Tween literature

Two posts in one day?  Wow, I must have the day off or something.

Although it’s late, I wanted to follow up on a panel discussion I was part of at NAIBA two weeks ago.  It was called “Tween Literature: Too Much Too Soon?” It was led by the owner of a children’s bookstore, and my fellow panelists were a child psychologist, a librarian, and the author of a “clean YA” novel.  (I’m not posting their names out of privacy concerns, but I’ll add them in if the people responsible ask me to!)

We all gave our stances on the subject first.  I’ll post mine below the cut, which you can skip if you know it or don’t care, but if you’re skipping please skip to the end, where I have a question for everybody that arose out of this panel.

Alright, here’s what I read.  Well, here’s what I wrote, and read from–when I start speaking in public my mind gets a little hazy, so who knows how much of this I actually read verbatim!  I’ve edited a bit:

Well, let’s start with my position as a bookseller, as that’s where my street cred lies: with tweens, and anybody under the age of 18, what a kid reads is ultimately up to his or her parents.  My first job, as a bookseller, is to help parents make informed decisions about what their kids are reading. (Let me here add the disclaimer that my opinions are about books read OUTSIDE of school.  School is different.  All I do for schools is order the books they ask me for, and give librarians and teachers my galleys when I’m done with them.  Alright.)

However, my position as a non-bookseller (inasmuch as I am ever not a bookseller) is that kids should be able to attempt to read whatever they want.  (With the exception of graphic novels, which I will discuss later.)  My personal experience and that of my friends and colleagues is that children ignore content if they have no framework for it, and that books are a safe space to experience mature content once they do.  I know that pierced and tattooed bookseller is NOT necessarily what most parents long for their child to be some day, but truly, I think I turned out pretty well, and my mom was letting me wander over to the grownup side of the Doylestown Library when I was 11 or 12.

How does this play out in my job?  When a parent specifically asks me about a book, I tell them as much as I know about it.  If I don’t know, I ask the children’s book buyer, or I check the internet for more information, or I suggest a book that I am familiar with.  My magic word is “content,” as in, “This book has mature content” or even just “This book has content.”  Then I will, after checking that the parent doesn’t want spoiler tags, describe it: this book has a sexual assault; this book has a lot of cursing; this book has depictions of racism.  I also usually give my opinion on how it’s handled, if I have one—“this book has a lot of cursing, but it’s genuine in light of the fact that the plot revolves around terminal cancer.”

My experience in my 7 years as a bookseller, and a lover of children’s and YA lit the whole time, is that one of three things happens, in approximately even numbers.
A: the parent says, no, my child is not ready for that, what else can you recommend?  And as most parents want to hear about at least 3 or 4 books before picking one, we move to something else.
B: the parent is unsure.  The book sounds good, or was nominated for an award, or was recommended by a friend—but is the child ready?  This often happens with parents of children who are great readers but still 11 or 12.  My suggestion in this situation is always: “look, this is a great book.  I loved it.  Why don’t you read it first, so you can best decide if it’s right for your child.  When you feel it is appropriate, you can hand it to them.  And then, if they have questions, you’ll be ready to answer; alternately, it can be a great way to start a difficult conversation.”
C: the parent does not care about content.  I have found a kindred spirit.  I hand them 3 more books and the list of what YA book group is reading.

Why do I feel this way?

Well, I’m 23.  I was a tween 10 years ago.  And in that 10 years, the world has changed so much I can barely comprehend it.  As just one example, when I graduated from high school in 2003, most people I knew did not have cell phones, and I did not know a single person who text messaged.  5 years later, not only has my brother had a cell phone since he was a tween, but people are actually bullied via text message.  There’s social networking, there’s softcore porn masquerading as music videos, there’s the absolute chaos and insanity of the internet.

And tweens, for all these changes in the world, still have many of the same desires I did when I was 11 or 12.  They want to be cool.  They want to be in on the joke.  They want to be safe.  To my mind, books are one of the safest ways to do that.  If your kid is wondering what a blowjob is, would you rather have them learn it from the jokes in YA literature, or from Lil Wayne’s video Lollipop (in the interests of kindness, I will not read you the lyrics—but I will let you know that this ode to oral sex won Best Hip-Hop Video this year at the Video Music Awards).  Teen pregnancy—do you trust your daughter to experience it through Sarah Dessen, or would you rather she learn from abstinence-only education and Hollywood?

I’ve made an exception for manga and graphic novels because I draw the line with pictures.  Pictures make things obvious, they match words to text.  But I don’t consider them entirely relevant to this conversation because I think almost all, if not all, publishers of graphic novels and manga have already realized this difference, and accordingly, have policed their own content in easy-to-understand ways.

