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Middle Grade vs. Young Adult Lit./Invitation to the Game vs. The Game by Monica Hughes

September 15, 2011

The other day I randomly happened to be at Borders Books in midtown Atlanta on what happened to be the last day of their going-out-of-business sale. Being me, I immediately searched for the children’s section but discovered there were no children’s books left, and that made me happy because I thought well, at least children know the value of a good book.   There was, however, a section still left of young adult and teen books, and it was in this section that I made an interesting discovery. Nestled amongst the vampires and other supernatural teen romances was a book called The Game by Monica Hughes which I instantly realized was a re-release of one of my favorite middle grade novels, previously entitled Invitation to the Game. However, the puzzling part to me was that this middle grade novel was now being released as a young adult novel, and I wanted to know why. I then decided that this would be a perfect opportunity for us to have a good discussion about the differences between middle-grade literature and young adult literature.

  Middle Grade       VS.                  Young Adult

Firstly, I have recently rewritten both the tagline and About Me sections of this blog, because I had previously written that I was going to blog about young adult and teen literature, when in fact I have been writing about middle grade literature as well. This is because I have stubbornly refused to adapt to the new definitions of children’s literature. When I was a kid, what is now known as middle-grade literature was known as young adult literature, and what is now known as young adult literature was a very tiny sub-category of children’s lit called teen books. However, in the last couple decades books written specifically for teens have exploded in popularity and the definitions of children’s literature have changed.

Now, I am not in publishing or the bookselling business (except for the amazing six months I worked at Eagle Eye Books) so I do not have a professional opinion on this matter.  No, I am merely a former English major, struggling writer, and general nerd who happens to adore middle grade and young adult literature.  Because of this, I am first going to provide you with some links to other people’s breakdowns of the differences between middle grade and young adult lit:

Here is a good blog by some publishing agents that can explain the differences more fully…and here’s another one by a children’s author…

(Interestingly, while the two blogs give good descriptions of the genres, they disagree on a key difference: whether middle grade or YA novels are  more focused on the interiority of the character or on outward events.  I think I can propose a simple solution to this dilemma:  they are BOTH focused on the interiority of the character.  That is the nature of (good) storytelling.  It is simply how the character reacts and changes inwardly which determines whether the novel is middle grade or young adult.  Even the most precocious and mature middle grade character will still have an air of innocence about him/her which distinguishes the character from a YA one.  I cannot help but chuckle, though, at the thought that the disagreement might be because it is the differences in thinking between an agent and a writer….what do you think?)

If you just want a quick overview, then here we go:  middle grade literature is written for ages 8-12 while young adult literature is written for 13 and up.  Also, the protagonist for these books usually correspond to these age groups.  Middle grade books are usually shorter  than YA novels.  Furthermore, the material for YA novels can include more mature content such as romance, sexuality, and violence, and the vocabulary may also be more advanced.  These are the basic “rules” for determining how a book should be classified and they are not set in stone by any means.  Also, as mentioned above, there is disagreement about whether the type of internal changes the main character goes through and the plot devices that incite those changes are different in middle grade and YA novels  Certainly the plots and internal struggles for YA novels are sometimes more complicated because they are written for older readers, but that is not always the case.  As it is with any type of Art, the best books are often the ones that break all the rules.

You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.

-Madeleine L’Engle

Blurbology:  In keeping with the dual nature of this post I have written two blurbs, one for the young adult The Game and one for the middle grade Invitation to the Game.

What would you do if at graduation you were told that in a world where most work is done by robots there would never be a job for you?  What if you were forced to join the ranks of the Permanently Unemployed, confined to a Designated Area, and provided with only the most basic needs?  It is 2154 and this is what happens to Lisse and her friends.  If they want to survive they must stick together, avoid the gangs and the Thought Police, and make a home for themselves amongst the drug addicts and derelicts.  But even as they struggle to create and maintain a safe home for themselves, the friends find that they are overcome by boredom and hopelessness…that is, until they hear about The Game.  What is it?  Is it real? Is  it run by the Government or someone else?  No one knows for sure, but once Lisse and her friends start playing The Game they quickly get sucked in and it becomes their reason for living.  The friends eat, sleep, and breathe The Game but they don’t realize exactly what it is they’ve gotten themselves into until its already too late…

A unique vision of the future that comes alive for the reader– The Game is modern dystopic masterpiece.

