Sometimes, when I’m between books–i.e., I have too many projects and don’t trust myself to not be sucked into a new story to the exclusion of all else–I re-read snippets of my favorite series.
One of the things I love about long series is how they grow with the reader. It’s not just that Percy or Harry, or Alanna, or any of the others grow up. It’s that their voices, and their authors’ tone grows up, too.
Consider the Percy Jackson books. At the beginning of the series, Percy is twelve. He’s dyslexic, has ADHD, and has been kicked out of six schools in six years. His voice is delinquent, defensive, even slightly sad–and immediately gripping.
The Lightning Thief, chapter one
Look, I didn’t want to be a half blood.
If you’re reading this because you think you might be one, my advice is: close this book right now. Believe whatever like your mom or dad told you about your birth, and try to lead a normal life.
Being a half-blood is dangerous. It’s scary. Most of the time, it gets you killed in painful, nasty ways.
If you’re a normal kid, reading this because you think it’s fiction, great. Read on. I envy you for being able to believe that none of this ever happened.
But if you recognize yourself in these pages–if you feel something stirring inside–stop reading immediately. You might be one of us. And once you know that, it’s only a matter of time before they sense it too, and they’ll come for you.
Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Come the fifth book, The Last Olympian, Percy is sixteen. His dyslexia and ADHD, while still occasionally mentioned, are no longer key parts of his character. And while he still has a Percy-voice, he’s grown up: not only does Percy worry about his relationship with Annabeth, his sense of mortality is (realistically) greater than in the previous novels (with the possible exception of book four, The Battle of the Labyrinth).
The Last Olympian, chapter one
The end of the world started when a pegasus landed on the hood of my car.
Up until then, I was having a great afternoon. Technically I wasn’t supposed to be driving because I wouldn’t turn sixteen for another week, but my mom and my stepdad, Paul, took my friend Rachel and me to this private stretch of bead on the South Shore, and Paul let us borrow his Prius for a short spin.
Now, I know you’re thinking, Wow, that was really irresponsible of him, blah, blah, blah, but Paul knows me pretty well. He’s seen me slice up demons and leap out of exploding school buildings, so he probably figured taking a car a few hundred yards wasn’t exactly the most dangerous thing I’d ever done.
Hear the difference? They’re clearly still the same character, but there’s a distance between the two, a distance that’s less about age-related details (driving a car) than word choice and focal points. Would twelve year old Percy be as cool about Paul? Would he use “technically” in a sentence? Most importantly, though, is the sense of comfort in sixteen year old Percy’s voice: sure, he’s talking about the end of the world, but he’s not defensive, not hiding behind a tough persona. This Percy, for the most part, is strong, confident, and in charge.
Behind Percy’s voice is Riordan’s–also strong and immediately recognizable–with a tone that’s more YA than middle grade. It’s less “wow, this is cool, and I get to save the world while looking totally awesome,” less peppy and pun-filled. There are still moments of lightness (a satyr wearing a “Got Hooves” shirt in book four, a hellhound gnawing on a giant pink plastic yak and a hundred-eyed monster getting bloodshot in book five), but they’re fewer, and used to good effect to not just illustrate character traits (as in the earlier books) but to break up tension (and thereby highlight key scenes and interactions).
While these may seem like the natural outgrowth of writing a series–and to some extent, they are–they’re actually not that common. Not all series grow with their readers (Harry Potter is probably the most famous to do so): the Michael Buckley Sisters Grimm series attempts to, but fails; the Nancy Drew books remain the same, story after story; even Dianna Wynne Jones’ Castle in the Air, a sequel to Howl’s Moving Castle, doesn’t quite capture necessary changes in tone and voice.
Oftentimes, that’s okay. Some authors want to stay within a certain genre or age-range, because that’s what speaks to them. But it’s still impressive–incredibly so–when a character demonstrates such clear growth over the course of a series. (The Protector of the Small (Kel) books by Tamora Pierce are another great example, as are J.K. Rowling’s HP books.)
Have you read any age-spanning series lately? Did you like them? Hate them? Why?Read More
We all do it, right? Glance at a group of letters, pull out a word. Reading is so ingrained in our minds that it’s almost impossible to not read signs, titles, anything with words on. But there’s reading, and then there’s reading.
Today, reading mostly falls into two categories: reading for pleasure, and reading for information. Reading as an art–really reading, reading deeper, to get within a story, to pick it to pieces and learn how it works–is fast becoming forgotten.
But What Does “Reading Deeper” Mean?
Reading deeper is about thinking deeper, about tapping into critical thinking skills. Instead of being carried away by surface currents, a deep reader asks questions. Unlike general reading for pleasure, though, deep reading requires active thought.
Anne of Green Gables – Why does Anne Shirley want a more romantic name?
