If your baby brother’s a devil and you see nothing but darkness in the adults around you, you’re probably just imagining things. But then, what do grown-ups know?
Not much, at least when it comes to conjuring fantasy and science-fiction stories pitched to teens. It ought to be a natural fit: Teens have an outsized number of dragons to slay, metaphorically speaking, including dating to underage drinking, and don’t yet know they’re not invincible. As they hit that proverbial awkward age, their imaginations are also bridging the gap between the benign fluff of fairy tales and the ambiguities and antiheroes of their parents’ worlds.
These teen terrors ought to be rich veins for enterprising writers to mine, but youthful fans have been “hopping from children’s books right into adult books, without training wheels,” writes Jane Yolen, herself a formidable and prolific writer of books for children and young adults.
But nothing could suck the coolness out of a pastime faster than sharing it with potbellied Aragorns with plastic swords or tricked-out housewives in Klingon masks. Once you’ve outgrown Harry Potter, where’s there to go?
Into this black hole step Yolen and Patrick Nielsen Hayden, a senior editor at science fiction and fantasy publisher Tor, with a slim but worthy addition to the “Year’s Best” shelf-busters beloved by science fiction, fantasy and horror readers.
With 11 entries, however, “The Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy for Teens” is a fraction of the size of its grown-up counterparts, which says volumes about what’s not out there, even with an “honor roll” of runners-up listed on a back page.
What’s worse, the stories were culled from magazines, websites and anthologies written for adults, and there’s even a golden oldie from Rudyard Kipling. The stories feature youthful protagonists or at least have kids in the background, as in “Sergeant Chip,” narrated by an attack dog with enhanced intelligence (courtesy of the U.S. Army) whose dying captain utters a final order to guard a refugee family at all costs.
Never mind that talking-dog stories would be a groan-inducing cliche in any other genre. Fairies wouldn’t be welcome in most serious-minded young adult books either, but that’s someone else’s loss. Forget gossamer wings and stardust, however. In Kelly Link’s “The Faerie Handbag,” pixies live in a dog-skin purse, along with an unhappy dog, and frantic Genevieve works against time and long odds as she roots through thrift-store bins to find them.
Fairies can be a tough bunch, as love-struck Neef discovers when she’s pressed into service by the magical Folk who really run the New York Public Library in Delia Sherman’s comic “CATNYP.” Neef sets out to research human love and instead pines for a cute guy she meets at the library. All the guy wants is to be a hero -- and not necessarily Neef’s. The Folk have a way of granting wishes in the most unexpected and nerve-racking of ways.
Neef’s attempt at romance is a rare one in this collection, where puppy love and teen rebellion are usually skimmed over or skipped entirely. There’s a smidgen of sibling rivalry in Adam Stemple’s “A Piece of Flesh,” with big sister Victoria failing to muster the warm fuzzies for the new baby, who naturally turns out to be a changeling, a life-draining imp swapped for her real sibling. There’s no real “aha” moment for her character, except to buck up and fight the interloper.
It’s as if all those demons in the flesh obviate the need to battle internal ones. But don’t mistake the lack of self-awareness -- notorious among teens -- with pat or perfunctory storytelling. Few of the stories in “The Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy for Teens” wrap their endings in a big, happily-ever-after bow, which makes the characters more likely to live on in the dark imaginings of the reader. It’s heartening to read works that, at the very least, don’t pander and that firmly relegate childhood certainties to the attic with outgrown jammies and abandoned Lego sets.
It should only happen more often. *