Thursday, December 13, 2012

Where are the books for 13-year-olds?

Hélène Boudreau's Real Mermaids Don't Wear Toe Rings opens with a girl turning into a mermaid--it's the culmination of a really terrible day. Jade takes the readers back through everything: trying on swimsuits with her best friend, desperately trying to find one that hides her muffin top. Then she gets her first period--yes, ruining the store's swimsuit. She discovers she doesn't have any money on her, so she has to call her dad to come to the pharmacy with her and buy feminine products. And while her dad is price comparing tampons on his Blackberry, of course her crush appears. I couldn't stop laughing. It brought back so many embarrassing pre-teen memories!

But once I wiped the tears of laughter away, and promptly bought the whole book for my Nook, it struck me: what's the last book I read about a girl getting her period?

I couldn't think of anything except Judy Blume's Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret. And yeah, that was published in 1970.

I'm sure there are others. I've probably read a few and forgotten them. But I think it's awfully striking that I read a hundred plus books a year, most of them for children, and I can't think of a single other title.

I suspect much of the blame for this rests with the publishing industry. For those of you who don't know, the American children's book market has two categories that stretch this age range: middle grade, which is books for 9-12 year-olds, and young adult, which is typically defined as 12 and up. Since children usually read about kids slightly older than themselves, kids in upper elementary school are reading middle grade novels (think Percy Jackson, the early Harry Potter books, books about 10, 11, and 12 year-olds). Kids in middle school are frequently already reading young adult books (where the protagonist is at least 15). What's left out? No one's reading books about 13 and 14 year-olds.

I know that sounds like a really minor complaint, but a lot happens when girls are between the ages of 12 and 14. I was lucky enough to grow up with authors like Judy Blume and Paula Danziger, and I read books about girls getting bullied because they were fat, or waiting to see how large their breasts would be. I don't think today's generation has anything like that--even Boudreau's book is mostly about a girl becoming a mermaid.

It's strange. The publishing industry prides itself on being progressive, open to edgy content, swearing, sex. But where's the frank, non-metaphorical discussions about what it means to be 13? And even if such a book did it exist, would it find a home in the market? I've been mulling these questions over lately. Maybe it's not just the publishing industry that's to blame. Maybe after all this time we're still hesitant to talk about the way the female body works. I know I don't have anything on my hard drive resembling these types of books. I'm more of a mermaid author myself. But my subconscious won't let this go. Or maybe it's that I used to be a 7th grade teacher, and I think about my former students, and all their worries and fears. Or my own 7th grade self. Maybe it's my conscience that won't let this go.

I subbed in a 5th grade classroom yesterday. Do you want to know what all the kids were reading? Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games and Stephenie Meyer's Twilight. Really. Doesn't that make you feel a little queasy inside?

Have you noticed this dearth of books? What do you think the cause might be? Have you written one yourself?

15 comments:

  1. I've found myself wondering the same thing. This probably explains why REAL MERMAIDS has been so popular--besides being hilarious, it's also filling a bit of a void. I think my Dirt Diary series will also fall into this category.

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    1. I love the idea that Real Mermaids has been so successful because it's filling a void. I hope so, and I'm looking forward to your Dirt Diary series even more now!

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  2. I agree! For whatever reasons I think this group is underserved. I read and re-read Paula Danziger's books. She "got" what it felt like to be that awkward age where everyone is changing and some faster than others and everyone is uncomfortable about it, whether they are ahead or behind the curve (sorry - don't mean to be punny!).

    And the 5th graders with those books? Oh my! yes, definitely makes me queasy. I wonder, are they reading them (aside from the marketing/everyone's reading them factors) because there aren't a lot of titles out there aimed at that age group?

    great post! Looking forward to reading other comments.

    Elisabeth

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    1. I was subbing again today, and struck by a handful of girls that were taller than me and already considerably developed, and how all the boys (every single one) were tiny. Surely there's plenty of fodder there! And how sad that what they're learning about sexuality and body image is coming from Twilight!

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  3. I used to be really "in the know" when it came to books for this age but since I've been writing for older audiences, you may have a point. Seems to be a market for this "tween" set.

    Ah, I have such fond memories reading Judy Blume and Paula Danziger.

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    1. I saw a Paula Danziger book in the library the other day and thumbed through it--the writing was so good. I really must re-read her at some point!

      I wish the pub industry would capitalize on this market potential a bit!

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  4. You make an *excellent* point, Anne. And 13-14 is such an important time, speaking as a (much) older girl.

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    1. Thanks, Mirka. It really seems shocking that that time has been almost entirely left out of kidlit, doesn't it?

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  5. My mind went back to Judy Blume when you asked the question. Yes, there is that age group missing in books, and I do think the age cut-off in genres is to blame. 13 is considered slightly too old for MG and slightly too young for YA.

    I saw a 3rd grader check out THE HUNGER GAMES! That does make me feel queasy.

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    1. Thanks for stopping by, Tara. It's interesting to think about the ramifications of the commercialization of things like literature. And I REALLY hope that little boy or girl read a chapter or two and put HG right back! Eeek!

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  6. As the writer of a novel with an MC aged 13, I have been told by agents it's a hard sell. But the voice of the character is a 13yo eighth grader. I'm not the only writer who has run into the 13yo agent block.

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    1. Oh, Manju, I'm so sorry to hear you've been getting that message about your ms. I've definitely heard the same story, though. *sigh* Good luck, I really hope you can get a chance with your book!

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    2. I'm right there with Manju...and btw, Manju, why do I suddenly see you everywhere on the net now that we live in the same town? So funny and strange! But yes, I've got a contemporary fantasy manuscript that's targeted right at that age group, and am surrounded by 11-13 year-olds who are reading Suzanne Collins.

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    3. I wish you all the best, Saille!

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  7. I'm so glad someone else has noticed this. I work in the children's section of a local bookstore and feel terrible when parents of children 10-14 ask for book recommendations. I try so hard to sell parents books that are suitable for the time in life that their child is going through, but there's very little to put on the shelf that doesn't gloss over that awkward growing time. I also have to admit though that if the child is shopping with the parent often the child will reject the age appropriate choices for the book "their friends are reading", so I can understand why it's so difficult to get these wonderful books out there.

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