On ‘Tweens Reading Young Adult Fiction

School librarians are an incredible resource for our young readers. In fact, I first fell in love with reading and becoming a writer in my own school library at Sicomac Elementary in Wyckoff, NJ!  But school librarians are facing new challenges. A month or two ago, I was asked by the school librarians in my county to attend their in-service meeting. They wanted me to attend because What I Meant… seemed like a great fit for their 6th and some of their 5th grade readers. The novel was challenging and dealt with issues related to self-esteem and independence, plus it was clean. (I’ve just learned that What I Meant… was selected for the Young Adult Fiction Top Forty List 2008 by the Pennsylvania School Library Association. Yeah!!!!)
But school librarians have often run into the problem of how to restrict younger readers in their elementary schools’ libraries from YA titles that might not be appropriate for, say, a 4th grader. Plus, they must deal with the added problems of sometimes shocking content in YAs, and of disgruntled parents.

Attending that informative and fascinating talk with these librarians, I learned of a disturbing trend: more and more often, school librarians are accountable for what exactly is on their shelves. What may be considered great literature to one person, may seem offensive and immoral to another. Librarians are now expected to be knowledgeable and responsible for all the content in any books they order…yet with today’s books, where even the word “scrotum” pops up in a picture book inciting parental panic, this is becoming harder and harder for the librarians to do. How are they to know from the short blurbs in review publications whether a particular parent might find something offensive in a book? How are they supposed to read every single novel coming into the library beforehand?

This is a serious issue, folks. And some librarians have actually lost their jobs over it!  Sadly, elementary school librarians feel the pressure to not take risks in their book ordering, and therefore feel they are not meeting the needs of those eager 6th grade readers who would fall in love with a YA book such as What I Meant…  By middle school, the collection issue seems to ease, but who are we kidding? ‘Tweens LOVE to read YA novels. Kids read up from their age category all the time.

Publishers are well aware of this, yet there are few novels for this age group in the YA category that even I, a fairly liberal parent, would consider “appropriate” for a 10 year old or 11 year old child.  Shouldn’t there be more clean YA novels for the ‘tweens to read? And how about a way to measure the content of these books to help out the harried librarians and parents in selection? I’d love to hear the thoughts of parents, librarians and authors on this issue.

In 2007, I wrote an article about this very issue from the parent’s (and author’s) point of view, and it appeared in several parenting publications. Thought I’d print it here… so read on:

You’re Reading WHAT?
by Marie Lamba (copyright 2007 M. Lamba)

Your child is growing up and loving reading more than ever. Before you know it, she’ll be branching out from easy readers and middle reader novels about time travel and horses, to those young adult novels in that cool grown-up section of the library or bookstore. She’ll be 11 years old and eager to picture herself as someone who is older and more sophisticated. This is all good. But, what, exactly will she be reading?

As an author, I am against censorship of any book. Let me say that upfront. And I personally believe that by age 13, your child should be picking out his or her own books without restrictions. But when 10, 11 or 12 years olds are reading books labeled for ages 12 and up that turn out to be rife with sex, drugs and alcohol, I as a parent can’t help but cringe.

When I was a ‘tween “back in the day” (as my own kids put it), the most shocking book out there was, Are you There God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume. We secretly passed it to each other and read it under our blankets with a flashlight. Here was a book about how our bodies were changing. We couldn’t believe it!

But today, everything’s changed. Kids are devouring paperbacks with lurid sex scenes, and the glorified use of drugs and alcohol. It’s fantasy time, and it has nothing to do with time-travel. I know that teens will toy with this sort of delicious rebellion and I’d certainly rather have them reading about it than have them doing any of this themselves. To me, the issue here is how seamier books are marketed toward younger readers. Let’s face it: sex sells. So what happens to an “unsexy” book?

My own first young adult novel, What I Meant… has just come out through Random House Books for Young Readers. It features a 15-year-old girl, a mysterious cute guy, an Indian dad, an American mom, an evil aunt and lots of drama and laughs. The book is getting great reviews, yet from the start it has been in trouble because chain bookstores largely passed on stocking the novel. This means that most folks browsing through the chain stores will never see it. Could these bookstores have passed on it because it was a “clean” novel?

While I can’t know this for sure, I do know that the worlds of publishing and bookselling both certainly see the wild profits associated with titillating teen fiction, and are eager to have a piece of that pie. Most bookstores have a middle reader section and a separate teen section. There is no in between. So where does a clean YA novel suitable for younger readers go? The truth is there’s a limited amount of shelf space in that teen section and lots of books for booksellers to choose from to fill that limited space. If sex sells, and you were a dollars and cents businessperson, what sort of young adult book would you stock there?

