Before I write another word, I have to say that I loathe the word "tween" and all that it implies in our society. To me, the word tween basically means "mini-teenager," and to my way of thinking, teenager means "mini-adult." I realize that being a teenager is all about taking those first steps toward learning how to navigate the adult world, and that is how it should be - within reason. I also realize that being a teenager means thinking you are mature and adult when you really are immature and childish and dealing with the consequences of decisions made while functioning under that false impression. The TEEN books that I read and review here reflect that growth process, that period of trial and error. So, if a tween is a mini-teenager, does that then mean that these 10 - 12 year olds are practicing their adult skills also??? In some ways, I think yes. Attention to fashion, wearing make-up, having cell phones, going to concerts and "crushing" on boys used to be the sole province of kids 13 years and older and now it is common for kids as young as nine to be concerned with these things. It breaks my heart to think about how quickly childhood is over for (the mostly media consuming) American kids these days.
I realize that parents reading my blog probably share my concerns about tween culture and all that it implies. Because of this, I have made a point to avoiding books that discuss any of the above noted tween attributes, especially anything having to do with crushes and boy/girl socialization. However, this boy/girl stuff has already popped up in a few books I have reviewed in the past two years and I think it deserves some direct attention. Even my beloved Penderwicks has twelve year old Rosalind developing a crush on a teenager and suffering a teeny tiny heartbreak. And, I have to be true to my belief that, in the absence of genuine experience, reading about other people and their experiences can be almost as a good a learning experience as the real thing. If, at the right age, kids can learn about the new social world that awaits them as tweens, then a good book on this subject is a very good thing. And, happily, there are very good books that do, in gentle and funny ways, broach these subjects, like Tom Angleberger's amazing The Strange Case of the Origami Yoda. Main character and frequent narrator Tommy likes Sara and wants to ask her to dance at the next McQuarrie Middle School Fun Night. And Tommy isn't the only kid in the story with a crush. Despite these seemingly tween trappings, Angleberger's story is innocent and uncorrupted from start to finish, the characters thoughtful and (mostly) kind. It is this quality that I hope to hone in on in the middle grade books I review here.
So, in the future, if you see a book that has the label, "Reading Level: Middle Grades," (not TWEEN, despite my frequent use of that word here...) you can be assured it has some or all of the following plot aspects: Set in a middle school (grades 6 - 8), boy/girl crushes, social interactions that include issues of popularity, puberty and/or a main character who is specifically mentioned as being 13, among other things. These books might also include cell phones, make-up, and other mini-teenager things, but they will be presented in ways that I am comfortable with - there will always be a parent who sets boundaries and makes rules and consequences for breaking rules or being unkind to others will be obvious. One of my greatest frustrations with Jeff Kinney's very popular, very funny Wimpy Kid books is the lack of moral compass on the part of the main character and the ineffectual consequences that he is subjected to when he strays. The book that really inspired me to tackle the whole tween issue does take on these sticky subjects and addresses them in ways that, as a parent, I feel really good about. Amy Ignatow's The Popularity Papers, which came out Spring of 2010 could almost be read as the girl version (without, of course, the objectionable aspects) of Diary of a Wimpy Kid. I will be reviewing this spectacular book that convinced me to open up my mind to the world of tweens on Friday, August 20, after I review Marissa Moss' wonderful series (that I see as a direct influence on Amy Ignatow's book) Amelia's Notebook. But, first, a trip to Egypt! Next week I will be reviewing two different books that have Egyptian mythology as a theme.
I hope I do a good job navigating this tricky terrain, and, like the characters in the books, I'm sure it will be trial and error as I go. But, I do want you, my readers, to know that I feel a very strong sense of responsibility in my quest to put good books into kids' hands and I have pretty stringent guidelines for what I think is acceptable reading for a child in this "middle grade" age range. If I had my way, kids would just read fantasy and science fiction novels during these formative years and avoid the whole tween thing all together. However, I realize that this is both unrealistic and prejudicial on my part. As I am slowly learning, there are good books that broach these subjects in thoughtful, conscientious ways that are definitely worth reading - and talking about after!
PS - If a book does not contain any of the typical tween issues as noted above, it will continue to receive a grade level rating. This rating will reflect both the complexity of the book as well as mature aspects such as violence and frightening or tragic scenarios. A few books I have reviewed that fall into this category (and are also all fantasies) are Roderick Gordon's amazing Tunnels series, Frances Hardinge's brilliant Well Witched and Fly By Night and Cornelia Funke's Ink World trilogy.