Monday, January 30, 2012

Secrets in YA and MG, or the Character in Ignorance

Tip of the Day: Are you following Kristina's blog? She's running a giveaway of a signed hardcover, has news about her YALSA honor, and more!

Here's a secret about me: one of my pet peeves is when people think the difference between Middle Grade and Young Adult writing boils down to sex, drugs, and rock and roll. No! There are huge thematic differences between the genres. Middle grade characters are learning who they are and what makes them unique; young adult characters are figuring out how they affect the world.

Let me illustrate this with the role of secrets in middle grade and young adult novels. Take family secrets.  Your family has skeletons in the closet. Think about how old you were when you discovered them. Were your parents really able to hide big secrets from you until you were 16? Some secrets do reach that level, if they're very taboo.  But divorces and adoptions or (as I see in manuscript submissions) secret societies and superpowers? Even the most self-absorbed teen is interested in his or her family history. It's practically part of self-absorption.

If Dad is an evil overlord with a secret lair, your typical sixteen year old will have a few clues, at least. You're probably dealing with a middle grade novel, and adding sex and drugs won't instantly morph it into a young adult novel.

Secrets you may see in young adult novels:
-- things the entire family doesn't know yet. In Sarah Dessen's DREAMLAND, the main character's parents don't know why the oldest daughter has run away, so we believe that the main character doesn't know it, either.
-- unsolved crimes. These should be plausibly unsolved by everyone, without leaving trails of forensic evidence.
-- conspiracies by the entire society. In GONE WITH THE WIND, the male characters conspire to keep from the young ladies back home how badly the Confederacy is losing the war. This conspiracy extends to newspapers, political speeches, and intimate relationships.

Secrets you may see in middle grade novels:
-- family skeletons in the closet that have been hidden from the main character by the adults in the family.
-- secret societies or groups of people, such as witches and wizards in Hogwarts. "You have magic powers but your family didn't tell you" is very much a middle grade trope.
-- neighborhood secrets that some people know about, but not all. Haunted houses, secret places in the woods, urban ruins ripe for exploration, teachers or neighbors with double lives.

In other words, the young adult character should reasonably know just as much as the adult characters, even if she is as self-absorbed as Scarlett O'Hara. Or at least that's my opinion. Do you agree?

-- Kate, Miss Perfecting the Pages


Cynthia Leitich Smith said...

This is brilliant: "Middle grade characters are learning who they are and what makes them unique; young adult characters are figuring out how they affect the world."

However, with regard to divorces and adoptions specifically, in my region (mid-to-southwest) and the socio-economic strata of my childhood (lower middle class), these topics are still quite taboo and many people never find out the truth about their families/themselves until adulthood, if at all. And yes, it can be quite jarring.

Kate Fall said...

Thanks Cynthia! Yes, definitely different times and places will have different levels of taboo, depending on religion, circumstances, etc. And teens watching their parents build up to divorce will know more than if it happened in the past. An out of country adoption may have less stigma than a grandparent adopting a grandchild from a teen pregnancy. These issues can be explored very deeply in YA and adult literature in relation to others, the community.

Emily Marshall said...

I think it depends on the book. There's a huge secret the parents in one of my YA books are keeping, but a large portion of the book is the main character trying to find it out.

But yes, I agree MG and YA are vastly different in regards to developing the characters and how they interact with parents.

DeenaML said...

Kate -- great topic!

I've found in my recent YA and MG reads that a difference -- no matter what the family secret -- is that the YA MCs tend to discover a secret and then think of their parents more as PEOPLE whereas in MG they still think of their parents as PARENTS.

In EVERYBODY SEES THE ANTS (brilliant YA book by Amy King), the MC at the end understood more of why his parents acted how they did instead of why they didn't spend their lives defending him.

In THE REINVENTION OF BESSICA LEFTER (funny MG by Kristen Tracy), the MC at the end accepted that her grandma had a new boyfriend but still wanted grandma to be there for her regardless.

Kim Van Sickler said...

Hi Cynthia! Sure, in YA the characters clue in to the world around them more. I've heard it said that the big difference between MG and YA is that the MG character is concerned about his place in his family and the YA character is concerned with his place in the world. (But both are pretty self-absorbed. They have to be to make their discoveries.)

Kate Fall said...

Great insights, everyone. Thanks!

Kristina Springer said...

Great post Kate!! And thanks for the shout out-- still 12 followers away, lol. Maybe I should have set my goal lower. :-)

Mary Witzl said...

I think you're right for the most part, but I do have friends who found out family secrets when they were in their 20s; they had families who were better than most at hiding things. I suppose the trick is to make the protagonist suspicious of inconsistencies, so that s/he doesn't end up being clueless -- and thus a bit pathetic.