I recently reviewed Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly, and in the beginning of my review I praised the novel as well as the author for being smart and trusting the reader – not talking down to her. I found Revolution refreshing for this reason. It was the first YA book I’ve read in a long time that not only trusted the reader to be a reader and follow the plotline and characters, but it was also the first book I’ve read in a long time that complexified the reading experience.Complexify? You question as you scratch your head. Yes, complexify
Complexify -v – to make more complex, layered, intricate, or nuanced; the opposite of simplify (And no, I can’t and won’t take credit for this word. One of my dissertation committee members uses this often in her courses when discussing ethnography. I believe she took the word from our dean. It’s one of those lovely academic words like problematize – and yes, spell check adores when I use them in my writing.)
Many YA books simplify the reading experience. The plot is very straight forward, the character’s motivations are clear – or if muddled become clear fairly quickly- and the sophisticated reader can figure out where the novel is going to end up pretty quickly in the reading experience. The reader can sit back and enjoy the ride, as if they’re floating along in a tube on a lazy river. This is one of the reasons for the popularity of YA books with an adult audience – the books don’t require a whole lot of concentration and after a long day at the office they present a chance to escape the pressures of the world.
However, what happens if our YA readers who are adolescents and still honing they’re reading skills exist purely on a diet of simplistic, formulaic texts?
And so, I look for those YA books that complexify the reading (and perhaps the life) experience. Jennifer Donnelly’s two YA books, A Northern Light and Revolution do just that. Recently, I had the pleasure of attending a book signing and hearing Donnelly speak about the writing process. She mentioned that she writes books for young adults in order to introduce adolescents to the complex and challenging world of adulthood – to give them a peek into adulthood and begin to prepare them for what’s to come. I believe that Donnelly does this – not only with the themes of her novels but also with the structures of her novels.
Take A Northern Light.
The novel, which is a loosely described as a mystery, switches back and forth between time periods. Donnelly starts the novel in summer with a body of a young girl being pulled out of a lake in upstate New York. Mattie, the protagonist, is in some way connected to this young woman, but the reader doesn’t know how. Furthermore, the woman’s death is speculated to be a result of an accident; however, Donnelly provides the reader with enough clues that the reader doubts this pronouncement. Then time shifts. The reader finds herself with Mattie in the spring of the year. As the novel builds to the climax, Donnelly shifts back and forth between periods of time in order to build the internal and external conflict because the girl in the lake is not the only problem. Mattie is struggling to figure out her place in the world. Donnelly trusts the readers to make these shifts in time and to do the things good readers do: visualize, predict, question, infer, and make connections. She does help her readers along; the chapters written in the past begin with a “title” – there is a word written as dictionary entry at the top of the chapter. The word does play into the chapter and into Mattie’s internal struggle. The word is the only clue to help the reader shift between time periods. There are no roadmaps or blinking neon signs; Donnelly trusts her readers to understand a slightly more complex text structure then the normal drivel published for teens.
Donnelly’s second YA novel, Revolution, does much the same thing with shifts in time. However, diary entries and not chapter headings signify the time shifts. Revolution is a much more layered novel than A Northern Light. The characters, Andi and Alex, are separated by 300 years, yet their lives and the struggles mirror each other. Donnelly pens an intensely layered and nuanced novel. The world is not simply black and white, and the shades of gray that the characters and the readers encounter during this novel make it an intense read. Donnelly trusts her readers to follow both protagonists’ struggles as well as a complex and rich plot. Quite simply she complexifies the reading process.
Both of Donnelly’s YA books are difficult to sum up in a single sentence (or two). That’s what makes them complex.
Donnelly is one of a handful of writers who complexify the reading experience as they are complexifying life for adolescents. John Green, Angela Johnson, Swati Avasthi, Laurie Halse Anderson as well as many of the Prinz Award winners and finalists can also be categorized as complexifiers.
The next time you reach for a YA novel try one that complexifies things a bit.
Until next time – See YA.