With the Hunger Games finale at the top of the box office, let’s take a moment to look back at where the YA (Young Adult) genre began. Before there was Katniss and her arrows, there was Menolly and her pipes. Fantasy literature for children started many decades ago with The Wizard of Oz, Mary Poppins, and The Hobbit. These classics focused on capturing the minds of children and transporting them to fantastical worlds full of adventure. As the genre began to progress, some started to ask, what happens when these children begin to grow older and become young adults? They start to experience new and frightening things very close to home and far away from the realms of Oz and Middle Earth.
Anne McCaffrey was already a staple of the fantasy genre by the mid-1970s. She was the first female writer to win a Hugo Award for fiction and the Nebula Award. Dragonflight, published in 1968, featured a young female character who rises to fame and glory by bonding with a very rare and powerful queen dragon. This character, Lessa, captured the imagination of male and female readers alike and helped to launch a series of novels, The Dragonriders of Pern, that continue to be written to this day. In order to capture a younger and more specifically female audience, McCaffrey’s editor asked her for a series of Pern-related stories that were targeted at young adult readers. McCaffrey created and delivered Dragonsong which was published in 1976. Her publisher was so thrilled with the result that they contracted her for a sequel before the first book was even released. The three parts of the Harper Hall trilogy: Dragonsong, Dragonsinger, and Dragondrums all became instant bestsellers.
I first discovered Menolly and the Harper Hall trilogy when I was 11. My older sister bought me a paperback copy of Dragonsong and I fell in love before I even read a page. The iconic artwork from Rowena Morrill featured a young woman with flowing red hair and beautiful tiny dragons surrounding her. She was strong and compelling, but not beautiful like a princess. She felt real and I wanted to know everything about her. As I began to read, I quickly learned that this was not a story of dragons and queens, but rather a very small and focused tale of a young girl of 15 who longs for something different than what she is forced to do because of the circumstances of her birth.
Menolly’s story was so important to me and many others because it was an intimate portrayal of a young person who isn’t fighting evil, harnessing magic, or even riding dragons. Her story was rather one of a young woman who felt invisible to her family and unable to become the person that she so badly wanted to be. It is the simple story of a teenager who longs to find her voice and who struggles against some very real forces that any reader could understand. Parents who don’t comprehend or support you, a society that tells you who can’t be something because of who you are, and even your own fears of standing out in the crowd. Menolly eventually becomes a leader in her own right: a teacher, a friend, and someone who stands up for what she believes in.
The personal connection I felt to Menolly led me to read the rest of the Pern series which then ignited a larger passion for sci-fi/fantasy literature. This passion has never died out and I still continue to read both adult sci-fi/fantasy, but also YA stories like The Hunger Games, His Dark Materials, Harry Potter, and His Mortal Instruments. The YA genre is often full of larger stories of rising leaders, apocalypses that must be averted, and world-changing struggles between good and evil. At their heart though, these stories all revolve around reluctant heroes who are struggling against difficult circumstances while remaining true to themselves. Whether they are fighting dragons, demons, hormones, or parents, we personally relate to these heroes and find ourselves cheering their successes and mourning their losses.
I had the honor of meeting Anne McCaffrey a few years ago before she passed away. I had her sign my original, worn-out copy of Dragonsong. This is my most prized possession and sits on a shelf of honor with Dune, Stranger in a Strange Land, and The Lord of the Rings; all books I fell in love with because of Menolly.
Featured Image Credit and all Photo Credits by Dina Kampmeyer