The Real Reason Why Grown-Ups Love Young-Adult Fantasy Books

Marie Rutkoski's young-adult novel The Winner's Curse is already getting early raves. We've got the exclusive reveal of the book's gorgeous cover, plus an essay in which Rutkoski, an English professor as well as a YA author, explains why adults love young-adult novels.

Liminal Fantasy

Eat the goblin fruit. Walk with the wolf. Kiss the monster back into human flesh.

Our oldest sources of fantasy—fairy tales and epic poems—show characters on the verge of transformation. Take “Beauty and the Beast.” Although the focus seems to be on Beauty, this is really Beast’s story. “My heart is good,” he says, “but I am still a monster.” It is Beast who changes, Beast who transforms from monster into human, Beast who demands a captive and then lets her go. Beast—not, I think, the ever-virtuous Beauty—is why we love the tale. We love it because we are fascinated by change.

There are many reasons put forward about the appeal of young adult literature to adults. As a YA writer, I’ve heard my fair share. Some people say that adults like YA because young people feel things very strongly, and the representation of this makes for a potent read (the implication seems to be that adults are emotional invalids). Others say (warning: don’t say this to me) that YA is “easy,” or that adults these days live in an unnaturally prolonged state of adolescence and so why wouldn’t they want to read about teenagers? Perhaps the best explanation given to me, though, is that readers are drawn to stories about first experiences, and YA literature is rich with it.

Still, I don’t think this last notion is the whole story. My money is on the bet that readers—of any kind of book—want to behold a transformation. First experiences draw us in because they are the crucible for change. And while of course we expect adult characters to cope with change (will Alec of Ellen Kushner’s Swordspoint ever own his past? Can Morpheus of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman even survive change?), it is not patently the essence of the adult experience in the same way it is of youth.

Fantasy knows this. Transformation is fantasy’s bread and butter. Magic, new creatures, new worlds—all either show transformation in its very act or transform a perception of reality. Fantasy is deeply invested in the liminal.

“Liminal” comes from the Latin limen, which means “threshold,” and describes transitional states, or anything that stands at the border between one thing and another. The monster Grendel in Beowulf (one of fantasy’s touchstone stories) is called a “mearcstapa”— Old English for “border walker”—and I think that it’s not just strange beasts that prowl the borders in fantasy, but that fantasy itself, as a genre, lives on the threshold.

So fantasy has always understood the appeal of youth and its essence of change. Fairy tales show girls on the cusp of sexual awakening (three words: Big Bad Wolf), a tradition Christina Rossetti reinvented in her 1862 poem “Goblin Fruit,” about two sisters, one tempted into eating the fruit while her sister lets the goblins smear it on her skin and mash it against her closed lips (you get the metaphor). Fantasy often features a coming of age, sometimes political (as in T.H. White’s Arthurian retelling, The Once and Future King), sometimes oddly structured (the Pevensie children of C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books grow up, grow young, and grow up more than once), and sometimes abhorrent (nothing will tempt Peter Pan into becoming an adult).

Although I have mostly discussed early examples of fantasy in order to suggest the genre’s longstanding investment in youth and change, it’s easy to see that this investment endures. The coming of age of Danaerys and Arya in G.R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire books is just as compelling as the question of whether Tyrion Lannister could ever be acknowledged (or acknowledge himself) as a hero. N.K. Jemisin’s child god Sieh finds his very existence threatened by aging, and The Inheritance Trilogy as a whole is a vivid exploration of the pleasures and risks of change. Meanwhile, the burgeoning of YA fantasy is a testament that this exploration casts a spell that we ask for again and again. Bestselling YA fantasies like Megan Whalen Turner’s Queen’s Thief series, Kristin Cashore’s Graceling Realm books, and Maggie Stiefvater’s The Scorpio Races are examples of books that have reached young and adult audiences alike (I barely need to mention Harry Potter).

My favorite part of Peter Pan comes when Captain Hook interrogates his enemy:

“Pan, who and what art thou?” he cried huskily.

“I’m youth, I’m joy,” Peter answered at a venture. “I’m a little bird has broken out of the egg.”

There is something breathless about this exchange; Hook speaks “huskily,” and Peter’s answer (fittingly) is almost a crow, with its sing-song rhythm of “I’m youth, I’m joy.”

As a reader, I want to see how characters who are hatched into a new world learn to fly. Interestingly, though Peter’s response seems wholly confident, with his declarative “I’m youth, I’m joy,” he doesn’t really know what he is. He answers “at a venture.” He’s just guessing. In the end, it’s not simply change, but also the self-discovery that comes with it, that fantasy offers its readers—and that is an elixir I want to drink.

Marie Rutkoski is a professor of English at Brooklyn College and the author of several books for children and young adults, including The Winner’s Curse (March 2014). Check out the exclusive reveal of the book's cover below:

The Real Reason Why Grown-Ups Love Young-Adult Fantasy Books