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.
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?
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.
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.
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.