Genre Study of YA Fantasy with a Subgenre of YA Low Fantasy
Materials for Young Adults
Professor Beth Wrenn-Estes
San Jose State University
November 19, 2021
Today seems like any other day. You get ready for work, step outside, and get in your car, but when you turn the corner to what should be a block of your town that you have seen a thousand times, something is different. Is that a unicorn you spy standing in the middle of the road? Is there a gnome with a red hat glaring at you from that apartment window? The world feels the way it always has, but suddenly magic has intruded into your mundane existence. Welcome to Low Fantasy, a subgenre of Fantasy wherein the fantastical becomes a part of what we would consider to be the real world (Boyer et al., 1984). See also: Mythic Fiction, Urban Fantasy, Dark Fantasy, Paranormal Romance, Magical Realism, and Superhero stories of a supernatural origin.
What is Fantasy?
According to Cart (2016), Fantasy is a genre that invites the reader to "escape this careworn world for a visit to a more appealing one, if only in one's imagination" (pp. 98-99). Fantasy can be set in a fictional world or it can be a part of the everyday world that incorporates magic (Kingsbury, 2019). It can span from ancient myths and legends to contemporary times, though when Fantasy is brought up as a genre, books that contain Medieval themes such as George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series may be what most immediately spring to mind. "Fantasy is a unique genre in that the books read by teens, adults, and children are often the same. Fantasy readers do not care which audience a book was written and published for if it's good fantasy, they will read it" (Herald, 2003, p. 3).
Martin's Game of Thrones as well as novels like N.K. Jemisin's The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms fall into the subgenre of Fantasy known as Epic or High Fantasy (Kingsbury, 2019). As implied, Low Fantasy is the opposite of High. Instead of being set in a created universe with intensive world-building, Low Fantasy is set in our own, but there is magic (Kingsbury, 2019).
Low Fantasy is described as "nonrational happenings that are without causality or rationality because they occur in the rational world where such things are not supposed to occur" (Boyer et al., 1984).
The New York Public Library states that fantasy as a theme is “as old as humanity itself” (Pagan, 2020). As long as humans have existed, they have created myths and legends, each culture crafting their own. As Pagan (2020) states, many of these fantastical stories were passed down for hundreds of years—notable stories like One Thousand and One Arabian Knights, mythology from the Norse, Egyptians, and Greco-Romans, poetry like Beowulf, Arthurian legends, and fairy tales. “Fantasy novels are not bound by our rules of reality and can therefore take place at any time or location, however, most western fantasy novels are heavily influenced by European folklore and history” (Pagan, 2020).
Low Fantasy began to be seen as its own subgenre when theorists took the concepts of Tzvetan Todorov, who created the concept of le fantastique—in which the story encompases the hesitation of the main character over what is really happening in the story—to include books spanning Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw to any where the protagonist encounters a supernatural element they may be unsure of (Watson, 2000). Modern reality suddenly shifts in what J.R.R. Tolkien called a “secondary belief” and abruptly, an element of magic or the strange is introduced in the story’s world (Watson, 2000). However, as Watson (2000) noted, this sudden shift in the way the world is interpreted does not happen for the culture as a whole. While the majority of a population continues to believe in the rules of reality set forth by modern thought, only the characters in the tale are forced to embrace that secondary belief (Chanady, 1982).
Contemporary Low Fantasy saw an upswing in interest in the 1980s when books like Emma Bull’s War for the Oaks and the Borderlands series created and edited by Terri Windling were written (Endicott Studios, 2008). Writers such as Ellen Kushner, Midori Snyder, Charles de Lint, Will Shetterly, Emma Bull, Steven Brust, Kara Dalkey, Patricia A. McKillip, Delia Sherman, and Ellen Steiber wrote and worked together on the Borderlands series, creating stories they would call Mythic Fiction (Endicott Studios, 2008) but which fell squarely into the subgenre of Low Fantasy.
"The field of mythic fiction consists of contemporary works that draw on the timeless themes and symbolism of world mythology, medieval romance, folklore, fairy tales, and the oral stoytelling tradition. Mythic fiction is set in the modern (or historical world), not in a far–off Nevernever land" (Endicott Studio, 2008).
Can't Miss Titles
Interested in contemporary fiction with a touch of fantasy? Travel to Nigeria, Korea, Canada, and the United States and discover a touch of magic along the way.
"Coined by authors Charles de Lint and Terri Windling to describe their own work, the term 'mythic fiction' has become more widely recognized in recent years, though its exact definition is somewhat difficult to elucidate. The simplest and best definition of mythic fiction is fiction that draws essential substance from myth, folklore, fairy tale, and legend. The conscious use of mythic themes and tropes ... is the key ingredient, allowing authors to explore realistic themes on a symbolic level" (Bartel, 2007, p. 1). Seen as a pioneer of contemporary fantasy, de Lint is a must-read for any low fantasy list.
Little (Grrl) Lost is a young adult novel based in the fictional town of Newford, a town that many of de Lint's adult novels are based within. 14-year-old TJ has had to move into town from the country, giving up her friends and beloved horse. When shy and awkward TJ becomes friends with a punk girl who also just happens to be six-inches tall, magic is the least of what is in store for the teen girls. They will also discover what it means to be valued and belong.
The Vasquez siblings' lives fell apart when their father left, but one day, an alien arrived and imbued the three children with powers. Now, Hank's hands work differently, Ana sees things differently, and Milo hears things differently. When the alien leaves—just like their father before him—the trio have to deal with powers that feel more like curses than talents or blessings.
This coming of age story is also a good example of how genres can bleed into each other, as not only is there a low fantasy element, there is also a science fiction element in how the siblings receive their powers.
