Why are adult fantasy books winning YA awards?

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I love speculative fiction. All of it. I love picture books with spaceships and faeries; I love middle grade books that let kids look through the eyes of dragons; I love young adult books that challenge coming-of-age with changing the world; I love adult novels that showcase a limitless selection of growing up. Considering how mainstream media likes to pretend that the success of fantasy and sci-fi media is a shock, and how the general reader tends to dismiss the fantasy and sci-fi bookcase, I’d hope that the speculative fiction community would be more welcoming of their YA brethren.

As of late, the YA label seems something that adult authors and publishing imprints want to avoid, unless it comes time for awards season.

Then their books are YA.

Fran Wilde’s Updraft, which won the Nebula for best young adult fiction, is the least egregious of these recent issues because of how involve Wilde is in the YA community. Updraft, however, was published by an adult imprint and promoted as an adult book with crossover appeal. What makes Updraft‘s win particularly frustrating is that every other book it was nominated against was a “proper” YA book: branded as YA, published by a YA imprint, marketed as YA.

Did Updraft win entirely on merit, or was there a boost from it’s branding as an adult-first novel? That Updraft should have been a YA book by all other standards matters less than the potential boost with speculative fiction fans and judges who have repeatedly looked down or refuse to familiarize themselves with the plethora of talent in the YA world.

The Locus Award nominee list for best young adult novel hurts a little more to look at. The original list, voted on by readers of the magazine, featured almost entirely YA novels, many written by women.

Almost.

The final list of five books included three titles published and marketed as adult books with crossover appeal, whose authors were not involved in the mainstream YA audience. Of those three titles, two were written by the same author. All five nominees were written by men.

On one hand, Locus Magazine can’t be held completely accountable for this abysmal lack of gender representation on it’s list (though it was uplifting to see Daniel Jose Older’s YA fantasy Shadowshaper make the cut, and that remains the title I’m personally rooting for to win). As the list of five final nominees is voted on by readers, they only have so much influence.

However, the fact remains that the three adult crossover titles should not have been on the original nomination list at all. YA titles didn’t get the luxury of being crosslisted to the adult categories for a chance to win because of crossover appeal – and even if they had, they certainly wouldn’t have won, as the appearance of and prevalence of votes for the familiar names of authors in the adult world over YA books show that, at least for the Locus audience, YA doesn’t stand a real chance.

So where does that leave YA speculative fiction? Though it continues to dominate the bestsellers lists – Victoria Aveyard hasn’t left the New York Times bestseller list since her fantasy Red Queen was published, while author Roshani Chokshi debuted on the list with The Star-Touched Queen, and those are just the tip of the iceberg – YA speculative fiction titles are consistently strongarmed out of the overall speculative fiction world, including the awards originally meant for them.

(Combine that with the prevalence of women who write YA speculative fiction and the tendency of YA awards to go to men, and it’s a surprise that women writing speculative fiction earn any nominations at all.)

I don’t have an answer for why the adult speculative fiction community seems to look down upon its YA cousin. There’s plenty of crossover opportunity between both of them. Readers who like Catherynne M. Valente will like Rosamund Hodge. Readers who like Diana Wynne Jones’ Howl’s Moving Castle will like Naomi Novik’s Uprooted. Fans of Sylvain Neuvel’s Sleeping Giants will like Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff’s Illuminae.

Readers who like V.E. Schwab’s work will like Victoria Schwab’s work, because even though Schwab writes adult under acronyms and YA under her full name, all of her books are equally impressive (with A Darker Shade of Magic and This Savage Song being my respective adult and YA favorites).

Perhaps the problem is a subset of the sexism that plagues YA – the internalized notion that because teen girls like something, it is lesser. Or perhaps it’s a problem within fandom, that willingness to close off walls to build up your own community. Or perhaps it is none of the above. I don’t know.

But I do know that I will continue to read and love both adult speculative fiction and YA speculative fiction – even as I complain about the adult titles winning awards meant to promote and honor YA books.

What are your favorite speculative fiction titles? Adult OR YA? Sound off in the comments below with recommendations!

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About Author

Nicole Brinkley

Nicole is the editor of YA Interrobang. She has short hair and loves dragons. The rest changes without notice. Follow her on Twitter at @nebrinkley or Tumblr at nebrinkley. Like her work? Leave her a tip.

1 Comment

  1. Shit. Why not ask a random mom which child she likes more?

    Okay, okay. I think I’ve gotten it narrowed down. For adult spec-fic, I like Jim Butcher’s “Dresden Files,” because they’re just plain fun. Those are the books I’ve stayed up until two in the morning to finish they’re that good.

    As for YA, I’d go with Gail Carson Levine’s “Ella Enchanted.” Whether it’s YA or not may be up for debate, but I consider it as such since 1) it was nominated for the Newberry Award and 2) it has a young adult protagonist and many of the themes of the book are YA themes. It still remains my favorite Cinderella retelling and is proof that yes, you can have romance without the “slap-slap-kiss” element (something the movie missed).