"This is for all the authors," the student said into the microphone. "What did you like to read when you were our age, and what do you like now?"
We were at Reading Matters, the Victorian Youth Centre for Literature's biennial young adult literature conference. The two days after this would have an audience largely comprised of librarians and teachers, but this was Youth Day, where the teenagers got to make contact.
The four writers on stage had all finished their presentations, and it was question time, with only five minutes for interested students to cram in all their queries.
But although this is a common question for authors, the answer is nearly always fascinating, and at the back of the hall I straightened and leaned forward.
"I like real stories about real people," one of the writers said, and I nodded, expecting her to declare a love for nonfiction, perhaps an especial interest in biography. Instead, she told the students that one of her favourite books was William Golding's Lord of the Flies.
"But that's fiction," I thought, entirely confused. Then, as the next author also announced his love for "real people" and named another two novels, I understood. It was up to the last author, who writes speculative fiction, to "stand up for fantasy."
Afterwards, I approached the first author and confessed that I'd thought she'd been planning to talk about nonfiction.
She told me that as soon as she said it she'd wondered if her statement had been appropriate with a fantasy author on the panel. And she hoped that the students had understood what she'd meant.
They probably did. "Real people," in this context, meant characters in non-speculative fiction—no imaginary worlds or impossible powers, no alternative steampunk futures or magical pasts, no aliens, goblins, spaceships, or fairy castles.
"Real people" inhabit "real stories." They take part in narratives about things that could conceivably—but didn't really—happen.
But the phrasing is interesting, particularly given the implications of words such as "real," "genuine," or "true" compared to "unreal," "fake," or "false." We're taught to value truth; we're taught to despise lies. We've all encountered people who won't read—or scorn those who do read—science fiction and fantasy because they are insufficiently "true" and "real." Teenagers, especially, are taught that they'll grow out of fantastic fiction as they leave that silly fake stuff behind.
It's the kind of thing that makes me roll my eyes, and then want to interrogate the notions of reality and truth as applied to young adult fiction. So, what the hey, let's give that a go.
How "real" are a group of white English public schoolboys-cum-horrible-little-murderers from the 1950s to a diverse audience of multi-cultural teenagers in the Australia of 2011?
Or, conversely, how is the story of a contemporary American teenager trying to gain entrance to the group of girls who rules the school less real to those students, just because the latter story involves magic?
Rhymes With Witches is written by Lauren Myracle, hailed by Publisher's Weekly as "this generation's Judy Blume." It's marketed as "a dark and utterly readable take on the hierarchy of high school girls," which is very true. Marketing also mentions the "sinister secret" of the Bitches, which involves magically stealing popularity from others to enhance your own. The characters are well-drawn, the dialogue is great, and Myracle's insight into the politics and humiliations of high school life is excellent.
It's a book about people who feel much more genuine to me than the allegorical figures of Golding's classic, and it saddens me to think there are readers who won't pick it up because it's not "real."
It's particularly odd, since most of Myracle's other works don't involve speculative tropes. Same author, still fictional works—but apparently more real.
Is it the lack of "real issues" that makes the difference? Contemporary young adult fiction certainly has many books that deal with teen pregnancy, body image, sexual identity, or traumatic situations like divorcing parents, racism, abuse, and addiction.
But does the vibrant multi-culturalism of Cynthia Leitich Smith's fabulous Tantalize series count less because, unlike her contemporary work, Rain Is Not My Indian Name, it takes place in a modern setting involving vampires, werewolves, and angels?
Catherine Gilbert Murdock's rollicking high fantasy Princess Ben features a young woman with body image issues. So does her contemporary Dairy Queen series about a young female athlete in Wisconsin farm country. Does the one automatically have more realistic things to say about the body image issues of teenage girls than the other?
Kate Constable and Penni Russon are largely known as fantasy writers who beautifully explore questions of friendship, loyalty, and love in their speculative works. Their co-written novel Dear Swoosie does the same thing—without chaos magic or the singing of spells—but no less nor more realistically.
Nor do writers have to be able to produce non-speculative fiction work to produce real characters exploring real issues.
In the contemporary fantasy/horror Bleeding Violet by Dia Reeves, Hanna travels to her mother's hometown of Portero. Hanna has been diagnosed with a number of mental disorders: depression, anxiety, hyperactivity, and bipolar disorder, although she prefers to identify herself as manic-depressive. She also hallucinates: "That's why my latest shrink decided that I was manic-depressive. He said it was either that or schizophrenia, and I'm way too charming and rational to be a schizophrene. His words, not mine." Hanna's hallucinations mix with the real dangers of Portero, to chilling and fascinating effect.
Meghan Chase, of Julie Kagawa's Iron King series, is a faery princess, the lost daughter of King Oberon. She's also justifiably concerned about the bullies who target her, whether they're the high school's vicious popular crowd or the nasty faery inhabitants of the Unseelie Winter Court, and the books demonstrate deep empathy with the plight of bullying victims.
Speculative fiction has always been a way to explore might have beens and what ifs, something that's particularly interesting to me when it acts as social commentary on the "real" world. Malinda Lo's Ash and Huntress take place in a high fantasy world where fairy magic influences human lives and several humans possess unusual powers of their own. It's also a world where homosexuality and bisexuality exist, but without the demonization and discrimination queer teenagers encounter in our world.
In Huntress, young Taisin, who can sight the future in dreams and meditation and perform rituals that provide magical protection, wants to be a Sage. Falling in love and lust with her traveling companion Kaede isn't an issue because both Taisin and Kaede are girls, but because Sages must vow celibacy.
Similarly, while Kaede's lack of sexual interest in men presents her with difficulties, it's because as a high-ranking noblewoman, she's expected to make a political marriage. As her teacher notes, political marriages between women are entirely possible—just not very common. In consolation, Kaede's mother notes that "plenty of married women have lovers"—the gender of those lovers is apparently unimportant.
Ash and Huntress are important books in many ways. Providing a vision of a world where romance and desire are still issues for young queer people, but the queerness itself is not, may be the most important.
And for that matter, just because a novel is set in a realistic setting doesn't mean its characters are necessarily more "real." Readers can encounter characters that they find wooden or stale in any form of fiction.
Moreover, not all of those "real" settings are particularly realistic.
Ally Carter's young adult fiction features teenagers who are superb spies-in-training (The Gallagher Girls series) and a group of young art thieves (Heist Society). I'll happily concede that teenage thieves, hackers, and con artists certainly exist, but it's going to take a lot to convince me that a private girls' academy teaching its students to be the world's best secret agents is a likely prospect.
Similarly, Jennifer Lynn Barnes's The Squad books are hilarious and well-observed, but the thought of a high school cheerleading team as a CIA training ground is awesomely absurd.
And Lord of the Flies is a work frequently referred to in stories of isolation and privation—including speculative fiction darling Lost—but it's never taken place.
Actually, come to think of it, Lord of the Flies implies that its schoolboy protagonists have been evacuated during a nuclear war, a classic dystopian science fiction trope.
But don't tell anyone. They'd hate to think they'd been reading about unreal people all this time.