Friday, September 7, 2012

How Juvenile Should Juvenile Be?

I recently finished reading The Ruins of Gorlan by John Flanagan. I had several friends rate this book very highly on Goodreads. I'm a sucker for good juvenile / middle grades fantasy, so I had to check it out.

I find myself more and more often turning to the children's stacks at the library. For one, there are no late fees (^_^), so when I'm too lazy to drag my kids to the library, it's not such a big deal. However I find my interest in middle grades fiction growing more and more. Sure, many of the books I come across are more juvenile than I would like, some deal with very juvenile issues and are hard to relate too, and some are just poor quality all around. However, there are still a large quantity of little gems floating around with 11 and 12 year old heros and heroines. Some books transcend age and life situation and speak to readers on a very human level. Sometimes, I think, it requires the eyes of youth to pierce the cynicism of age. Well written juvenile fiction is quickly becoming one of my favorite types of books to read.

Sadly, after reading just the first page of The Ruins of Gorlan, I could tell this book wasn't one of those little gems. There was no subtlety or mastery in the writing. Descriptions were bland and common and the author's attempt to pull the reader into the book seemed both cliche' and forced, like the author was trying just a little too hard to sound engaging and mysterious.

Fortunately, though, this wasn't just another overly simplified attempt at a LoTR rehash. The story is it's own. The characters and setting don't feel like a copy and paste of some other fantasy book. There is enough originality here to help counteract the cliche's. The characters change and grow and feel like more than stereotypes. There are enough redeeming qualities to this book to make it not only readable, but enjoyable.

Still, as I read, the questions kept bothering me. How juvenile should juvenile fiction be? How much should I really be disappointing in the quality of this book? I'm not it's target audience after all.

I couldn't help but compare The Ruins of Gorlan to an entirely unrelated middle grades novel I read a few months ago - The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of her Own Making, by Catherynne M. Valente. I absolutely loved this book. The writing was rich and downright beautiful. Everything about it was unique. Parts of the book made me laugh out loud, other parts made me a little bit watery-eyed, other parts just blew my mind away with surprise or insight.

I wish I could could climb into the mind of a 12 year old and understand what they feel when they read. If a 12 year old read these two books, what would their reaction be? Would they find The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland to be too dull or too uncomprehensible? Would they find Gorlan to be too simple? Of course it depends on the reader, but the question also should be asked, how much should we expect of young readers? Does juvenile fiction really need to be dumbed down for it's intended audience, or can it find a way to appeal to both the reluctant and advanced readers without becoming overly simplified or condescending?

Books like Gorlan have their place and their value. I can see this as being and excellent sort of book for a reluctant (especially boy) reader. However, it's just one of many books in a stack that could fill that role. It's the kind of book that gets forgotten, replaced by the next exciting juvenile fantasy adventure waiting in line. The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland is memorable and stands out from the rest.  It has the potential to be a classic. It's the kind of book that I can imagine surviving the generations, that parents can introduce to their children, and those children can introduce to their children.

Is one necessarily better than the other? Should writers really strive for one type of middle grades book over the other? Probably not. At the same time I would love to see young readers pushed and challenged outside of their comfort zone more often. A higher quality in juvenile fiction will allow young readers to stay within the realms of fantasy and adventure, while also broadening their skills, their understanding, and their ability to see the world outside of themselves. Fortunately, I think the book community is already moving in this direction. The quality of middle grades novels being released right now is, overall, absolutely incredible. If you haven't delved much into this genre I highly encourage you to give it a try. You are certain to find something that surprises you.