I hate to pull the “my-mom-is-a-famous-author” card, but she is, and her experience is relevant here.  She wrote Speak, coming up on its tenth anniversary, the story of a girl who (sorry, spoiler tags) is raped the summer before her freshman year of high school, and how miserable the following year is as a result.  Summer before freshman year is JUST outside tween territory.  It is certainly within the range of what I as a bookseller consider young enough to be telling parents about mature content in a book.

And it would break your heart, some of the mail she’s gotten the past 10 years.  Mail from so many women who were raped and never told anybody, except her.  But it would also, occasionally, lift your spirits.  Mail from girls who DIDN’T go to parties, that, frankly, they were a little scared of anyway, because of that book.  Books are that powerful, we all know that.  And one of their greatest powers, for a tween, is to allow them to vicariously experience grownup things in a medium that reliably looks at the consequences of grownup decisions, and without being overly graphic or demonstrative of those decisions.  In other words, as I said earlier, they’re a safe space.  You ever watch Star Trek?  Books are like the holodeck of real life for tweens.  They’re like a virtual reality helmet.  A virtual reality helmet with training wheels.  Now my metaphors are getting mixed, but you know what I mean.

In fact, the only trend in tween literature that really bothers me, personally, is the rampant consumerism.  When I have kids, I think those are the only books I’ll feel uncomfortable with them reading—The Clique, with practically 0% mature content, but 5 luxury brand mentions a page—take a look at our country’s financial state and tell me that’s not harmful!  And I won’t deny tweens that, either—at least not until adults start denying themselves Nora Roberts and Confessions of a Shopaholic.  I find myself frustrated with the undercurrent of thought that everything tweens (and teens) read should be wholesome.  No wonder they like MTV better, if every time they’re allowed to open a book, it’s so they can imbibe a valuable life lesson or read what an administrator thinks will make them better readers.

Reading should be fun.  Reading IS fun!  Clearly!  Or else we wouldn’t all be sitting in this room today, professional readers and reader-pushers!  And we know that tweens and teens, at least a nice number of them, is willing to be persuaded that reading is fun.  And that’s really at the heart of the balance that I try to strike everyday at my job.  Reading isn’t fun when it’s too hard or about issues that the readers doesn’t understand or isn’t interested in.  But it also isn’t fun when it doesn’t address the very real and totally legitimate questions and concerns that tweens have about their world.

It’s a tricky balance, and it’s different for every kid, and that’s why I believe parents should have final say, period.  But also, I do wish that more parents had felt the way mine did—underneath all the tattoos and the unfortunate habit of saying the word blowjob in front of strangers, I’m a woman who wrote a 200-page honors thesis on Chinese literature, and I even have the beginnings of a 401(k).   Or at least, I did until last week! Reading Forever… by Judy Blume while I was 11 didn’t hurt me, or any of the other people I know who did.  Cross my heart and hope to die.

Alright, so after we all gave our statements, we had a completely awesome discussion that involved a lot of valuable input from the audience.  Many of whom, it will not surprise you to learn, were former educators or librarians!  I won’t recap all of it here, but, here is the big issue that I am just dying to have out on the intarwebs.

When we talk about what is appropriate for tweens, one of the trickest issues is that, despite the continuous pronouncements that print is dead and kids don’t read anymore, there are an astonishing number of precocious readers who are ready for the reading level of YA fiction, but not for the content level of a lot of it.  (Mostly girls, unfortunately.)  What’s more, they WANT to read contemporary YA, because kids always want to read about kids older than them.  Now, there is actually a nice slice of books that you can sell to a precocious 12-year-old girl that she will find interesting and that won’t freak out parents.  In addition to a lot of fantasy, speculative fiction, and historical fiction, there is contemporary YA as well!  The book of the author on the panel, anything by Sue Limb, Beauty Shop for Rent…I’m not going to make a big list, we can do that in comments–the point is that these books exist.  But as we also discussed, they get crowded out.  Publishers aren’t sure where to put them, librarians aren’t sure where to put them, booksellers aren’t sure where to put them. My store, and many others, have two sections: middle-grade fiction, and YA/teen fiction (and as I sit near the receiving desk, I can tell you that where we shelve a book when it could go either way, at this point, usually is determined by the level of mature content).  What we need is a section in between for all these books.

This is where you come in.  Just what do we call this section?  The best suggestion I’ve heard so far is “young teen.”  It appeals to tweens because they want to think of themselves as teens, but also connotes that content is conservative.  We could also do the opposite, and follow the lead of some manga publishers, who have “teen” and “older teen.”

