September 13th, 2009


Feeding your inner child

A lot of writers (and some readers) look down on YA (young adult) fiction as being "dumbed down." Their thinking is, if you write for younger readers, you can't have complicated plots or use big words, and therefore your work is somehow less worthy. I would argue that good YA fiction is actually "dumbed up." That is, the writer might be constrained in terms of vocabulary, and his plot must work with a young protagonist, but he still has to keep the reader interested. A good story is a good story, no matter how old the protagonist is. J.K. Rowling proved that. Plus, a YA writer has one advantage: his adult readers have all been children and teens.

I thought about this while reading the excellent When You Reach Me, by Rebecca Stead. It's really middle grade, not YA as Miranda, the first person narrator, is eleven years old. I still enjoyed it immensely, because Stead is a good and clever writer. Part of her cleverness shows in the setting: New York City in 1979, an era that to today's American kids must seem as alien as a foreign country. Grownup readers, on the other hand, will identify with the memory of $20,000 being a huge game show prize. I can remember the year well, even if I know the city only slightly. And though I was a lot older than Miranda in 1979, I can remember being eleven well enough to know Stead has nailed the feeling of being that age. The story is told in Miranda's voice, and the voice is authentic as well as likable. The story also has spec fic underpinnings, although it's not obvious at first. When You Reach Me has been very well reviewed by librarians and teachers because it works well on many levels and has so many intrinsic elements— humor, mystery, friendship, moral behavior. Plus, it engages your sympathy for the characters and makes you care what happens to each of them.

Try doing all that in a book that can be read and enjoyed by everyone from age ten on up! So much for dumbed down.

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