My 15-year-old babysitter, another high fantasy fanatic — she’s the one who first urged me to read Bardugo — agreed. “I can be dramatic, I’ll cop to it,” she told me. Still, she said, the high stakes of Y.A. fantasy feel true to teenage tumultuousness: “I’m not the hero of a book, but in my everyday life I can sometimes feel like ‘If I don’t win this battle, the world will end.’”
When I was young I blazed through the Sweet Valley High books, dazzled by the beauty of the Wakefield twins and the foibles of their equally attractive friends and boyfriends. Surely a lavaliere necklace and blond hair and blue-green eyes the color of the ocean would make life feel less dreary and fragile.
Sweet Valley High felt like a peek into a world the average teenager will never travel. Those books were like today’s filtered worlds of social media — a glossily curated portrait of white, affluent, manufactured adolescence. Reading them was like falling into a stupor of voyeurism. But pressing yourself up against windows is not unlike indulging in the metronome swipe of social media. Your phone runs out of charge and you’re left depressed by life’s dull imperfections.
In the exaggerated courts of Y.A. fantasy, there are rages of youth those Sweet Valley High books had no interest in tackling — the yearning, the fear, the discomfort and the anger. The power games played out in small, petty ways in high school are present in these novels on a grand, political scale. There is ample room for darkness in these books. But they preach resilience. They read like survival guides.
Dhonielle Clayton, whose high fantasy series “The Belles” is set in an opulent multicultural court, says she grew up hopelessly searching for her black self in the books she read: “So now I’m writing books that little me wished she’d gotten to read.” Clayton wants a black girl who reads her books “to see herself in a world where she is in the decadent dresses and she is the most beautiful and everything that she looks like is what is praised. She is the one in control.” But when the knives come out, she’s primed for that, too.
This kind of fantasy, Clayton believes, can help a reader from any background make truer sense of reality. “When people say, ‘Oh, I’m getting so tired of all the royalty stuff,’ I think, ‘Well, you might be tired of it because it’s been a thousand white girl royalty books,’” she told me. “What about stories centered on people of color? What about queer kids?”
That’s another anxiety I have for my child, who is one of the few incoming black theater majors at her fine arts academy. Will the imaginations there be bold enough to include her? I take comfort in the pioneering work of Clayton, Adeyemi and other authors of diverse royal Y.A., like Malinda Lo, whose “Ash,” a reimagining of Cinderella in which the orphaned daughter falls in love not with a prince but with a huntress, is being published in a 10th-anniversary edition. Or Hafsah Faizal, the author of the best-selling “We Hunt the Flame,” a high fantasy inspired by ancient Arabia. Or Casey McQuiston, the author of the best-selling “Red, White and Royal Blue,” a delight of a novel about the romance between a British prince and the American president’s son. They are taking on the crucial, lonely task of wresting their heroes from the margins, and their stories thrum with real-life political charge.
As I finished my cache of royal Y.A. books, it struck me that the most pressing question for the genre’s teenage readers looking around their schools and out at the wider world may be this one: Who are we willing to imagine in power in the first place?