Monday, October 1, 2012


Welcome back to Spellbinders for the 2012-2013 school year. We enjoyed our summer off and are ready to gear up with more great tips for getting kids to love books.

I was recently preparing to give a writing workshop entitled, "What's Hot in Teen Fiction." As I sat down to write my definitions for topics such as Steampunk and Dystopian, I realized I wasn't altogether sure about how to describe these fantasy sub-genres myself

That's when I decided to interview Elizabeth Anker, the owner of Alamosa Books, our local independent children's books store. I figured teachers and librarians would also be interested in exploring these different categories and hearing what a book seller thinks of their appeal to young readers. A large part of being able to recommend a book to a young person is knowing what these different genres contain. Below are Elizabeth's thoughts on the subject.

She says Steampunk started with good writers, mainly in Britain, writing on the edge of science fiction. Then editors saw the trend and began looking for other books with similar themes. These stories tend to be more about a similar look and an idea rather than a similar story line. The look is basically Victorian with Victorian type costumes, gadgets, inventions, and creative weaponry. Goggles of some kind are almost always involved. Plots involve adventurers out to seek their fortunes or defeat bad guys in creative and technological ways. Although drawing on elements of Victorian England, these stories are not so much set in the past as they are set in parallel worlds with Victorianesque influences.

Elizabeth says Sherlock Holmes stories, which actually take place in Victorian times, are a strong influence. Holmes's nemesis Moriarty is the perfect model for the archetypical steampunk bad guy is often based upon reliance on high tech (for the times) weaponry used by a villain who is trying to take over the world. Moriarty is not influenced by morality at all and many steam punk villains are equally as capitalistic.

Steam is often the primary energy source of the times, but something magical is usually involved as well. There is a lot of true science and pseudo science woven through these stories. In the better cases it's real science with pseudo science on the edge, but based in a true science like physics. In books trying for the trend but not so concerned with research it's purely magical in many cases.

Elizabeth says Philip Pullman is the godfather of combining fantasy and science. His Golden Compass series and Phillip Reeve's Hungry Cities Chronicles have inspired many other writers.

Paolo Bacigalupi has expanded on the steampunk trend by creating a world in the future where oil has dried up, forcing people to go back to steam and other power sources. His first novel, Ship Breaker, won the Printz Award and was also a National Book Award finalist. It did not take place in a parallel world, but rather in a world slightly in the future describing a world without oil. He heavily researched what a world without oil would be like and looks at not only the environmental, but also the social ramifications.

Cherie Priest, author of Boneshaker and Hellbent, also writes about our current world in the future. She focuses more on the adventure than the science, but Elizabeth describes her books as a fun read. She gives you things to think about with a lot of android type creatures.

Rod Rees wrote The Demi-Monde Series where the army has created a virtual training world with all of history's vilest dictators and tyrants as villains. Things go haywire when the virtual world starts to develop on its own. The story starts out in the real world but the virtual world is very much based on steampunk.

Elizabeth says it's hard to figure out where to place steampunk. If a bookstore does not divide up fantasy and science fiction it would be easier but Elizabeth believes they are two different genres with two distinct audiences. Science fiction appeals more to male audience with roots in reality with guns, action, adventure, and not a lot of romance. Examples are the Alex Rider series by Anthony Horowitz.

Fantasy audiences tend to have more female readers. The males who read fantasy tend to be "gamer" type kids. Girls don't care so much about what makes the ship go as long as there is a hot guy (preferably immortal) on board. Fantasy favors swords and swashbuckling over guns. History is often a factor. Stories are not necessarily set in history but contain historical elements.

Elizabeth says that for her, the main dividing line is that fantasy tends to look at culture, the roles of women, and all kinds of social institutions while science fiction is more concerned with science and the rational explanation of what is going on independent of human interference or influence.

Of course many books contain elements of both fantasy and science fiction. Elizabeth tries to determine if a book leans more toward one or the other.

On November 4 our feature article will explore additional fantasy sub-genres. In the meantime, Spellbinder's own Kimberley Griffiths Little gave a wonderful presentation exploring fantasy sub-genres at the International Reading Association last April. Check out her handout at her website.

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