What Children Fear

I had an interesting conversation with my friend MadUnkieG yesterday that I thought I’d share.

We were talking about young adult books and how they age- for example, he said the Corey Doctorow’s Little Brother is already out of date because since it was written and published (2 years ago) there have been so many changes in social networking and how we think about security and computers. I conceded he may in fact be right about Science Fiction, but  I countered, however, that Fantasy books fare better than science fiction by dint of being timeless and not set in our world.

That’s when he said something really interesting, he said that Fantasy books age just as badly, but do so in a different way. He claimed that Fantasy books oriented toward youths are usually about children and young people facing their fears and dealing with those fears. They act as a sort of safe exposure to things the young people must deal with as they get older, and most things in young people’s novels are metaphors (intentional or not) for the children’s own lives.

Now this I could see and agree with, but it’s what followed that I found really interesting. He said that the reason young people’s fiction goes out of date is because while some fears are universal and perpetual (fear of the dark, fear of being abandoned, fear of fitting in, etc) there are fears that change as society changes. He said that while former generations (Baby Boomers to Gen-X) were most afraid of monsters that were out to hurt them, that’s not what the current generation is most afraid of- the current generation is in fact afraid of being overwhelmed by the world around them.

In other words, young people today find the world around them even more complex and intimidating than the previous generations did, and it scares the hell out of them. They’re inundated by information and messages, and don’t know how to handle it all and find their place in the world as previous generations did. This is something that older youth novels don’t tend to reflect, because they’re usually about simplification (Fantasy worlds tend to be idealized simple places where good and evil are clear.) not about dealing with hard complex realities.

He felt that there were few Fantasy novels that addressed that, since most were written in the older mode, but that Terry Prachett’s young adult works tended to be some of the best in this area. (Which given how detailed and layered the Discworld setting is, is not a surprising thing to consider at all!)

I am still pondering the implications of what he said (how books become dated, and what children fear today) and I’m not sure how one would incorporate those into writing a young adult book. There’s not much you can do about a book becoming dated, it will naturally happen with the passage of time, but you can try to stick to universal concepts as a way of minimizing the drift. As for what modern young people fear, that’s about knowing what’s in the heads of your audience and working with it- a good idea in any time.