When I was younger, I wasn't a big reader of fantasy. I read a lot of science fiction and "classics." Later, when I became a graduate student in English, reading became work, and I only read books that were related to my research interests or assigned. What changed my reading habits? Harry Potter.
I've talked about and written about Harry before, and I'm sure that we've all developed our own relationships with the Boy Who Lived. For me, it was a little display at Borders (ouch!) with the three books that were out at the time. There was a sign that made me think these books were popular. I decided to check out the first book. I read the whole thing in a day. It was easy to read, short (at least the first book was), and fun. I ended up reading the entire series, re-reading all of the books every time another installment came out, and even standing in line at Borders (again!) the night the final book came out.
Since then, I've become a middle school literacy teacher, so reading YA fantasy can be considered "work" again, but it's much more fun work than trying to wade through yet another book about William Faulkner (which was my unfinished dissertation topic). I've also become something of a specialist in YA fantasy and science fiction. It seems like these two subgenres are my "comfort zone." Much of what I read for fun falls into either of these categories. Here's a partial list of fantasy books/series that I've read:
Harry Potter (of course)
Lord of the Rings
Books of Pellinor
Resurrection of Magic
Keys to the Kingdom
Daughter of Smoke and Bone
Chronicles of Ancient Darkness
His Dark Materials
Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children
Girl of Fire and Thorns
Chronicles of Prydain
Sea of Trolls
Peter and the Starcatchers
Shadow and Bone
Finnikin of the Rock
Hold Me Closer, Necromancer
Chronicles of Prydain
Forest of Hands and Teeth
Eighth Grade Bites
Merchant of Death
Midnight for Charlie Bone
If I Stay
Before I Fall
Great and Terrible Beauty
I didn't include any science fiction (except where it wasn't clearly only science fiction or fantasy. For example, Artemis Fowl is kind of a mix of science fiction and fantasy). I also didn't include any grown-up fantasy (like the Dresden files or Terry Pratchet's Discworld books).
So, what's so great about "fantasy" that doesn't apply to other kinds of YA fiction?
- Fantasy tends to be weirder, with stranger characters and unusual situations. For example, the Curse Workers series by Holly Black takes place in a universe with a section of the population that can do magic with their hands. One of the main characters' relatives, for example, can kill people just by touching them. As a result, everyone wears gloves, and it's considered indecent to show people your naked hands. Isn't that weird?
- Fantasy tends to be much longer, often stretched over several books, giving a much fuller sense of fictional reality, character, and story development. Harry Potter's books span seven years, and the Harry who fights Voldemort in the seventh book is very different from the little kid who sleeps under the stairs at the Dursley's. Sometimes this can be a fault. (I'm thinking of books that just ramble on and on, as if trying to fill pages, or that end strangely, to encourage readers to pick up the sequels.)
- Fantasy isn't afraid to be epic, to have delusions of grandeur, and to talk about the struggle between good and evil or the end of the world. It doesn't have to be - and this is perhaps the most often lampooned characteristic of the subgenre - but it often is. This is probably my favorite thing about fantasy. There are usually "bad guys," and they are usually really bad. Voldemort is a sociopath who kills and tortures because he enjoys it. Increasingly, there are more ambiguously good heroes. Curse Workers is a nice example - Cassel Sharpe, the main character, is connected to a powerful crime family, and commits several crimes throughout the books. Sage/Jaron, the main character in The False Prince/Runaway King, is a thief.
I think a lot of these things are also true of science fiction. I also think that some of the lines between the two subgenres are blurring. Interworld is a good example of this - it's about the struggle between a magic-based society and a science-based society, and maintaining a balance between the two.
I would never say that fantasy is the only kind of "good book" out there. I've read a lot of other books that were awesome. And there are a lot of "grown-up" fantasies that are fantastic and popular. I know we've all heard of Game of Thrones, but The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is a really good fantasy that hasn't yet become a movie or HBO series (though it would make a great film). And we all also know that turning something into a movie doesn't mean that the book was awesome (Twilight comes to mind) or that the movie/series will be great (Dresden Files comes to mind).
Anyway, I've been planning a top ten list for some time. I'll be working on that next.