Nostalgia is a business. When was the last time you heard news about a new film that wasn’t a remake or a sequel or prequel or midquel or any other kind of ‘quel’ there is?
Much like they did with their dreaded sequel phase, Disney are in the midst of a remake frenzy that doesn’t seem to be approaching an end anytime soon (although I wish it would – give me new content, Disney!) and yet another Ghostbusters remake is on the way, while February saw a new adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma hit the big screen.
With shows like Stranger Things and films like IT: Chapter One there’s been a real nostalgia for the ’80s in pop culture over the past few years; everyone wants to be comforted with the familiar while the world outside us (quite literally) burns, and now it seems like it’s a trend that’s hit YA publishing, too.
We’ve already had she-who-must-not-be-named return to the world of Harry Potter with The Cursed Child and the Fantastic Beasts films, but she’s not the only author returning to familiar territory.
In 2018 Tahereh Mafi returned to her Shatter Me series four years after the release of the final book in her trilogy, Ignite Me, with the first book in a follow-up trilogy, Restore Me, that’s concluded with the publication of Imagine Me in March. 2018 also saw Mary E. Pearson return to the world of The Remnant Chronicles with the first book in a new duology, Dance of Thieves, which concluded with Vow of Thieves in 2019.
And this year Marie Rutkoski, Rae Carson and Suzanne Collins are all returning to the worlds of their most famous YA trilogies.
We have The Midnight Lie, set in the same world as The Winner’s Trilogy, The Empire of Dreams, a direct follow up to the Fire and Thorns trilogy, and The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, the prequel to The Hunger Games that literally no one asked for.
Is this a new trend, or is it just coincidence that so many authors are returning to worlds and characters they’ve written about before?
First thing’s first, I would never tell an author what to write. The Hunger Games prequel is something I have zero interest in, regardless of who it’s about, because prequels just aren’t my thing. I’m one of (what feels like) the few Harry Potter fans who has no interest in a Marauders prequel because I already know what’s going to happen to everyone, so there’s no suspense. When it comes to prequels I’d much rather know what fandoms think than the original creators – especially when the Fantastic Beasts franchise is a prequel in which, once again, Dumbledore hasn’t been written as a gay man so I can’t necessarily trust authors to do their characters justice when they revisit them.
If President Snow’s origin story is what Suzanne Collins wanted to write then more power to her, but she might have to understand that it’s a story quite a few people won’t want to read.
I also don’t know how to feel when readers (like myself!) are immediately suspicious about an author returning to a world they’ve written about before. It’s a whole other world, after all, so why wouldn’t there be more stories to tell? We’d never say there are too many stories set on Earth, and authors like Leigh Bardugo and Cassandra Clare have become well-known in YA for expanding on beloved worlds they’ve created.
Marie Rutkoski’s new book, for example, does intrigue me because a) it’s queer and you all know by now that I love my queer stories, and b) like Six of Crows and the Grisha trilogy, it doesn’t appear to be necessary to read The Winner’s Trilogy before picking this book up.
That being said, I can’t help being a little suspicious of authors who aren’t only returning to worlds they’ve previously explored, but who are returning to the exact same characters.
You should take everything I say with a grain of salt because, other than The Hunger Games, I haven’t read any of these very popular YA novels that are receiving companion novels or direct sequels. Therefore, my opinion doesn’t matter in the slightest compared to the opinions of the fans of these authors and these series. Even so, I still don’t know how I feel about authors returning to characters whose stories supposedly ended some years before.
I think one of the major problems with these sequels that come years later, especially to books or series that have pretty big fanbases, is that the fandom has already imagined what happened to these characters post-book. Fans can disagree, but they’re still free to imagine what their favourite characters are doing without the author stepping in to correct them (looking at you, Rowling).
When the author returns some years after the end of a series, it can disrupt that relationship between the author and their fans and, subsequently, the fans and the books—especially if the author returns with something completely different to what fans have imagined for the past four or five years. This isn’t a problem if the majority of the fandom are wondering what happened next, but many fans like to imagine what happens next for themselves and this is especially true for the fans of series that seemed to have a definite ending.
Some series are timeless, but there are others that are rather dated; early 2010s YA fantasy and sci-fi was full of so many cliches that wouldn’t work if they were written that way today, and the fandom is likely to be divided between people who want to see more of the same and people who want to see a continuation that, in some ways, is a response to the original series. Will a series still hold up today if it was initially successful years before?
I’m sure part of the fun for the author must be being able to have a conversation with their own work and examine something; perhaps, looking back, they’ve realised how white and straight their fantasy world was, or they want their heroine to point out to her partner that his possessiveness isn’t cute in the slightest. Then again, is this not something they could explore in a different, new fantasy world instead?
I suppose, though, that one of the most important things we must remember about publishing is that it’s a business first and foremost. I know that can sound like such a cynical outlook on an industry that brings book lovers so much joy, and in my experience the people who work in publishing truly care about what they do, but publishing couldn’t afford to take chances on new writers or new concepts without the money brought in by what they already know works. That’s why YA publishing benefits so much from ‘trends’. The amount of YA dystopian fiction released after the success of The Hunger Games was there to bring publishers more money because they knew it was going to sell, in much the same way that authors know what’s going to sell when they sit down to write.
We might not want a return to certain series and characters, but those of us who are fans of those series would still be the first in line to buy a new book even if it wasn’t something we wanted. So, yeah, I imagine some authors are jumping on the nostalgia train, but I don’t think it’s anything we can fault them for. We should never get angry with authors for putting out books they know are going to make them money because how else are they going to feed themselves and pay their bills? We need to get rid of this idea of the starving artist.
That doesn’t mean authors aren’t still passionate about the stories they’re telling if they happen to be stories that return to worlds, and particularly characters, we’ve seen before, but if an author relies on big sales to keep a roof over their head I don’t think we can blame them for jumping on an opportunity when yet another trend sweeps through the publishing industry!