In a story in this Sunday's New York Times ("Fractured Fairy Tales: 'The False Prince' and 'The Hero's Guide to Saving Your Kingdom'"), reviewer Adam Gopnick discusses an observation made by his 12-year-old son: that young adult fantasy novels (in which genre he seems to be including high fantasy as well as horror and science fiction) fall into two basic categories: jokey or spooky. As Gopnick says, "fantasy fiction for younger readers these days bends either toward the whimsical and inventive or the dark and fatalistic."
Now, his assertion is debatable, certainly. I would probably say that any good fantasy -- for kids, for teens, or for adults -- combines elements of both light whimsy and dark dread. Nonetheless, the Gopnicks' categories sure are thought-provoking. My teen daughters and I are all voracious readers of fantasy, and we found ourselves discussing our favorite titles in terms of which camp they'd fall into. Here's the list we made -- five favorite jokey books or series, and five favorite spooky ones:
The Artemis Fowl series: From the beginning, Eioan Colfer's snappy, smart-aleck narrative manages to keep these books from straying too far into the shadows on which they could easily founder. Whenever things threaten to get too serious, Foaly cracks a bad joke, Commander Root threatens to explode, or Mulch Diggums passes gas. Even the apparently humorless title character's deadpan observations are seriously funny.
The Tiffany Aching (Discworld) series: Terry Pratchett is widely regarded as the funniest fantasy writer around (which allows him, of course, to tackle incredibly serious issues). However, part of what makes this four-volume young-adult series set on his Discworld so appealing is that, like Artemis Fowl, the heroine herself doesn't seem to have much of a sense of humor. Of course, it doesn't hurt that her sidekicks are the truly riotous Feegles, a group of six-inch, blue-skinned purveyors of absolute chaos.
The Myth Adventures series: Just to prove that American fantasy authors can be funny too, this series by Robert Lynn Asprin and Jody Lynn Nye explodes with silliness, literally from the title page of the first book, Another Fine Myth. Abounding in puns and sly references to classical mythology (as well as popular culture), these books are one of my youngest's favorite prescriptions to get her giggling if she's feeling blue.
Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series: One might question whether a series whose main characters include a two-headed, alcoholic egomaniac and an Galactic Olympic-level slacker should count as young adult fiction. Perhaps it says more about me than about my daughters that they insisted that this series be on the list.
The Harry Potter series: Now, this was a difficult one for us to categorize; from the first book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (what the heck is "the Sorcerer's Stone" anyway?), JK Rowling introduced some seriously creepy imagery, and the creepiness only increased as the hero and his friends grew up and the themes became more serious. Still, as Gopnick pointed out in his article, it's the laughter that kept us all going. From Dumbledore ("Blubber, nitwit, oddment, tweak!") to Hagrid to Fred and George to Luna to Harry himself ("There's no need to call me 'sir,' professor") the humor of these books is truly fantastic.
Douglas Adams had a truly bizarre imagination, and he mines the opportunities for increasingly random humor by powering one of his space ships with the Infinite Improbability Drive or by defining flying as "throwing yourself at the ground and missing." The true comic genius of the series, however, lies in the morose, fatalistic ramblings of Marvin the paranoid android.
Coraline: This is where I admit that my family are wimps. We love a good spooky tale, don't get me wrong, but flat-out horror? Not so much. So no Goosebumps on this list. Also, none of us got past the first few chapters of Twilight, so no sparkly vampires.
Inkheart: This is another story of fantasy elbowing its way into reality. Cornelia Funke writes fantasies that are that are truly like no one else's. An author's characters begin to come to life in the real world -- with terrible consequences. Here's a book that shows that sometimes, the human monster is the worst of all.
The Giver: The Hunger Games series isn't on this list, though Gopnick listed them in the spooky camp. We loved the books (though I got very impatient with narrator Katniss after the first volume), but spooky? Not so much. Scary? Yes -- full of heart-stopping action. A dark satire of our reality-television culture? Yup. But not spooky. (Likewise, the Percy Jackson books, which are favorites of my youngest, don't qualify on this list or on the previous one.)
Having said that, this book is a family favorite. Anyone who's read Neil Gaiman's adult novels knows that he's got a taste and a talent for the spine-tingling, and this tale of a girl who crosses the line from reality to fantasy in her search for a family she can stand to live with is wonderfully scary and psychologically resonant. A whimsical opening quickly gives place to a suspenseful buildup that gives way in turn to passages of absolute nightmare material.
The Spiderwyck Chronicles: These books definitely count more as true children's books than as young adult pieces. Still, this series, full of magic and delight, has a marvelously dark side that keeps the stories enthralling.
Something Wicked This Way Comes: This is my contribution to the list; I've never managed to get Ray Bradbury's eerie tale of the circus that comes to town onto my daughters' overflowing night tables. Bradbury's stories are always full of wonder, and this one has that too; however, it's the macabre that dominates.
Lois Lowry's Newbury Award-winning novel, on the other hand, presents a dystopia that's trul horrific, every bit as dark as Susan Collins' -- or Aldous Huxley's, for that matter. The Giver centers around the main character's slow realization of just how his quasi-utopian community operates. His growing dread, combined with the daringly ambiguous ending, make this a deeply chilling, extremely satisfying masterpiece.