What can we parents do? Do we prohibit our ‘tweens from the young adult section of the library or bookstore? If we do, we don’t allow them to mature in their reading, and they will miss out on wonderful books such as Nothing but the Truth (and a Few White Lies) by Justina Chen Headley, and titles by the very funny Sue Limb. Clean titles are out there.

Instead, I think the solution is two-fold. First, scan books that your kids are looking at. If there is an element of sleaze, chances are it’ll be right there on the cover or jacket flaps. Also, ask your librarian or bookseller for recommendations. They know books and can guide you in selecting ones that are at once exciting and challenging, yet appropriate. Just remember though that if your child really wants to read a book you are uncomfortable with, chances are that you will find him under his blanket with a flashlight reading that very same book! In this case, I suggest you read the book in question first yourself, then after he reads it, have a meaningful discussion about what went on in the story.

The second part of the solution is to remember the power that we consumers hold. When you find an author who writes wonderful, clean fiction suitable for your ‘tween, support that person. Write reviews of their books on Amazon.com or barnesandnoble.com. Recommend this author’s books to your librarian and to friends. Buy their books for birthday and Christmas presents. Tell your bookseller how much you love these particular titles and why. Believe it or not, this can turn the tide. If everyone reading this article would take these simple steps, perhaps soon we’ll be finding books labeled as ‘tween worthy, and publishers and booksellers eagerly promoting these titles, maybe even carving out a separate section for them in their shops.

The end result? A wider choice of books and better reading for all.


5 thoughts on “On ‘Tweens Reading Young Adult Fiction

  1. My book deals with a very intense issue- recovery from sexual abuse– and, yes, it does have swearing in it– but there is no gratuitous teen sex or use of drugs or alcohol by teens.
    I would NOT recommend it to be read by kids in 6th grade or younger; at the same time, I am aware that many kids that age (as well as adults, if the letters & messages I’ve received from adults are any indicator) will want to read it. I hope that it will be a launch pad for honest discussion about a very painful subject, as well as let those who are being abused or have been abused, know they are not alone.
    Beth Fehlbaum, author
    Courage in Patience, a story of hope for those who have endured abuse
    Chapter 1 is online!

  2. I think this is a very important issue. I have written a YA fantasy that I’m working on getting published. I had some teenagers I know read it to get their opinion (they were 14). Anyway, they loved it and then one of their moms read it and wanted her 11 year old daughter to read it too. What she liked is that the story was clean but it was also fun. I’d hate that if it ever gets published that it wouldn’t be included in elementary school libraries just because it was classified as YA.

    Good post.

    My prologue and first chapter are on my blog if anyone’s interested.

  3. I think that the idea that a tween reading “innapropriate” material is a moot point unless the parent also controls every other form of media in which the child is exposed.

    Secondly unless the parents control every other child in their child’s life, they will also be exposed to materials and attitudes that the said parents would find offensive.

    If a child reads they should be rewarded. Their choices should be unrestricted as the other more visual, and physical influences far outweigh the influence of a book, unfortunately.

  4. What an excellent blog!

    You said, “Publishers are well aware of this, yet there are few novels for this age group in the YA category that even I, a fairly liberal parent, would consider ‘appropriate’ for a 10 year old or 11 year old child. Shouldn’t there be more clean YA novels for the ‘tweens to read? And how about a way to measure the content of these books to help out the harried librarians and parents in selection? I’d love to hear the thoughts of parents, librarians and authors on this issue.”

    Bingo! You got it! “Harried librarians and parents” need “help … in selection.” This is obvious good sense, but to hear you say it does me a world of good. Why? Because it is not politically correct.

    What is politically correct is to allow children to read inappropriate material, then trust them to stop reading it went they get to the juicy parts. What is politically correct is for major American institutions to give the highest of honors to books for twelve year olds and up that contain graphic sexual material including oral sex. What is politically correct is to claim that keeping children from reading inappropriate material is censorship. What is politically correct is to make believe the US Supreme Court never said, or to marginalize the following quote, “The interest in protecting young library users from material inappropriate for minors is legitimate, and even compelling, as all Members of the Court appear to agree.”

    I wrote something generally on this topic, and I ask that you read and consider it, especially the parts written by other authors, like Naomi Wolf or Barbara Feinberg. See Porn Pushers – The ALA and Looking For Alaska – One Example of How the ALA Pushes Porn On Children. And the quotes from author John Green directly relate to your concerns regarding marketing of YA books.

    This blog you have here and the comments are so well-written that I will add a link to my article when I get a chance.

    Thank you once again for your excellent blog.

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