Saturday, June 30, 2012

Motives in Early Reader, Middle Grade, and Young Adult Novels (Part 2)

In my last post, I wrote about the idea that complexity of motives is a good indicator of whether you are writing an early reader (also known as a chapter book), middle grade, or young adult novel.

Today I want to introduce what I call Range of Effect. In a nutshell this concept says that the younger the reader, the smaller the circle of people the protagonist’s motives are directly concerned with.

Let’s take the same three books we used to examine complexity of motives. But this time, let’s look at the range of effect for the motives each book.

Early Reader


Ramona is off to kindergarten, and it's the greatest day of her life. So why is she sitting on the bench while the rest of the students play the game gray duck?

Who is Ramona worried about? Is she concerned that her parents will be embarrassed by her actions? Does she worry about how her not playing the game affects her friends? Does she want to help her teacher have a good first day?

Not really. Her motive is pretty much about her. That’s true in most E.R. books. If a story is about a friend moving away, it deals with how the protagonist feels about it. If it’s about losing a puppy, the story is concerned with how the protagonist deals with it.

The Range of Effect for an ER novel is usually.


How Does This Affect Me?

This is because readers of these books for the most part are dealing with themselves. They might be sad if Mom is sick. But the way they view it is, I feel sad because Mom is sick, not I wonder how Mom feels about being sick? This is what kids know, so the motives in their books are generally focused on how the main character is affected.

Middle Grade


Percy and his friends have just ten days to find and return Zeus' stolen property and bring peace to a warring Mount Olympus. But to succeed on his quest, Percy will have to do more than catch the true thief: he must come to terms with the father who abandoned him; solve the riddle of the Oracle, which warns him of betrayal by a friend; and unravel a treachery more powerful than the gods themselves.

Notice how the range of effect has expanded. It’s not just about Percy. He is not just sad because his father left him. He is coming to terms with that father. He doesn’t just feel bad because his friend was mean. He has to deal with the betrayal of that friend.

As we move from ER to MG, the range of people our protagonist is concerned with expands.


How Does This Affect Me, My Friends, and My Family?

Think of many of the middle grade novels you love most. A Wrinkle in Time is about a girl saving her father. Harry Potter, at least in the first few MG books, deals with him, his friends, and the family he has lost. Charlotte’s Web is about a girl helping her friends who are animals.

As I wrote last time, many middle grade novels revolve around a character trying to “save the world.” This would seem to contradict our theory. (No! Leave our theory alone!) But when you look a little closer, you see that while saving the entire world might be  a plot point. The main characters usually don’t focus on how society at large is affected by the end of the world. they still focus on how an end of world even will affect those closest to them. And their motives are usually driven by something happening to a close friend or family member.

Young Adult

Young adult novels often (but not always) have motives dealing with larger issues. The first Hunger Games book starts with Katniss trying to save her sister. But it doesn’t take Collins long to open up the world and let us see how unjust society is. The farther we get in the series, the more we focus on society as a whole. Lord of the Flies isn’t about a boy and his friends as much as it is a microcosm of society.


In Beatrice Prior's dystopian Chicago, society is divided into five factions, each dedicated to the cultivation of a particular virtue—Candor (the honest), Abnegation (the selfless), Dauntless (the brave), Amity (the peaceful), and Erudite (the intelligent).

During the highly competitive initiation that follows, Beatrice renames herself Tris and struggles to determine who her friends really are—and where, exactly, a romance with a sometimes fascinating, sometimes infuriating boy fits into the life she's chosen. But Tris also has a secret, one she's kept hidden from everyone because she's been warned it can mean death. And as she discovers a growing conflict that threatens to unravel her seemingly perfect society, she also learns that her secret might help her save those she loves… or it might destroy her.


How Does This Affect Me , My Friends, My Family,
and the Rest of the World?

In Divergent we have a book about society itself. Notice I am not saying that all YA books are about the rest of the world. A huge part of many YA book involves self, friends, and family. Trust me, teens care about their friends (and themselves) every bit as much as they did when they were younger.

Tris is still concerned about her boyfriend. She worries how her decision will affect her family. She’s as emo as any other teen. The difference is that in a YA novel the main character begins looking beyond that when making decisions. YA books often deal with issues where the good of the individual or of the individual’s friends may be in partial or direct conflict with the good of society.

In a middle grade book, I might have  a plot of saving the world. But I am always going to save my best friend or little sister first. In YA, I may have to hurt my friend or family member for the larger good. Whether I do or not, is a plot point. But the fact that I consider it, tells me I am writing YA.

A great example of this is two Zombie books I read recently. In Zombie Chasers, the world is turning into zombies and the kid is trying to save himself, his best friend, and a hot girl. Of course saving the world is the ultimate goal, but we never really see that. And zombies are monsters.

In Rot and Ruin, the main character wants to be a zombie hunter. But early in book, his older brother points out that we want to treat our loved ones with respect. Should it be any different because their corpses have come back to life? Later we look at how the zombie apocalypse has turned society into a fearful and insular people. You would never, ever, consider something like that in a MG novel. 

One thing I won’t spend a ton of time on here, but at least want to mention is a kind of subcategory I am seeing more, called Tween. Many middle grade books are written in a more silly or gross out style. They are focused on a target audiences around 3rd grade. These tend to have more of the characteristics of early reader. Think about Diary of a Wimpy Kid for example. The main character is one of the most selfish people you could ever meet. His range of effect is all about what affects him.

Tween is still middle grade, but it is focused more on more YA issues.  

In the 3rd and final part of this series, I will look at conflicting motives. Until then, what is your personal Range of Effect?


Jacob Lee French said...

I just wanted to say that I loved your last two blogs! Not that I don't love all of them, but these ones about motives and telling the differences between MG and Young Adult has really helped me but things in perspective with my own writing! Thank you! And looking forward to Air Keep and Case File 13.

K.S. Bartow said...

Fantastic blog. Very well said. These are lines of delineation that I have been wrestling with in my own writing and you clarify so much here. I've started to realize that my writing likely falls into the "tween" category that is emerging. Again, thanks so much. Great blog!

Jaime Theler said...

Spot on again. :) I think my writing is more in the tween (or upper middle grade, as I've been calling it) category as well.