Supernatural Gifts vs. Natural Gifts

There’s a tip passed through YA fantasy writers that, no matter how many supernatural powers or how much magic you’ve stuffed into your story world, the ultimate solution must be mundane. It makes sense. Children who read YA (and even those who read Middle Grade) novels are often looking for a glimpse of the future, a guidebook to navigating the world they’re growing into. What does it say to that young reader when the protagonist saves the day through means not available to the reader? (Give you a hint: If that reader was already feeling helpless, it just exacerbates the problem.)

When you think about the children’s stories that have stuck with us, you can find patterns of a young person surrounded by fantastical events who solves the ultimate problem in their story through something within themselves. Meg Murray rescues her father and brother through her unconditional love for them. Harry Potter repeatedly beats Voldemort (and on one entertaining occasion, Lucius Malfoy) with an admirable ability to think critically under pressure and ultimately through his own courage. I’m sure you can add a whole host of these characters, each bringing some trait a child in our world could develop and use. (Feel free in the comments.)

But then you have the otherwise well-crafted series Avatar: The Last Airbender, where problems are just as likely to be solved through a character’s bending skills as they are through any other trait. Aang is forced to summon his Avatar state to save the day at least twice; his diplomacy skills, unusually sharp for a twelve-year-old, are often downplayed. Katara is forced to bloodbend to save her friends; her nurturing and healing skills as often tied up in her waterbending as not. Sokka, the only non-bender in the group, spends more time as comic relief, only bringing his leadership skills and his sarcasm into play when the benders seem to be otherwise occupied or when time needs to pass for the other characters. (I’m going to guess the creators realized this, too, as impulsive Korra is far more likely to put away her bending just long enough to puzzle something out than to go in elements blazing.)

What you read when you’re young often impacts you in ways that stay with you the rest of your life. When the characters that filled your imaginary play solve most of their problems through magical means that could not be duplicated in our world, it’s hard to develop within yourself the ability to cheer yourself through difficult times. You won’t have had role models to look up to, and that’s really more important than adults realize.


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