Encomium after encomium has been heaped on the shoulders of J.K. Rowling for somehow single-handedly (or tag-teamed with Oprah) making America love books, as if those hordes of tykes and soccer moms would suddenly whirl, wild-eyed and ravenous, on Balzac or Proust. Rowling is, presumably, the ladder they kick away behind them on their way to becoming transcendently literate.
And it is true, there is something in the nature of fantasy that naturally appeals to the young. It describes worlds as alien and fascinating—as full of fear and hope and the shock of the new—as the strange and terrifying world a child is actually born into. What's more, fantasy is upfront with its strangeness and terror; it gives it to you outright, the way a child actually experiences it. In its own way, it's as honest as it comes.
But it doesn't do its job if it lies to you, if it papers over the lives of the people in those foreign places, if it ties up their loose ends too neatly or makes morals come cheap so that it also lies to us about our own world. The most adult things I read in the fourth grade—the truest, the most real—were Madeleine L'Engle's Wrinkle in Time and Ursula K. Le Guin's Earthsea series. I was given access to adult truths when I needed them, in a place where I could understand them.
Contra Rowling and her (admit it) often amazingly simplistic moral universe, Portland author Le Guin peoples her worlds with mutable characters motivated complexly, humanly, not by inner wellsprings of grab-bag good or evil. Her newest, Powers (Harcourt, 502 pages, $17), is part of her second series to be written expressly for the young—14 and up, quoth the publishers, though it would perhaps serve best a precocious 11- or 12-year-old. Ostensibly the story of an escaped slave, and of his gift for "remembering" that sets him apart, the book primarily documents protagonist Gavir's discovery of the various forms of bondage and trust, as he moves from the house of an aristocratic family to a clandestine village of escaped slaves, then on to his homeland to perhaps discover his identity.
The form of the story is, of course, that of the much-familiar fantasy Bildungsroman , a progression of an exceptional boy from innocence to something else. In Le Guin's book, though, he doesn't find fabled greatness nor trite revelation but rather a means of suspension in his own rootlessness. She's written a book for those who still hold out the idea that fantasy—for the young or the old—should be something that broadens life rather than allows you to escape into an idealized, sanitized version of it.