What do you think?  What do we call this section?  Should we make a new section?  Do we need to worry about dividing books up too much?  As a side note, too, Politics & Prose in DC has recently moved their YA to be with the adult books, rather than with the children’s books.  Is this helpful?

Mostly I just really want a name.  Not to get all The Secret on you, but I truly believe that if you come up with a word for something, it will exist.  Nature abhoring a vacuum, and all that.  Any children’s bookseller will tell you there’s a real desire for contemporary fiction that appeals to tweens without totally overwhelming them.  But what do we call those books and how to we shelve them?


8 comments so far

  1. Sarah Rettger on

    Shelving challenge part two: How do we shelve the books so that a twelve-year-old can discover, for example, the Sally Lockhart books, but a sixteen-year-old won’t be discouraged from doing the same thing? That’s something I wrestle with in the middle reader/YA divide at my store – there’s a lot of great stuff that we put in middle reader because the content won’t raise eyebrows, but how do you convince the hypothetical sixteen-year-old to try out An Acceptable Time when it’s right next to <Gooney Bird Greene?

    What, you thought I had answers? 😉

  2. Sarah Rettger on

    Apparently I missed an HTML tag there – just pretend GBG is in italics!

  3. Lindsey Leavitt on

    Hi! Hopping over from LHA’s blog.
    I don’t have an answer, but I really want to thank you for raising the question. I write tween fiction, and my publisher has labeled it MG, while I always thought of it as young YA. The MG label worries me because I still think it would appeal to a fifteen-year-old, but like previously stated, once you’ve graduated to YA, why hang out in the “kid” books?
    My local indie has a “preteen” section, an idea that may be a step in the right direction, although that “pre” would’ve stopped me at 12. But I am encouraged there IS a section, and I hope that becomes a growing trend in indies, yet another personalized element to draw in parents involved in their children’s reading choices.

  4. The Wandering Reader on

    Wow; what a tough question! My husband and I are planning on opening a bookstore in two years and I didn’t even think of this. I mean, I have always wondered how publishers narrow down what age group a book belongs to, and how you can encourage children to read a book without the stigma of age group being there (as Lindsey pointed out) but I also don’t have any perfect solution.

    But that’s why I think that it’s so vital for parents to know what their kids are reading; because in the end, it doesn’t matter what the publisher says: we as parents should know our children well enough to be able to help them pick out literature that is not only on their reading level, but their maturity level as well.

    Thanks so much for the great post, and thanks everyone else for the enlightening comments!

    – The Wandering Reader

  5. jone on

    Great post. As a k-5 library media specialist, I struggle with this as well. I need those edgy books for those fifth graders who are sophisticated readers and yet, I do not want youngers getting into them. Thanks for the food for thought.

  6. Kristi on

    This is something I’ve been dealing with lately, as a teen librarian at a public library. Recently I spoke with a mom of a twelve-year-old girl who’s concerned that her daughter’s not ready for some of the books in my section – but the last thing she wants to do is keep on heading up to the children’s section for books that she’s moved beyond. I’ve been working with one of our children’s librarians to put together a flier with YA books that are appropriate for tweens or those with really cautious parents, which is great, but now we’re debating over whether we should separate the books we’re listing into a new section – and whether it should go in my department or hers. We haven’t even begun to consider what we should call this collection, if we end up doing this, so any suggestions here would be great!

  7. kate reynolds on

    I was at this panel, and the discussion was terrific, but I want that list of books! I am the buyer for a college store with a big general book section, and I don’t have enough of these titles in my arsenal — can someone post a list somewhere?

  8. Teresa Bueti on

    In our library, we call these “crossover titles”. Our middle school went 5-8 a few years ago, but we were reluctant to bump the 5th graders over to YA. We make sure that either YA or Children’s has a copy, and sometimes both if the demand is there. It’s hard, but we try to encourage kids and parents to bounce between both collections for a while. We don’t want kids to feel that once they’ve gone YA, they can never go back, or parents to feel that not all the books in the YA section are too old content-wise. The word “crossover” seems to help convey this idea pretty well. And if kids want a particular book, they don’t really care where it is. This works best if your two sections aren’t too far apart! We did a segment for our local cable station about some of these titles a few weeks ago–the station’s website got hacked, but the segment might be back up in the next few weeks. And our YA librarian splits her middle school summer reading lists into 5-6 and 7-8. We also have a list and display for entering 5th in the Children’s Room. So we end up with some duplication, but we feel like we’re supporting our readers’ needs this way.

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