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Fantasy fiction book sales increased dramatically in the past three years just as teen depression, anxiety, and mental illness skyrocketed—parallel trends that may be both a symptom of the pandemic and a possible remedy, literary and mental health experts say.
In 2021, fantasy sales went up 45% compared to 2020, the largest increase among all genres except for graphic novels, according to WordsRated, an international industry-research organization. That same year, fantasy audiobooks racked up revenue of $1.6 billion, number eight among most competitive genres on Amazon, WordsRated reports.
Barnes & Noble CEO James Daunt attributes some of this to improved marketing strategies. But mental health care professionals believe that there is a better explanation.
“Our worlds became very small [during the pandemic] and … fantasy fiction provided this vast opportunity to delve into worlds unknown and worlds unseen and worlds unexperienced,” says Melissa Sporn, a clinical psychologist who treats adolescents and children as well as adults.
Fantasy is a type of speculative fiction that features fantastical or supernatural elements that do not exist in the real world. In fantasy novels, you’re likely to learn about different systems of magic, encounter mythical creatures such as dragons or unicorns, and follow characters both tragic and heroic as they navigate enchanting worlds that have nothing in common except this—they look utterly unlike our own.
The genre is extensive and covers a wide range of scenes, topics, and plots. Some famous examples of fantasy novels and novel series include The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien, the “Harry Potter” series by J.K. Rowling, “The Stormlight Archive” by Brandon Sanderson, and “Percy Jackson and the Olympians” by Rick Riordan.
Other prominent fantasy fiction includes “His Dark Materials” by Philip Pullman, “The Earthsea Cycle” by Ursula K. LeGuin, “The Kingkiller Chronicle” by Patrick Rothfuss, “A Song of Ice and Fire” by George R.R. Martin, “The Chronicles of Narnia” by C.S. Lewis, and “The Wheel of Time” by Robert Jordan.
Experts believe that there are concrete reasons why fantasy fiction experienced a surge in popularity. First among them may be the simple relief that such stories offer from a daily reality that may still seem dark, dangerous, and uncertain.
Esther Jones is an English professor at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, and author of Medicine and Ethics in Black Women’s Fiction. She discussed this phenomena in a May 2020 article published by The Conversation.
“Readers are suffering from reality overload,” writes Jones. “Young people today have unprecedented access to information about which they may have little power to influence or change. … The fact that the setting or characters are extraordinary may be precisely why they are powerful and where their value lies.”
Experts note that even before the pandemic, other factors carried serious health consequences for youth today. In this era of social media, young people are constantly bombarded by swaths of information regarding tragedies the world over.
As the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in early 2020, society already was experiencing historic social and emotional upheaval occasioned by racial injustices and the struggles of an LGBTQ+ community seeking to gain and retain hard-fought rights. By 2022, members of Generation Z were twice as likely as the average American to struggle with feelings of depression and hopelessness.
That dynamic continues. On March 2, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee signed a law that will ban trans youth from starting “gender-affirming” medical care such as puberty blockers in the state starting July 1. Youth who’d begun such care prior to that date will be required to discontinue treatment nine months later.
“I think there is a parallel between our society really coming to grips with diversity in terms of gender identity and sexual identity—and fantasy fiction,” says Sporn.
“[In fantasy fiction] you’re presented with people and protagonists who are diverse … and you have to accept them for who they are, and you learn to empathize with them and care about them,” Sporn explains.
“You recognize where they’re coming from—it’s a way to bridge that gap and understand something you otherwise couldn’t understand.”
Members of Generation Z, compared to other generations, are more likely to worry about rising suicide rates, deportation and immigration, mass shootings, climate change, and violence against women.
However, that may explain why young people are turning to fantasy fiction not just for a release, but for a feeling of security.
In fantasy novels, “youths see examples of young people grappling with serious social, economic, and political issues that are timely and relevant, but in settings or times that offer critical distance,” says Jones.
“This distance gives readers an avenue to grapple with complexity and use their imagination to consider different ways of managing social challenges,” she adds. “What better way to deal with the uncertainty of this time than with forms of fiction that make us comfortable with being uncomfortable, that explore uncertainty and ambiguity, and depict young people as active agents, survivors, and shapers of their own destinies?”
Experts note that reading generally improves teens’ self-regard and general feelings of accomplishment. Reading fantasy fiction, they say, not only confers those benefits but improves teen mental health while they are doing it. Reading fiction has been found to improve social cognition and increase levels of empathy, Richard Sima of the International Arts + Mind Lab reported in Psychology Today last year. Sima adds that research shows reading programs and social groups centered around reading can support youth mental health through conversation and connection.
Reading fantasy novels provides respite, according to Sporn: “It really provides pause and relief for kids who are in [difficult] circumstances and situations.”
Adults are reading these, too, Sporn adds: From 2016 to now, there has been a “nice incline, because we all needed to escape.”
Even Sporn acknowledges feeling such a desire.
“I needed that escape,” she says. “I couldn’t read anything deep or tragic or painful. Life was painful enough.”
In adults, reading has been proven to reduce cognitive decline, reduce stress, and improve quality of sleep. Reading also may be connected to living a longer life, according to research from Yale University.
Parents might be concerned about their teens escaping into other realities. The misperception that reading fantasy is an unworthy or even unhealthy practice is just that: a misperception, according to Jones. Instead, reading science fiction and fantasy can also help young people learn how to cope with stress and anxiety.
Bibliotherapy, a relatively new take on therapy, mixes books and other forms of literature with traditional therapy models. The catharsis involved in the process has been shown to help increase a patient’s empathy and creativity, and to help patients cope with conditions such as generalized anxiety disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder.
If parents are still concerned that reading fantasy fiction might skew their kids’ reading habits, they can rest easy. As Jones noted in her article, a 2015 survey showed that readers of fantasy and science fiction also consume a wide range of other types of literature and media.
But in the end, Jones has a simple three-word dictum that she says should guide parents, teachers, and teens themselves: “Let them read.”
“In this time of COVID-19 and physical distancing, we may be reluctant for kids to embrace creative forms that seem to separate them psychologically from reality,” writes Jones.
“Let them read. … In [fiction], young people can see themselves—coping, surviving, and learning lessons that may enable them to create their own strategies for resilience.”
This story is part of a series on fantasy fiction’s impact on young people’s mental health. Read the full series at MindSite.