Kids As Readers and Critics

Over the last week or so, I’ve had several talks with people about YA as a

Read On!

sub-genre.  One thing kept coming up that really disturbed me.  This was the assumption that writing for “kids” is automatically easier, that “kids” are a less demanding audience than adults.  I think that this is the exact opposite of the truth.

I feel a need to define the difference between “middle grade” and “YA.”   Once you get beyond picture books and books for beginning readers, fiction is fit into two general categories: middle grade and YA.   These differ not only in the age of the reader for which they are intended, but in structure and form.

Middle grade books usually have a tight focus that explores one plot element at a time.  Because of this, they are often episodic, with a chapter or series of chapters focusing on one event, then moving on to the next.  The Mary Poppins novels (see WW 11-16-11, “Not a Spoonful of Sugar” for more about these great books) are a good example of the episodic format.

YA novels are harder to define – in fact, a while back I did an entire piece on Tor.com on what makes a YA novel.  There was a lot of disagreement, but I think everyone  generally agreed that YA novels often focus in on characters in their mid-teens to late twenties.   They are often “coming of age” novels because these years are a  time when people usually are exploring the boundaries between what it is to be a “kid” and what it is to be an adult.  However, that doesn’t mean “growing up” is the only theme.  Hardly.  It’s just a frequently recurring element.

By these definitions, the Stephanie Harrington books I’m writing with David Weber are solidly YA, even if the books are accessible to younger readers.

Of course, there are books that fall in between.  Jeanne Birdsall’s very enjoyable “Penderwick” novels are a good example of these “bridge” books.  They are episodic, but there is usually  a theme that ties the various episodes together.  Elizabeth Enright, whose books I read as a kid and that I still love, was also very good in building this sort of novel.

I’ve  never stopped being a reader of YA and  middle grade novels.  Now that my elder nephews and niece are moving into this level of reading, I’ve had several opportunities to discuss books with them.  When I asked my niece whether she was disturbed by kids killing kids in  The Hunger Games, not quite eleven year-old Rebecca said thoughtfully:  “Not really.  There’s actually not a lot of that.”

Well, you can imagine I was confused because, in adult circles, kids killing kids was the main aspect of these books being discussed.  I also hadn’t read the novel yet.  When I finally read it, I thought that Rebecca’s assessment was right on target.   In The Hunger Games, very little of the killing is “on-stage.”  The distancing from the realities of mass murder is neatly, formulaically handled.  Most of the killings happen “off-stage.”  You can predict from the moment one character is introduced that she will have a tragic and horrible death.  (I was reminded of the cliched “kid from Brooklyn” in old war movies.)

Rebecca may not have had the critical vocabulary to explain to me why she found The Hunger Games exciting, but not at all upsetting, but once I’d read the book I realized that her thoughts were as sophisticated as those of any adult.   Lots of would-be writers of YA make the mistake of believing that, because younger readers lack the vocabulary to discuss what they’re reading, they don’t have the capacity to think about the content on many and complex levels.

But they do.  In fact, since a book may be their first exposure to a particular idea, I believe that young readers think more, not less, about what they are reading.  Here’s a personal example.  I first encountered Islam when my parents gave me Marguerite Henry’s novel, King of the Wind.  The story opens during the festival of Ramadan – a very different concept to someone raised in a Catholic context.  I mean, I knew Catholics fasted sometimes, for a day of so, but a fast that was extended even to animals?  A fast that went on for a whole month, stretching  between sunrise and sunset?  These were very exciting and different ideas.   I thought about them a lot.

Another example: Recently, Jim and I watched the very fine animated series, Avatar: The Last Airbender.  When we discussed it with some friends, the question arose as to how different types of “bending” were passed on genetically.  In the end, we agreed that the people who wrote the story hadn’t really thought through that detail very carefully.

I said, “Well, I guess they thought American kids wouldn’t be interested.”  One of my friends promptly responded, “But the kids do get interested.  Especially since the sequel came out, there have been lots of kids on the boards trying to work  out just how different types of bending get passed on and whether the abilities could be culturally restricted like they are in Avatar.”

So, as I worked on  Fire Season, I wrote it with a lot of consideration for my audience.   As I work on the sequel, with its complex, multi-level plot, I don’t think, “Ah, this is just for kids.  Getting the details right doesn’t matter.  They won’t notice.”

I know they will…  And I’m really thrilled.

