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Defining YA Fiction: The Rise of Fantasy & Dystopia in the Noughties

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By

Sam Pegg

on


Culture

The Young-Adult (YA) world of novels is nothing new. With recognisable roots traceable to the late 1960s or even possibly further (the waters are murky on what we class as YA), it’s a type of novel we often relegate to the world of genres, despite never being a genre. Romances, bildungsroman, fantasy, and even dystopias have found their audience in young adults; yet the noughties provided a boom in YA-fiction, in particular YA fantasy and dystopia that has rippled since, its roots spreading to the world of film, TV, and many a fan-fiction.

While not its roots, and despite its current problems, YA fantasy’s notoriety owes a lot to J Ok Rowling. With the birth of Harry Potter in 1997, and the release of the film adaptation in 2001, YA fantasy rose after the success of Rowling’s series. Rowling proved that teenage characters caught in a magical struggle made more for delightful reading; charming children, teenagers, and adults alike. What helped the novels excel in the YA backdrop was its balancing of the world of a teenager against the realities of adulthood, depicting a YA struggle against the backdrop of a fantastical world.

From then, the world of magic and the supernatural became intertwined with the world of young adults, and many authors spotted this opportunity in the noughties. Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight hit the shelves in 2005, while Cassandra Clare kicked off The Mortal Instruments series with The City of Glass in 2009. Two hugely successful book series found their origins in the noughties, and they’re just two of the biggest examples. The noughties on the whole caused a huge growth in YA novels after Rowling, as she proved how lucrative and appealing young-adult novels could be. It was the prime age to appeal to their minds, providing a world of escape, romance, and fun that oozed maturity while abstaining from becoming lost with a style and focus that was “too mature”.

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Although fantasy wasn’t the only YA novel that prospered during the noughties, with dystopia (a genre that has roots as far back as Ancient Greece) finding a new audience in teenagers. The Hunger Games, The Maze Runner, and Noughts and Crosses are among some of the biggest dystopian novels of the noughties, and as a dystopia that moved away from escapism towards troubling futures, it was initially at odds with fantasy.

How did two very different genres both find themselves thriving at the same time?

The key was in recognising the liminality of their audience. Dystopia was a genre often relegated to adult fiction, while fantasy oscillated between adults and young children. Rarely did the genres find themselves crossing or aiming towards similar audiences until they found a grounding in YA-fiction, and it’s from here that they truly began to thrive.

Priorities of these novels shifted. The right balance between maturity and excitement needed to be struck while balancing the elements of the genre that made them what they were. Dystopia couldn’t fall back on depicting a world without hope, and fantasy needed to fine-tune itself with elements of romance, teenage struggles, and even puberty to add an element of relatability and realism. The novels needed to embrace their audience with their characters, world, and setting, providing something uncanny or unrecognisable in the process, and that’s exactly what they did.

These genres thrived because they recognised the elements of their YA audience and brought the issues that very much concerned them into the world the authors created. Dystopia focused on the issues YA were concerned about, while fantasy thrived on the awkward relationships and identity crises that came with growing up. Their success was rooted in understanding their audience, and while we can’t credit Rowling with everything (especially in recent years), there was something in her approach to YA that boomed and resonated with the noughties.

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