Friday, August 2, 2013

Duality of Tone in MG, by Matthew MacNish


One of the things I love most about reading Middle Grade literature is how nuanced I find it often is, especially when it comes to tone. Take Harry Potter, for example: (which could certainly be argued escalates into YA territory by the end, but there's no question the cupboard under the stairs begins firmly in MG) the tone, for the most part, is light and humorous. The world is full of Weasley Wizard Wheezes, Every Flavored Beans, Bogeys, Hinky-punks, and all other sorts of wonderful nonsense. Just the kind of stuff that gets kids really into a story - truly invested, emotionally.

But ... even from the very beginning, the Wizarding World also contains a darker underbelly. Harry's parents were murdered by a dark wizard. His aunt and uncle and cousin, while somewhat humorous, are also unbelievable cruel and uncaring. Much of the darkest elements such as dementors and killing curses don't come up until later, but my point is that Harry Potter, much like a lot of MG Lit, I find, walks this amazing balance of light and dark, a sort of duality of tone that truly makes for a deeply compelling read.

There are countless examples of this duality. The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman, is a MG novel in which cold blooded murder is committed in the first few pages, and the dark tone of the story stays with the reader throughout, but there is also plenty of humor and love and family, not to mention the somewhat ridiculous but terrific notion of a boy named Nobody who grows up living in a graveyard.

Lemony Snicket and the Series of Unfortunate events is another example. Heck, every Roald Dahl novel ever written pretty much invented this trope, if you could even call it one.

I think this is important, because books and literature are the very best way for young people to become exposed to the world, especially when it comes to some of the darker aspects of it. A picture book that exposes a child to the death of a pet is much better than having to experience such tragedy for real. A chapter book that covers a friend moving away, or divorce, or any other number of topics is a much safer way to explore the emotions that might come up.

Anyway, I'm sure you see my point. Does anyone have any other examples of great MG novels with obvious duality of tone?

Either way: happy Friday! Have a great weekend.

60 comments:

  1. The lighter side helps kids deal with the darker side,

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  2. I agree with Alex. Plus, the lighter side helps the reader be less afraid of the dark. Even at life's darkest moments, a laugh with a friend, and maybe even a snarky comment, will make things easier to bear.

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  3. Absolutely! This is a big reason why I love writing MG (but also why it can be really challenging). I just got feedback on a new project from my writing group saying that the bad guys were a little too sinister, so I guess I've crossed that line and need to find my way back. :-)

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    1. I can't imagine you writing something that evil, Anna!

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  4. Great post, Matt. I'm glad Dianne shared it with #WS4U. I think your points here just affirm that fact that MGers are intelligent, yearning to see and understand more about the 'older' or 'adult' world, as they see it. Love that!

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  5. I've always loved Katherine Paterson's quote that books are a dress rehearsal for life -- a safe place to experience hard things.

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    1. I hadn't heard that one, but now I love it too!

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  6. Thanks, Matt. I am in the process of revamping my YA to a MG and the qualities that you have listed validate my decision. Great post!

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    1. That sounds like a lot of work, but I've rewritten an entire MS before, and it was worth it in the long run.

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  7. I've had kids ask me why some characters die in my books, and i tell them that in real life, sometimes the outcome isn't always happy for everyone. I want them to know that dangerous adventures are actually dangerous, no matter how exciting.

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    1. Very good point. I mean I think there's probably room for both. Light books, full of fun and fantasy, with nothing serious lurking around the corner are fine too, but personally I like the stories I write to reflect reality, even if they're geared toward younger readers.

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  8. Great comment thread, everyone. The trick is balancing the light with the dark. (My critique group recently pointed out that the joke I cracked during a tense scene didn't work. I couldn't help it--I'm just so punny. And I tend to go humorous myself when under stress. So... I'll have to find a more opportune place for it later in the ms.) Matt, you named all the great MG works that prove your point. I just love how you keep mentioning Roald Dahl, who is my fave writer ever.

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    1. Roald Dahl is the best. Danny Champion of the World is my favorite, but books like Matilda and James and the Giant Peach probably make my point a little better. :)

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  9. So agree, Matt. I think this is especially true in the fantasy, dystopian, sci-fi, and paranormal genres where the characters are usually on a mission and facing danger. And I think kids are definitely mature enough and want these darker elements of the stories. Great post.

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    1. I think you're right, Natalie. They really do.

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  10. Matt, this is so true. As a matter of fact, I recently read an interview with one of my favorite authors, Jodi Picoult, where she said that tough subjects are often easier to process through fiction than through real life. I'd say that totally applies to middle graders.

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    1. And I would totally agree. Thanks, Julie!

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  11. You're right Matt. I started writing my first MG this year and I can see how the duality of tone pertains to it since under the relationship between a boy and his monster is a city where monsters are locked away if caught and a murder that might have been blamed on the wrong species. ove how you used Harry Potter and showed both the humor and dark side of the books.

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    1. Thanks, Sheena-kay! Your story sounds awesome.

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  12. Love the yin/yang image. And I read this just yesterday, in an interview with Terry Pratchett, who writes humorous fantasy:

    You have to have tragic relief. If a book is nothing but funny, then it is nothing but funny. There is no contrast and it's hard to take anything seriously. It's hard to worry about the fate of a character. You do need those moments when you bring people down to Earth.

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  13. This is great. I think the only other MG book I've read recently, WONDER, did this as well: Such a deep, troubling main story, but it's so... light-hearted isn't the word... kid-friendly. I think that's amazing.

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    1. I'll have to check that one out!

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  14. The duality is really apparent in MG fantasy, but I see it play a more subtle role in MG contemporary or historical. It's harder to define what's evil but there's still that duality, though I never thought of it before. Great point!