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7 Responses to “Kids As Readers and Critics”

  1. Barbara Joan Says:

    I believe that children are every bit as thoughtful a reader as adults but I also believe that, they will as adults also do, skim over items they are not particularly interested in or familiar with (I always skim the workings of machinery described in Tom Clancey novels) The plot, the action is what captivates me. Now give me a legal thriller and I am engrossed by whether or not the lawyer or the judge is behaving according to the law and or their justification for not doing so. I also remember taking a classic children’s literature class in college and re-reading books I had read as a child and being amazed at some of the marvelous details I had missed when I read those books as a child. The introductory paragraph of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol was a revelation when I re-read it as an adult. Same with Johnny Tremaine which I first read at age 12. Certainly not a childish book.

  2. heteromeles Says:

    My first thought on reading this was something like “holy crap.” I remember how obsessive I was as a kid, so into all the details, even of something as goofy (to an adult) as Star Wars. Harry Potter and Twilight have also fostered similar cultish followings, as has HP Lovecraft and many different stories in the Anime genre, such as the Last Airbender. Toy companies get this, which is why they use multimedia series as part of their marketing campaigns to kids of all ages.

    Not that I’m a YA or Middle Grades author, but my guess is that kids care equally about good stories and good characters. They care less about adult issues (politics, money, mortgages, messy shades of gray) because they haven’t encountered them. I’ll hazard a guess that novels about murky choices and moral ambiguity (or actually any ambiguity) are less appealing, simply because the kids reading it haven’t (for the most part) run into these issues. There’s little initial sympathy or interest there.

    Similarly, I don’t think kids are going to be interested in complex science (by complexity, I’m thinking here of ecological complexities, not rocket ships) mostly because they haven’t learned about these subjects. Actually, many adults haven’t either, which is why futuristic SF technology tends to err on the side of magic rather than on the side of realism. Still, the idea that something might be true in one context and false in another is something to be careful of in a YA book, even though it tends to be ecologically true. What’s good for the deer may not be good for the wolves, or even for the mountain the deer live on. In politics, this is equivalent to scaling personal politics up to the level of politics among nations, and the idea of what may be personally abhorrent being normal between countries.

    However, kids, more than most adults, seem to be enthralled by the internal world created within books and nagged by inconsistencies within the world of the book. I remember that I certainly was. There is Emerson’s old quote about “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by statesmen and philosophers and divines.” I’d lump kids in with the philosophers when it comes to getting into the world of each book, and I suspect that the best YA authors have to believe in (and practice) foolish consistency too, at least within their stories.

  3. Ann M Nalley Says:

    When I read this post, I immediately thought of the MYSTERIOUS BENEDICT stories. These were obviously written for a younger audience, but I loved them ~ the first book especially. The touched upon an issue that I feel strongly about; I believe that the “noise” of TV, computer, and media can become mind-numbing without people being aware of it. When I was unmarried, I almost NEVER turned on the TV ~ I read constantly. One of my biggest concerns is raising my son to be a lover of books in a larger family where the men DON’T read. I don’t want him to be pacified by electronic media, I want his brain to engage itself. The issues in the BENEDICT books might have been targeted for a younger audience, but they are my concerns as well.

  4. janelindskold Says:

    I agree that kids like details — and I think this tendency has a lot to do with trying to make sense of the world.

    With appropriate stimulation, I think either TV or books can feed that. I am old enough that I watched TV in the days before you could “freeze frame” and look at details. I had almost no information on military ranks or rank markings. However, my curiosity had been stimulated, so when I watched Star Trek I tried to figure it all out… I’d even take notes.

    So TV isn’t automatically a “passive” venue — nor is reading automatically more active. I know readers who read romance or some series novels because they know exactly how they will turn out and they find that comforting and relaxing.

  5. Ann M Nalley Says:

    Jane, that’s an excellent point. There are several “beach books” of mystery series (set in a laundry mat or a bakery) that I really enjoyed ~ but PRECISELY for the reason you raised ~ I would grab one when I wanted something that was not going to challenge me or surprise me. I needed something simple and pacifying. Have you ever read anything by Peter Tremayne? He was recommended to me recently because it was a mystery that was also thought provoking.

    • janelindskold Says:

      I appreciate your feedback.

      One of the best compliments I’ve gotten as an aunt came recently when the kids came running inside to grab me because they’d found an interesting bug. (It was.)

      But the best was hearing my sister say to a family friend: “She’s the kind of aunt kids know is interested in bugs.”

      I felt very good — especially that these kids obviously felt that the adults (not just one aunt) in their lives would appreciate their discovering the world around them.

      And that we’re all always still discovering — no matter the age.

  6. Paul Says:

    I remember reading the so-called “juveniles” of Heinlein, Asimov, del Rey and others as a kid. I’ve re-read a number of them as an adult and find them just as entertaining. (I’m sure I’ll find “Fire Season” the same.) Some have even been re-published in paperback as adult science fiction and nobody seems to know the difference. If there is a difference, it’s that the protagonists are often (but not always) younger than in “adult” novels.

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