A riveting and revealing read,  Invitation to the Game is an exciting science fiction story set in the not-too-distant future of 2154.  Lisse and her friends are devastated when they find out at graduation from the government school they have attended for ten years that they will not be part of the lucky few who get jobs.  Instead, in a world where most work is done by robots, they will join the ranks of the Permanently Unemployed.  Confined to a Designated Area and virtual prisoners in a dangerous city, the friends work hard to make a home for themselves and find meaningful work to do, but boredom and hopelessness threaten to tear their newfound family apart, that is, until they hear about The Game.  No one seems to know what The Game is, but everyone wants to be a part of it.  When the friends find an invitation slipped under their door they travel to a mysterious place called Barton Oaks for their first session of The Game.  What they discover, none of them expected.  Is it virtual reality?  Hypnosis?  Is it real?  The more the friends play, the less it seems to matter, but eventually  The Game will take Lisse and her friends on an adventure that is far beyond anything they could have ever imagined.

The Analysis:

There are arguments that could be made either way as to whether The Game/Invitation to the Game is a middle grade or a young adult novel, but I personally am going to argue for middle grade.    The most obvious argument for it to be a YA book is that it has teen characters.  The main character, Lisse, is 16 and it is assumed that her friends are all about the same age.  Another argument that could be used  to claim it as a YA book is that it is a dystopia novel (told y’all I had a thing for dystopia novels!) and therefore could be considered to be too complex for younger readers to understand, but here’s where that breaks down:  the prose is simple and everything is explained in a beautifully clear, straightforward way.  Humans developed robots to do work.  Once that system of using robots to do the work was in place, it was hard to stop it.  Now there are not enough jobs for people.  Something must be done with the people so they are confined to restricted areas and provided basic needs.  The Thought-Police keep everything under control.  It is that complex, yet that simple.   No political or socioeconomic explanations are necessary to understand this world–that is the nature of both children’s books and dystopia novels in my humble opinion.  Furthermore, since the readers sees the world of the story through the main character’s eyes, and she is a teenager, one would expect there to be a lot of angst and other signs of a teenager’s stereotypical emotional turmoil, but again the book is not written that way.  The main characters certainly have emotions, but they are mostly shown through dialogue and action, and the book is very centered around plot.  Re-reading this as an adult, I found myself wondering more about the inner lives of the characters, but as a child I remember everything being very clear and reasonable but still exciting.  This is why I think this is more of a middle grade book than a YA book:  even though the characters are teenagers and the setting is an adult world, the viewpoint is that of a child.  As an example, the only mention of romance in the book is a vague crush that Lisse has on her friend Brad, but that quickly fades from the story and is not important.  As a child I accepted that without question, but as an adult I wondered why the romance was so unimportant to the character.

I really enjoyed Invitation to the Game, both as a child and now, because it is exciting in a subtle way.  The book is somewhat of a mystery novel.  Basically, the plot (and point) of the book is to figure out what The Game is, or rather, what the point of The Game is.  You figure it out as the characters figure it out.   Now, since I have read it before and I am also now an adult, everything coming together at the end to make an explanation is not as exciting as it once was, but I remember being blown away by the ending as a child.  I loved that feeling!  Somehow I just cannot imagine teenagers having the same reaction…

So, those are my arguments for why The Game formerly entitled Invitation to the Game by Monica Hughes is in fact a middle grade novel, not a young adult  novel.  However, not matter what age you are, if you like amazing science fiction/dytopia novels then check this book out!  It is truly a unique and excellent story.

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