing dread, combined with the daringly ambiguous ending, make this a deeply chilling, extremely satisfying masterpiece.
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