Where Have the Unicorns Gone?
It started with a discussion of Unicorn Day.
For years, we've been meaning to put together something fun to celebrate Unicorn Day (April 9th, in case you need to mark your calendar), and as we were brainstorming recently, we were listing our favorite unicorn books for young readers.
"We should feature some for older readers, too!" someone said. So we started in on the chapter books and middle grade books.
"What about YA?" someone asked. We thought for a moment, and a couple titles were suggested, but as we talked, I could feel an unexpected sense of loss creeping over me. It didn't take long before we all realized the trend I'd spotted.
By the time readers get to the upper ranges of young adult fiction and move onto general fantasy, the unicorns are gone. The dragons are still there, and the elves and fairies and gryphons and all manner of mythical beast and monster. But the unicorns are missing.
I remember thinking, That can't be right. What about...um...
There were a few that came to mind. Peter Beagel's The Last Unicorn, of course, and the Acorna series by Anne McCaffrey and Margaret Ball, though that was unicorn-inspired rather than actual unicorns. Unicorns make a very brief appearance in Rose Daughter by Robin McKinley. There's Mercedes Lackey and James Mallory's Obsidian Trilogy, and Terry Brooks' The Black Unicorn, part of the Landover series.
But the most recent of those books was published nearly 20 years ago, and the the earliest more than 50! So while there are a few out there, it seems that in the intervening decades, unicorns in fantasy literature have become as rare as...well, unicorns.
The bookseller part of my brain knows that this is probably just a phase. The popularity of assorted mythical creatures waxes and wanes over the years, like every literary trope. But the fantasy fan in me wonders if maybe it has something to do with where we are as a society and what unicorns traditionally represent.
The unicorns of legend are shy creatures and often present themselves only to those who are pure of heart, or, in some stories, only to virgins. Often, the characters interacting with unicorns are women or young girls. Contrast that with our increasingly cynical society and the fact that fantasy as a genre is still largely dominated by male writers, and perhaps it makes sense that the unicorns are missing. We've fullfilled the prophecy our own mythology created.
The saddest thing for me is that, until this week, I didn't notice that the unicorns were gone. I was a horse-crazy kid and grew up on dreams of unicorns, devouring books like The Unicorns of Balinor and Into the Land of the Unicorns and A Glory of Unicorns, all of which are now out of print, alas. At some point, unicorns stopped showing up in the books I was reading, but I didn't notice. I'd moved on to other things, like the mouse warriors of Redwall and the darker magic of Garth Nix's Abhorsen trilogy as I started in on young adult books and the process of leaving childhood behind. Maybe unicorns are just one of those things that belong to childhood, and all the innocence of that time.
From a bookish perspective, maybe unicorns will get popular again and appear in every fantasy novel published in 2022. Or maybe the trend will continue, and even the occasional reference will vanish until unicorns are exclusively the province of kids' books. But I hope that we stay somewhere in the middle, with the occasional unicorn popping up to remind all us cynical adults of something simple and innocent and worth believing in. We'll just have to wait and see. In the meantime, here are a few favorite unicorn books for all ages, and remember: April 9th. Unicorn Day. Be ready.
An older book, and geared toward middle graders or young adults, but I still re-read this one occasionally. Unicorns make a subtle appearance in a beautifully (and terrifyingly) magical world.
Beautiful, whimsical illustrations make this one such a winner that we've had a hard time keeping it on our shelves since it was first released back in September!
I actually have a signed copy of this one! It was one of the first signed books I ever got, though it was a gift and I still haven't yet had a chance to meet Jane Yolen in person!
If your young reader loves Kevin the Unicorn, there's an adorable plush version you shouldn't miss!
This one is also available as a board book.