The fantastic imbues the definition of what Fantasy and its subgenres are. There is magic, the supernatural, folklore and mythology, and sometimes even just an unreliable narrator that may or may not be experiencing a shift in the makeup of reality, le fantastique. While the foundational novels of contemporary Low Fantasy may have been shelved and sold in the adult section, many of the stories they contain involve teens or young adults and lent themselves to crossovers and teen readership. Some of those authors, like Charles de Lint and Dianna Wynne Jones, went on to write young adult books as well as adult titles.
Low Fantasy can also be a great vehicle for incorporating a culture’s mythology into the contemporary world. Books like The Gilded Ones, the Brooklyn Brujas series, Akata Witch, and Wicked Fox bring traditional folk tales into our modern experience while also introducing teens to stories that may be outside of their lexicon, showing them the foundations of tales beyond European folklore.
The guidelines for Low Fantasy can be as amorphous as magic itself. While scholars are mostly in agreement that Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series is High Fantasy, Tolkien himself argued that his books were set on Earth, just far into a fictional past (Perry, 2003). Be that as it may, there are some consistent rules—it is set in what the reader would recognize as the real world, something fantastic is introduced into that real world, and only a chosen few experience this deviation in reality. It suggests that something magical, something beyond the norm, might be waiting just around the corner. Is it any wonder that Low Fantasy can be such a compelling subgenre?
Bartel, J. (2007). Mythic fiction for young adults by Julie Bartel. JoMA Archives. https://endicottstudio.typepad.com/articleslist/mythic-fiction-for-young-adults-by-julie-bartel.html
Boyer, R. H., Zahorski, K. J., & Lovecraft, H. P. (1984). Fantasists on Fantasy: A collection of critical reflections. Avon Books.
Cart, M. (2016). Young adult literature: From romance to realism. ALA Neal-Schuman.
Chanady, A. B. (1982). Magical realism and the fantastic: Resolved versus unresolved antinomy. ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global: The Humanities and Social Sciences Collection. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780429319839
Cordova, Z. (n.d.). About. https://zoraidacordova.com/about/
de Lint, C. (2015, January). Biography. https://www.charlesdelint.com/bio01.htm
Endicott Studio. (2008). A mythic fiction reading list. https://endicottstudio.typepad.com/jomareadinglists/2007/10/a-mythic-fictio.html
Forna, N. (2020). Bio. https://naminaforna.com/bio
Fulkerson, S & Samuel, J. [Mead and Mischief]. (2020, July 27). High fantasy vs low fantasy: What is it? [Video]. YouTube. https://youtu.be/rk9RZKpxCcE
Herald, D. T. (2003). Teen genreflecting: A guide to reading interests. Libraries Unlimited.
Kingsbury, M. (2019, November 26). A reader's guide to fiction and nonfiction book genres. BOOK RIOT. https://bookriot.com/guide-to-book-genres/
LSN Library. (2020, April 16). Akata witch by Nnedi Okorafor book talk: Fast, no spoilers book talk! [Video]. YouTube. https://youtu.be/14_TUAhx_uA
Marr, M. (n.d.). About. http://www.melissamarrbooks.com/about.html
Okorafor, N. (n.d.). Nnedi's website. https://nnedi.com/
Pagan, A. (2020, May 18). Hallmarks of fantasy: A brief history of the genre. The New York Public Library. https://www.nypl.org/blog/2020/05/18/hallmarks-fantasy-brief-history-fantasy
Perry, P. (2003). Teaching fantasy novels: from the Hobbit to Harry Potter and the goblet of fire. Teacher Ideas Press.
RT Book Reviews. (2008, November 14). Author Melissa Marr on writing ink exchange. [Video]. YouTube. https://youtu.be/fhkta4rnHE4
Schaefer, M. (2020, November 4). Reverie by Ryan La Sala || Book Review [Video]. YouTube. https://youtu.be/qhKhUG9Awao
Schingler, M. A. (2018, November 30). What is low fantasy? Your guide to the subgenre. BOOK RIOT. https://bookriot.com/what-is-low-fantasy/
Sofia. [Tiny Own Universe]. (2020, October 13). Non spoilers + spoiler review of wicked fox by Kat Cho! [Video]. YouTube. https://youtu.be/blvvYi1ICZc
Watson, G. (2000). Assumptions of reality: Low fantasy, magical realism, and the fantastic. Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts, 11(42), 164–172. http://www.jstor.org/stable/43308437
Wikimedia Foundation. (2021, October 8). Diana Wynne Jones. Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diana_Wynne_Jones
1. Banner image by Hoekstra, Rogier on Pixabay: https://pixabay.com/photos/dreams-fantasy-art-surreal-2904682/
2. Victorian couple by Rackham, Arthur from A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens on Project Gutenberg. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/24022/24022-h/24022-h.htm
3. Zoraida Córdova from https://zoraidacordova.com/about/
4. Charles de Lint from https://www.charlesdelint.com
5. Namina Forna from https://naminaforna.com/home
6. Diana Wynne Jones from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diana_Wynne_Jones
7. Melissa Marr from http://www.melissamarrbooks.com/about.html
8. Nnedi Okorafor from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nnedi_Okorafor
9. All book covers from Amazon.com
10. Scenic Valley Windy Day by Rackham, Arthur on Pixabay: https://pixabay.com/illustrations/vintage-arthur-rackham-victorian-1722335/
All materials chosen to reflect the needs of the teen patrons at the Nevada County Community Library, a public library in Northern California. Policies and procedures cited are also from the Nevada County Library unless otherwise noted.
All cover images sourced from Amazon.com.