Wednesday, February 21, 2018

YA Fiction

Modern society takes the term "teenagers" for granted, those 13-19, whose age has the word "teen" in it.  But note that this is specific to English.  Other languages (including medieval Latin) don't have a way of naming their numbers that gives 13-19 such a distinctive handle.  (Modern French:  treize, quatorze, quinze, seize, dix-sept, dix-huit, dix-neuf.)

The modern English-speaking world has, however, seized on this artifact of our language to create a specific culture for people in this age-range.  Teenage music, teenage clothing, movies and shows that appeal to teenagers.  Doing so is helped by the fact that people in this age-range really are in a transition period, growing and changing, neither children nor adults, having aspects of both.

For medieval people, there wasn't a defined "teenage" stage, as I have discussed more elsewhere.  People were legally adults for most purposes at fourteen, though exact birthdays mattered much less to them than they do for us.

Even in the English-speaking world, "teenager" really only became a recognized, specific stage in the second half of the twentieth century.  One of the things it needed, society felt, was its own literature.  There had been children's literature since at least the nineteenth century (earlier fairy tales were originally written for adults), and at a certain point kids were expected to start reading the same books adults were reading.  But teen literature, for and about people in their teens, came into its own in the 1950s.

It was called YA, "young adult," I guess because no one would have wanted to read "overgrown kid" literature.  Originally a lot of YA had plots like, "Will Jack ask Sue to the senior prom?" (spoiler alert, he does).  But over the years YA has evolved, often addressing very serious issues like divorce, sexual harassment, bullying, and the like.

In recent years, a major proportion of YA literature has been fantasy.  A lot of basic fantasy tropes tie right into the experiences of teenagers, things like feeling like the weird one (in fantasy, the weird one develops special powers), having to figure out which side one is on as all sorts of unexpected things are revealed, or having to deal with grownups who have messed everything up (think most dystopian fantasy).  Interestingly, good YA fantasy is more likely to end with ambiguity, where does "right" really lie? whereas "adult" fantasy generally has Good whacking the heck out of Evil.

The clearest marker of YA fiction is that the protagonists are teenagers.  I write YA fantasy myself.  My novel "The Starlight Raven" starts when Antonia, the heroine, is fourteen.  It's available both as an ebook and a paperback (here's the Amazon link).  She's the daughter of a witch and a wizard, a very unusual pairing, because female magic and male magic start with very different premises and distrust each other.  She wants to be part of both, but no one thinks she can.

It's going to be a series; so far there are two books, the second being "An Autumn Haunting."  More on the way!

Interestingly, I think I was writing YA fiction without even knowing it.  One of my earlier books, in the "Royal Wizard of Yurt" series, was named a "notable book for the teen aged" by the New York Public Library.  The hero of the book, "The Witch and the Cathedral," is in his late 40s in the book, so that doesn't explain it.

© C. Dale Brittain 2018

Tuesday, February 13, 2018


We take onions for granted.  There they are, at the farmers' market or at the grocery store, maybe in a mesh bag for $2.99.  We cut them up and cook them in oil or butter as Step One of a multitude of dishes, from spaghetti to chili to soup to turkey stuffing.

Medieval people had onions too, and they appreciated them ("not like kids today").  Onions are fairly easy to grow, and once dried, they will keep well, without refrigeration or smoking or salting.  They added a nice touch to a medieval diet which was always threatening to become bland.  They could be a dish all by themselves (think onion soup).  In the spring, as onions were just starting to grow, you could have green onions, where you eat the whole thing, including the leaves.

(Green onions are good in the spring when mixed with cottage cheese, which would be made from the milk when the cow had her calf.)

The above picture is a sixteenth-century image of an onion.

Medieval people also ate other onion relatives as well.  Leeks are not now common in the US, but they were a regular addition to the medieval diet, often stewed (leeks, like green onions, can be eaten leaves and all).

Then there was garlic.  Garlic then, like now, really could perk up a bland dish.  Medieval people would also have dishes made up almost entirely of garlic.  When you don't have a lot of different kinds of food to choose from, you make the best of what you've got.

But wouldn't they all have garlic breath? you ask.  Well yes, probably, and they didn't have little pocket tins of mints to suck on.  But if everybody has been eating garlic, it's much less of an issue.  And besides, they did try to keep their mouths clean.

© C. Dale Brittain 2018

For more on food in the Middle Ages, see my ebook, Positively Medieval:  Life and Society in the Middle Ages, available from Amazon and other ebook platforms.