Notes from “Before and After Harry Potter: YA and Fantasy”

Our Epic HP Reread may be on hiatus, but last Thursday the Center for Fiction hosted a panel discussion on young adult fantasy, “Before and After Harry Potter: YA and Fantasy,” and naturally I attended. The panelists were long-time Active Voice favorite Justine Larbalestier, Holly Black, Cassandra Clare, and Chris Moriarty. The panel was moderated by Delia Sherman.

I took as thorough a set of notes as I was able, given the mediocre quality of my pen and the fast pace of the conversation. So alas, a few names on lists of favorites and recommendations and whatnot may have been lost.

Question: What were your favorite/most influential novels/writers growing up?

JL: The incredibly prolific Tanith Lee.

CC: E. Nesbit, Enid Blyton, Lloyd Alexander, Susan Cooper.

JL: Explains the context of Blyton (widely read, but “horrible, racist” content) for those of us in the audience who aren’t familiar.
(Huge note from Becky — I originally misread my notes and applied this to the wrong writer. Enormous apologies for misquoting JL on something so important.)

HB: Madeleine L’Engle, Susan Cooper again, D’Aulaires Greek mythology.

CM: Tolkein, Lloyd Alexander again, Ursula K. LeGuin, Diana Wynn Jones.

Question: These formative books don’t seem similar to what the panelists actually write — why is their own writing so much more urban?

CC: The previous list was more things they read when they were younger than the YA crowd. Also read a lot of Anne Rice and BorderTown novels, which were eye opening.

HB: Harry Potter is an odd series because it starts off with an 11 year old and ends up with a 17 year old, so it winds from middle grade into YA. So what they really end up talking about is MG.

CM: Agreed, but even so HP really spurred the growth of YA.

JL: Also read a lot of retold fairy tales, particularly loved Jane Yolen‘s (who was in the audience).

(Everyone agrees that 1) retold fairy tales are great, and 2) Jane Yolen is also great.)

CM: Feels her writing is more “in conversation” with what she read as a kid. She loved classic fantasy, but realized that she was very much the Other when reading it, not the hero (due to her complicated ethnic/religious background), and wanted to write to put her own kids in the middle of the books instead of on the sidelines.

Question: HP hit near the beginning of the panelists’ careers — did it change the game for them?

CC: First book published was right before HP7 came out.

JL: Wasn’t published until 2005, but she beat Twilight!

HB: Read the first four HP books and felt they “pulled publishing towards a different age.” Pre-HP, the industry was more interested in picture books, but HP’s “gravitational pull” opened the door for more MG and YA.

CC: HP is the closest thing to a book everyone has read. It introduces a lot of people to fantasy and is where they learn what fantasy is and what the tropes are, the way Tolkien was for previous generations.

JL: Wrote YA before she knew that was really a thing, so it worked out well for her. Also, YA is a category and not a genre, because it contains all genres. “It’s a comfortable place if you love every genre and want to write all of them.”

CM: HP makes her up her game as a writer, and the financial success of the series lets publishers take risks on other books that probably wouldn’t get published otherwise.

CC: Its success also brought other classic YA books back into print.

JL: A lot of people who had negative reactions to HP originally felt that way because they already loved fantasy and were annoyed at being told it was the greatest, most original, etc. It isn’t the most original! That isn’t a flaw, though.

CM: Agreed. And people often get told their works resemble HP even if the came out first, like Garth Nix.

JL: “So about Garth… Well, all Australian writers know each other. (laugh)” Nix was already writing, like he was on a boat in the ocean of YA, and HP came along as a tidal wave that pulled him along with it and he found much wider success because of it.

CM: Also, kids go from reading HP to reading other fantasy if they like it.

(A pause to discuss the importance of LeGuin’s writing on her and in general.)

Question: So what books are you loving in YA now?

To save my aching wrists, instead of typing this up I will point you towards the response list already posted at Getting Past the Gatekeeper.

Audience Question: What makes a book YA?

HB: Publishers have different divisions for kids, so it depends on where you sell your book. Also, YA is most for teens and about teens, but not written from a place of nostalgia.

JL: It’s not YA if your narrator is looking back from adulthood (but like all rules, that one can be broken).

CM: It’s how you speak to people — she writes YA because she wants to reach people who are still trying to save the world.

Audience Question: Any good adult urban fantasy recs?
General answers: Charles DeLint, Emma Bull, Kushner, Gaiman, Scott Lynch.

(General discussion of Philip Pullman and people’s split opinions on him — CC loves his stuff, JL not so much. “Wheel people?!!”)

Audience Question: How have publisher and author expectations changed because of HP?

HB: Kids are big business now. Adult books have very different (smaller) sales expectations.

CM: Agree — there’s also more oversight and involvement from the publishing house.

Audience Question: How has Rowling affected the splintering of genres within YA?

HB: All of the genres had already existed, and YA actually just reinvented the wheel.

JL: Twilight had a bigger impact in creating paranormal romance, which has emerged as a huge splinter genre.

CC: Also, because of genre splintering, you can’t always count on your books being shelved together in YA if you write different genres.

That was all there was time for. All in all, a really interesting, really fun discussion.

    2 Responses to “Notes from “Before and After Harry Potter: YA and Fantasy””

    1. Justine Larbalestier says:

      Nice write up. Thank how. I have a correction however: I have never accused Tanith Lee of racism. What you quote at the beginning is me talking about Enid Blyton NOT Tanith Lee. Please correct!

    2. Rebecca says:

      Change made, and HUGE apologies! I knew my terrible handwriting was going to get me into trouble. :-/

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