Thursday, March 25, 2010

Gianna and Jenna as reps of MG and YA

Yesterday I showed the similarities between two very different books, in the superficial--their titles, the names of the main characters--as well as the more fundamental--the questions they have and the people in their lives.

Today, I'd like to use these books as examples of what I think differentiate between MG and YA novels.

The age of the main character

A 12-year old narrator will most likely find readers in the 8 to 12 age range and a 17-year old one would be more suitable for teens. This is not just for the sake of such innocence-related topics such as sex and violence and language, it also has to do with the way a middle-grader views the world compared to how a teen does. Typically the younger readers think in more straightforward manner, closer to black and white, and more likely to think about one event on its own or at most related to one or two other events. Teens have become more nuanced in their views. They have come across cynical views that they may be trying on for size, or in some cases, their lives have been such that they are, in fact, cynical.

The stakes

Sure, in 39 Clues and Harry Porter and Percy Jackson, all MG novels, the fate of an entire world rests on the shoulders of their young protagonists. But readers know that these worlds exist only on the page and in their imagination. In YA, the choices and ramifications are much closer to reality and it's much easier for readers to imagine these events actually taking place in their own lives.

Gianna's choice is between submitting a project that her mother completed or re-do the entire project while risking a beloved race. Jenna's choice has to do with [spoiler alert] leaving her best friends in a hell she knows too well for the sake of clearing her name or rescuing them and putting her own future in greater jeopardy. Sacrifice or security?

The writing

This includes sentence length and vocabulary but more than that, it shows up in the structure, the tone, and the degree of subtlety. Mary E. Pearson doesn't employ a much larger vocabulary The Adoration of Jenna Fox than Kate Messner does in The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z. But Pearson is a lot more experimental in the structure, for example. The story isn't purely linear; there is a lot of back-and-forth, rumination and short flashbacks thrown in as the plot unfolds. There are quick, breathless sentences that are designed not so much to inform the reader but to provoke thinking. Questions are brought up and not necessarily addressed, except in a most nuanced way.

If it seems I am much more in awe of the writing in
The Adoration of Jenna Fox than in The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z: I'm not. I am merely pointing out the choices YA writers have as compared to MG writers. If Messner were to write her MG book using all those experimental techniques, the book would failed. Gianna Z needed to be written in the way it was because it is a perfect fit for its readers. Does it take more skill to do one or the other? I don't think so. I think the skill sets are different. With a cornucopia of choices, the skilled YA author knows how to find boundaries that work for a particular book. With limited choices, the skilled MG author knows how to mine every available possibility to make that book shine.

The character

Most readers want to identify with the main character, which usually means the mc has to be likeable. The flaws s/he has are of the forgivable sort. A mc who is mean-spirited and unforgiving will not do well in a MG novel. In YA, however, there is more leeway in what is forgivable in a mc. Most teens have felt rebellion, bitterness, yes, a degree of meanness, and are more likely to go along with a mc that feels those things as well.

Gianna occasionally feels angry at her grandmother for something the grandmother cannot help, but Gianna is clearly shown to be aware of the fact that she is being unfair while she feels this anger. And then, very soon after that, Gianna is again appreciative and loving of her grandmother.

Jenna deals with a lot of rage and bitterness, especially toward her parents. We stay in that same emotional state for long periods of time. But even though I don't like Jenna when she feels and acts like that, I am willing to keep reading, because those emotions ring true. And that is enough for the moment.

The solution

Gianna's story ends
[spoiler alert] with a cool project that is all her own, incorporating the traits that we've been shown throughout the book: her penchant for being distracted and love for drawing; running the sectionals while showing the mean girls what's what; becoming a better friend to Ruby; and accepting her grandmother's illness. Loose ends are tied, solutions are clearly the best ones.

The premise of Jenna's story makes neat solutions impossible. And that's often the case with YA novels. Loose ends abound. Again, this is because teen readers are more likely to accept outcomes that are more closely related to life and they have more likely to have the maturity to deal with imperfections and compromises. Moral dilemmas, especially, are something they grapple with daily, and know that there are no easy answers. Books that present perfect endings may be comforting, but books that make them think are the ones that they will cherish.

I have made many assertions in this post and I feel simultaneously obnoxious and free. There, my thoughts are out there. I invite your feedback, disagreements, conjecturing and questioning. You may call me obnoxious only once, and then you'll have to debate with views and thoughts and opinions, and not personal attacks.


Bish Denham said...

I think you've done a very good job Yat-Yee!

Yat-Yee said...

Thanks, Bish! Imagining the six impossible things this morning helped me push myself to finish this post, which for some reason, took a long time to write.

Lady Glamis said...

I would never call you obnoxious. :)

I think this is really well thought out. It's a great thing to distinguish between the two, for sure!

MG Higgins said...

Not obnoxious in the least! This is a very interesting comparison. I remember learning in a developmental psych class that we begin using abstract thought in our teens. I often think about that when I'm writing for middle-grade readers: Is this concrete enough? If I think my character is acting too "old," I ask myself if they'd understand a political cartoon. They shouldn't.

laurel said...

I think your comparison is well analyzed and helpful.

I've also noticed that MG is far more likely to be written in third person, while YA is almost always first person. I think that has to do with the DEPTH of identification an older reader wants to make. It's a different experience to be "with" a character by being behind her eyeballs compared to sitting one seat to her left.

I'd chalk it up to developmental stages of identity formation.

Yat-Yee said...

Glam: Thanks! You may keep the pass and call me obnoxious in the future!

Melissa: Yes, I find that I have to work hard to keep my characters thinking in concrete ways. I think the readers at the older end of the middle grade spectrum can and do think abstractly but developmentally, they stay more the concrete side.

Laurel: Thank you. I have noticed the same tendencies and I agree that the issue to how much readers want to identify with the characters. Lately though, there seem to be more MG that are written in first POV. Mine started as a 3rd person by I changed it to 1st about a year ago. I think it works better for this story. Perhaps it's because my story is an upper MG.

Kate Messner said...

I just have to say that as someone who wrote one of these books and is a huge fan of the other one, I found this discussion absolutely fascinating, and I think you've hit the nail on the head when it comes to the differences between middle grade and YA. I actually teach 7th graders as well as writing, and JENNA FOX is one of the choices I offer them for literature circles (book clubs). My more mature students -- those who have crossed that bridge into more abstract thinking -- love it and discuss it with great fervor.

Anyway...thanks for your kind words about Gianna and for including us in this thoughtful post!


Great post. A recent book I read, Someday this pain will be useful to you, by the MG writer Paul Cameron, was also cross-listed as YA. It's one of the best books I read last year.

Yat-Yee said...

Kate: Thank you so much for dropping by and for your comments. I am revising my MG right now, and I am trying very hard to learn from Gianna on how to create a readable, warm, and joyful book.

Samuel: Thanks! I don't know this book yet, but I'll have to check it out. Thanks for the recommendation.