Little Women – Why does Jo care about cutting her hair off?
Wuthering Heights – Why does the weather mirror Catherine and Heathcliff’s moods?
Another way to think of reading deeper is to think of it as reading between the lines. In the first Anne book, Montgomery establishes that Anne thinks herself unworthy of love and affection. But instead of simply telling the reader this, Montgomery uses contrasts. At first glance, a reader might chalk Anne’s dislike of her too-ordinary nose and freckles up to vanity. But when taken in context alongside the girl’s history as an orphan and her want of a more romantic name, Anne’s inner thoughts are made clear.
But what I think of as deep reading goes beyond reading between the lines–it’s sometimes called analytical reading. In an article for CopyBlogger, founder Brian Clark writes:
At this level of reading, you’ve moved beyond superficial reading and mere information absorption. You’re now engaging your critical mind to dig down into the meaning and motivation beyond the text. To get a true understanding of a book, you would:
- Identify and classify the subject matter as a whole
- Divide it into main parts and outline those parts
- Define the problem(s) the author is trying to solve
- Understand the author’s terms and key words
- Grasp the author’s important propositions
- Know the author’s arguments
- Determine whether the author solves the intended problems
- Show where the author is uninformed, misinformed, illogical or incomplete
Reading for Facts or Fun
How is this different to reading for fun or information? When we’re reading for fun, we let our conscious minds drift, giving ourselves leave to be caught up in the story. If the action gets a bit intense and our favorite character’s in danger, we might skip ahead, looking for their name, or words that indicate everything’s okay in Trixie-land (I read a lot of Trixie Belden this way when I was a kid). Sometimes, we’ll go back to fill in the blanks. Other times, particularly if the book is something akin to a cozy mystery, we just keep reading and assume anything important will be covered later.
Reading for information also involves skimming, particularly if you’re a speed reader. Instead of taking in every word, we skim a page until we find relevant sections, then read more comprehensively–sometimes reading quite deeply, but only within a given section.
Of course, there are exceptions–as anyone studying literature, history, or even reading itself, like my crit partner and friend, Livia–will know. If you’re writing a paper on The Old Man and the Sea, you pretty much have to read deeply and pull the book to pieces because that’s where the information you’re using for the paper comes from, in contrast to, say, a biology paper on photosynthesis.
Unsurprisingly, deep reading and critical thinking are important skills for writers. But they’re especially important for YA writers.
Why We Need to Read Deeper, Especially in YA
It’s easy to dismiss YA and teen readers–we’re constantly reminded that teens have short attention spans, that there are half a dozen cute kittens and dancing hamsters just a couple of clicks away. To some extent, the YA bestseller list even supports the idea – Twilight, The Mortal Instruments series, even The Hunger Games are full of flash and bang. Why? Because it’s hard to be distracted when:
- things are blowing up
- a demon is chasing you
- the hot guy you’ve been dreaming about is leaning in close for a first kiss
Some flash-bang books are definitely worth a deeper read–there are a lot of layers in The Hunger Games (Suzanne Collins) and The Mortal Instruments (Cassandra Clare) that are lost in that quick, exciting first read.But for every popular action-packed book, there are a dozen contemporary YA novels being devoured every day. Yes, some of them are edgy, issue books about abuse, rape, eating disorders and the like. But the majority are not. The majority are, on the surface, simple slice-of-life books about school, or summer jobs, or a pair of pants that magically fits four girls with drastically different weights and heights.
Why are teens reading these books? Because they’re relevant. On the surface, the stories may seem as ordinary as Anne Shirley’s nose. In truth, the authors are catching hold of the things most important to their readers on a subconscious level. (Good examples include Ann Brashares’ Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants series, Melina Marchetta’s Looking for Alibrandi and On the Jellicoe Road, Randa Abdel-Fattah’s Does My Head Look Big In This? and, to some extent, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter, particularly The Prisoner of Azkaban and Goblet of Fire.)
Remember when I said deeper reading leads to deeper thinking? That’s just the first part of the chain – deeper thinking leads to deeper writing, too. Think about it–if you invest time figuring out why and how a book like When You Reach Me (Rebecca Stead) works, you suddenly have a whole lot of information about story construction at your fingertips (see Clark’s list above for ways to get started). And while you may not sit down and write out every detail you’ve gleaned (though taking notes is definitely useful), they’ll rattle around your brain and inform the next thing you sit down to write. And that information will help you write a deeper, more relevant story–the kind that catches hold of your reader’s mind, then doesn’t let go until it’s done.
Which slice-of-life YA novels have caught hold of you? Why? Do you read deeply?
P.S the kidlet has been trying to add to this post all day. Here’s what he has to say.
Image Credit: lusi, via sxc.hu