When it comes up with someone that I have written a novel, the first question is always, "what kind of novel?" I then try not to feel self conscious when I say that it's young adult fantasy. Part of my embarrassment stems back to junior high when I told a friend of mine that I liked to read fantasy and he said "oooo," and then made fun of me about it for the next five years. I'm pretty sure he thought fantasy was something akin to one of those grocery store romances.
Recent response to my fantasy writing is not quite so marked. I usually get one of three responses. Some actually express excitement. These are the fantasy readers. There are more of them than you might think.
The other response is basic ignorance: "what is that?" I tell them that fantasy is basically fiction that includes magic or the supernatural. It is not science-based like science fiction and not as dark as horror.
The final response is polite disinterest leaning toward veiled disdain: "Oh, how nice." This comes from those who see fantasy as second rate fiction, or (to use a phrase my husband is fond of) the "redheaded-step-child" genre. It may be popular, but many, especially in academia, feel that it is childish or not worthy of serious study or praise.
As an avid fantasy reader and writer I would like to give my support of this poor neglected genre and offer three reasons why I think that good fantasy is worth reading, especially for young adults.
Elementary-aged children are allowed and encouraged to be imaginative. However by the time those same children enter that wonderful world of the middle school or junior high, "dream big," and "think outside the box," is often replaced with "grow up," and "get real." As a young teen who did not make that transition easily, I found fantasy a safe and age-appropriate outlet for my still-imaginative mind. As an adult, I continue to enjoy thinking about things that get me out of my usual thought process and ways of viewing the world. It takes a great deal of skill and dedication for a historical or contemporary fiction author to do the research required to put on paper the actual world, but I think it takes a comparable skill to come up with something or somewhere altogether new.
Fantasy is also great for young adults because they are in a time of life when the gray area of morality is large and puzzling. The need to make good choices is less urgent, perhaps, than in childhood, and fantasy is a place where good and evil is usually well-defined and where characters have to pick a side and fight. I think some of the strongest female heroines I have ever read were fantasy characters. Good fantasy often deals with and fights harmful gender and even race roles better than other genres because it can create a world where they can be seen in a different light and location.
Finally, Fantasy, when written well, is essentially about people. It does not matter whether or not the characters of a book live in a suburb or in a castle under the water, if they are real characters dealing with real conflict in believable ways than we can relate to and learn from them as easily as any characters in the most gritty realistic fiction.
Terry Brooks, a well-known fantasy author, said to critics of the genre, "People who view fantasy as second rate or childish are usually people who don't read or understand it. I like to tell them that good fantasy is social commentary combined with good storytelling - Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, the Oz stories and so many others. Sure, the stories take place in an imaginary world. But those worlds mirror our own and tell us things about ourselves that need to be said and understood. I also like to tell them how often other forms of literature use fantasy as the bedrock of their own stories. Fantasy transcends its own form in wider scope than any other type of writing."
I never studied Harry Potter in a literature class, and I'm sure my kids won't either. However, there is a reason why those books are so well-loved internationally. They are well-written and literary, and the magic is compelling to read about. However, in essentials those books are not about spells and brooms. They are about friendship, love, sacrifice, and fighting for what is right. Rowling wrote about those great things and many others, and she did it by creating characters with whom people all over the world could identify. She also did it with dragons, castles, wands, and ancient magic. She did it with fantasy.