This post about portal fantasies gave me some food for thought. The author of the post is wondering why no agents are interested in representing portal fantasies in the vein of the Chronicles of Narnia. Many agents feel that portal fantasies have low stakes because the danger never affects the protagonist's home world. I tend to agree with that sentiment. I remember that I liked The Magician's Nephew, the prequel to The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, much better than the actual first book. In the prequel, the White Witch actually comes into the human world and wreaks havoc, while in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the entirety of the action takes place within the portal world. I also find it a bit unbelievable when the residents of the portal world are these amazing, powerful beings who need a human to solve all their problems.
On another note, the author of this post notes that there is little YA fiction that involves space travel and alien planets. I think that is largely because for a long time, those premises were relegated to the hard sci-fi section and as YA doesn't have a ready made market for hard sci-fi, people may have been confused as how to sell these books in the young adult market. However, I think this is changing, due to the popularity of the Across the Universe trilogy and the recently published Mothership by Martin Leicht and Isla Neal.
Also, the author suggests that "Maybe the lack of portal fantasy is a metaphor for the belief that modern teenagers don’t want to travel to strange new worlds, even in their reading." I think this whole discussion about portal fantasy ignores the fact that perspective is crucial to the story being told. I have nothing against exploring a strange new world, but I don't need it to be introduced to me via a portal fantasy premise. To me, that seems like an extra step, and I'd like to cut out the middleman. Every time I read a new book, I, the reader, fill the role of the protagonist of a portal fantasy as I enter the world this book is showing me. I greatly prefer straight fantasy because the perspective is from the natives of that world. Some writers might find it hard to introduce their new world and use a portal world as a shortcut, however, for the most part, I find this to be lazy writing and story-telling. In Cinder by Marissa Meyer, for example, Meyer sucked me right into her futuristic Beijing retelling of Cinderella with a cyborg protagonist. I never say "never," so a well-written portal fantasy can certainly suck me in, but for the most part, I prefer a different premise.
A really good way for me to talk about this is to discuss a recent YA book I've read and loved: Croak by Gina Damico. This is a book that introduces the reader to a strange new world while still keeping the stakes high for the "real" world. In this novel, Lex is sent to live with her uncle after a recent run of delinquent behavior. Little does she (or her parents) know that her uncle is a Grim, someone who sends departed souls to the afterlife. Lex arrives in the little isolated mountain town of Croak, one of a few places where Grims live and work together. Non-Grims don't see these places for what they are, and the magic of the places send them away confused. The Grimsphere is another layer to our world, and Grims can still move freely through the rest of the world. One of the Grims goes rogue and starts Damning criminals (preventing their souls from reaching the Afterlife), but soon the Grim starts Damning innocent people as well. The eternal souls of the entire human world hang in the balance, which gives this story high stakes and makes it so compelling.
All in all, when I was younger, I read a fair amount of portal fantasies, but I've since left those stories behind, and I look with excitement to the future of YA fantasy. I'm only a lowly intern at the moment, but someday down the road when I'm an actual agent, I would love to represent something like Croak. For those interested, there are currently two books in the series with a third on the way. Add it on Goodreads here. By the way, how cool is that cover?