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  15. I don't think I'd call it a duality of tone, but Bridge to Terabithia is a good example. First book that made me cry.

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    1. I know what you mean. Such a sad story. Beautiful though, too.

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  16. As others have mentioned, I think this duality is essential for understanding that dark, and the presence of sorrow, do not have to push out the light. Like my family's setting helium balloons loose at my younger brother's funeral, for example. There is no rule in the universe which says we must face sorrow and darkness without light and laughter.

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  17. I enjoy the fact the duality is both a way of making MG readers aware and by making them aware, empowering them with knowledge. And as any G.I. Joe fan will remember, "Knowing is half the battle."

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  18. Well, I'm trying to edit one now! And I love the dark/beautiful/wondrous nature of Graveyard Book, one of my faves. My son loved Gregor the Overlander, which is firmly MG but Suzanne Collins kills off a bajillion characters (this was before Hunger Games).

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    1. I haven't read that one. I'll have to check it out. Thanks, Alexia!

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  19. Honestly, the best middle grade books have duality of tone. Even Charlotte's Web. Isn't that death hanging over Wilbur early on in the story? Yes, I agree about Gregor the Overlander. Collins tackles war, its pointlessness, and repercussions better than in The Hunger Games, I think.

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  20. I don't read MG much, but I do understand the concept. I try to write it into my adult novels too. The world isn't just light or dark, but a bit of wonder and humor is genuine for life. My kids surprise me sometimes with the gems of wisdom they inject in their conversations, all mixed with their unique sense of humor. You'd think they never take anything seriously, but they are learning and listening. It eventually shows in their manners and attitudes.

    Excellent post Matt.

    ......dhole

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  21. I have JK in my mind a lot at the moment. I want to know how she delivers that perfect blend of humor and sinister. Actually I want to know NOW because without it my latest project is about to spiral out of control :)

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  22. I have JK in my mind a lot at the moment. I want to know how she delivers that perfect blend of humor and sinister. Actually I want to know NOW because without it my latest project is about to spiral out of control :)

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    1. LOL. I hear that. Thanks, Elizabeth!

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  23. Love this post! So nails it.

    In my very first middle grade book (one of the first three books I had ever written), I was reading it chapter-by-chapter to my three boys (at the time, ages 5-9). I was worried about one chapter where the kids in the story are captured by space pirates and threatened by some really not-nice characters. I was afraid it would be too scary. I was afraid they might not get all the nuances of body language. Boy, did I underestimate my little readers. It was their favorite chapter so far and they were glued to their seats the entire time.

    It was a very clear, object lesson to me about kids and how they absorb story.

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    1. Absolutely. And fear/fight or flight is such an important aspect of the human condition to explore. Thankfully, we've evolved to the point where we can first encounter it in books, rather than on our first hunt outside the cave.

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  24. When it comes to fiction, children are just little adults. Hell, when I was a kid, murder mysteries were some of my favorite books.

    CONTENT isn't what matters -- it's how you convey that content. It's got to be exciting, it's got to be interesting, it's got to be sincere and it's got to speak for itself, because children aren't going to be familiar with outside references, "commentaries on the genre", etc. It's got to have a kind of PG filter, but even then, that's a matter of conveyance rather than content.

    Take the movie Dark Knight -- would anyone argue against the fact that that's got some dark, disturbing content? Yet it's portrayed in a way that pre-teens can watch, not be totally shell-shocked by (as they might if they were watching somebody get his fingers broken in a Scorcese movie), and still get a good superhero movie out of it.

    Every emotion an adult feels, a child feels. Every kind of fiction an adult can like, a kid can like. Writing for kids is just a matter of writing a tad better, a tad less cynical, and going easy on the bad words and sex scenes.

    Basically writing for a kid is the same as writing for your grandma.

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    1. The Dark Knight is a great example. I remember reading an article about how it got a PG-13 rating, and specifically thinking about that in the one scene where the Joker damages the thug in the same way he was damaged. The actual violence is not put on camera, but it is clearly implied.

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  25. Agreed. There's a few MG books I think of when it comes to this.

    The Prydain Chronicles, by Lloyd Alexander. I love this series, though much like Harry Potter it veers into YA territory as the series goes one. But it's a great story about growing up, about the magic of life and the pitfalls, and the importance of courage in facing not only danger but responsibility.

    A Monster Calls. I hardly know even how to categorize this book, but it's beautiful, dark, and deep, and yet written with such clarity and simplicity that I think it can move just about anyone.

    I'm also reading a book to my daughter right now that made me think of this: The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, by Catherynne M. Valente. It's sort of a post-modern fairytale that charts both the light and dark of the genre.

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    1. Bryan! My kid loves The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making - it's wildly literary, but so whimsical too.

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    2. I'm not sure I'd put A Monster Calls in this category. It's a brilliant book, to be sure, and there is a message of hope within it, I suppose, but the tone was pretty much all dark, as far as I recall.

      And The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, and it's sequel, are on my shelf to be read soon. I actually won them from the editor at MacMillan (Feiwel and Friends), Liz Szalba, on Facebook. Pretty awesome.

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  26. This is a really great post! I enjoyed reading this very much.

    www.modernworld4.blogspot.com

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  27. Great post! Very profound. I think it's something we all need to keep in mind.

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  28. Love this post - it's so true. Children want and need to know about everything, whether funny, exciting, frightening or sad. Good MG fiction should give them the chance to explore every aspect of humanity within 'safe' boundaries. Some of my favourite books to this day are MG books (and I've read a LOT of books!) and I'm doing my best to create this duality of tone in my books too.

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Thanks for adding to the mayhem!