One of my favorite picture book writers is (big surprise) Maurice Sendak. I think I love his work because he recognized, moreso than most other people and especially most other picture book writers, that children are savage little monsters.
Don’t get me wrong—adults are savage big monsters—but children are often glorified to a status of sweet and young and innocent, and people, especially adults who are trying to write for children, forget that they are little beasts.
And herein lies my idea for what separates MG and YA books in terms of character. (For what separates YA and MG books in terms of plot, click here).
For Middle Grade:
It is essential that, at some level, the author recognizes that children are savages. At it’s most basic level, this is a warning that your childish characters cannot all be sticky sweet. Even Encyclopedia Brown, which is about as safe and clean as you can get, has a bully. Many authors have too-fond ideas of what children are, and they write stories about the perfectly sweet young ‘uns that live to bake cookies with grandma and say things with a cute lisp and try to sell lemonade on the street corner, but they spell the sign with a backwards “E” that looks even cuter.
Look, there is a place for such things. Mostly in Hallmark Cards.
Children are cruel—oftentimes crueler than adults. Adults have learned to tamp down their basic instincts, either in order to fit in with society, or because, through experience, they’ve learned the consequences of their cruelty. Children have not. If you want to write an honest book, you have to recognize this basic fact.
And in fact, this is a wonderful thing. When you hear someone say “look at the world through the eyes of a child,” I do NOT want you to picture the rosy-pink idealistic world that is so often imaged. Peel away the layers of civilization and societal rules that adults learn while growing up and peer into the face of the monster. Good books—I mean the really great, remarkable, life-altering books—are honest. And a book with children as characters has the capacity to be the most honest book in the world, because children are honest in the most basic, blunt ways. I’m not talking about fiction and nonfiction here. I’m talking about truth.
The best middle grade novels recognize that children are savages. The best middle grade authors recognize that we all are.
Example: “All Summer in a Day” by Ray Bradbury
For Young Adult:
Somewhere in growing up, we tamp down the monster. That’s a part of growing up. That’s what separates the child from the adult.
Being a teenager means that you’re in that transition period to becoming an adult. You put aside the things of your childhood. You start to make choices about who you want to be and what you want to do. And somewhere in there, you start to wear a mask.
To some extent, every single adult wears a mask. (Exception: The Incredible Hulk.) We have to. Because we are savage on the inside, and we don’t want to be. For whatever reason—to fit in, to be a better person, to do what’s morally right instead of what we want to—we don masks.
When you smile at that girl who talks behind your back instead of punching her teeth in? Mask.
When you pretend to be sad that guy lost his job, even though he’s a total loser? Mask.
When all you want to do is stay at home in your pjs and watch bad movies but instead you get up and go to work? Mask.
And, because we are, at the basic level, truly savage littles beasts (see: childhood), if you peel the masks away and away and away, you can see the savage, even in the adult.
Have you seen the movie Schindler’s List? This is the best possible example I can give. Goethe’s character and Schindler’s characters are wonderfully juxtaposed. Schindler wore the mask of a ruthless business man, but when you peeled it away, you saw the good man beneath. Goethe wore the mask of an upright, loyal citizen…but when you peeled that mask off, you saw the monster within.
When you’re a teenager, there comes a moment when you realize that everyone you know and love wears a mask. Good YA books show this in some way. It can be a book where the main character realizes that a parent is only human and cannont solve her problems. Or perhaps he falls in love…and out of love. Whatever way you look at it, the main character learns at some level to look beyond the mask, to see the people for who they truly are. This is the moment when Luke Skywalker learns that his father is Darth Vader.
In great YA literature, though, the main character doesn’t just realize that everyone wears a mask. In great YA literature, the hero realizes that HE wear a mask, too. He rediscovers the savage within, he becomes who he thought he couldn’t be. It could be that he thought he was tough and discovers his weakness. It could be that he thought he was weak and discovers his strength.
This is the moment when Luke considers joining the Dark Side. When Schindler gets his gold ring. When Frodo doesn’t get rid of his gold ring. When Lear faces the storm. When Aerin faces Maul. When Edmond fights the White Witch. When Harry turns away from the Mirror of Erised.
But there’s one more level. This is what separates the very best of the best YA. Good YA has the character realize everyone wears a mask. Great YA has the character realize he wears a mask, too.
The best YA lifts the mask off the reader.
There is no greater accomplishment than a book that can make the reader realize who he is behind his mask.