Good Tween Brain Candy

OK, so I’m kind of copping out—the past two weeks have been crazy insane and I have a good topic in mind that I don’t want to rush. So I’m throwing a question out to you.

First, some background.

My 11 year old daughter is a voracious reader. She loves lots of different kinds of books, and I do my best to keep her supplied (I sound like a drug dealer!). There’s one big gap I can’t really fill, though—she needs decently written brain candy. For her fun reading, she likes romantic stories. The ones I read are inappropriate on oh, so many different levels. Also, it feels like so many of the books she finds that are fun and age appropriate are so short that she has to find a series of books to get any kind plot or character development.

It’s possible that what I’m looking for simply doesn’t exist—I fear that in our efforts to encourage kids to read, the content of the stories tends to be well ahead of the reading level. So content appropriate to a kid in high school is often found in books on the reading level of a 6th grader. The problem is that my daughter reads on a level far above her grade level (she’s in 5th grade, for what it’s worth) so a book with age appropriate content is often something she can rip through in a few hours at most. That’s a tough pace to keep up with!

Here’s what I’m hoping some of you can suggest: relatively modern and well-written romantic books with content appropriate for an 11 year old.

What do I mean by modern?

I remember the books I loved as a kid, but most of them weren’t new even when I was reading them. That puts most of them at somewhere between 30 and 60 years old now. In my rereadings, many of them haven’t aged particularly well. They feel dated and many contain latent sexism and racism. Yes, I try hard to keep on top of what she’s reading, but if I have to vet everything first, I’ll never get to read for myself in trying to keep up with her pace. I’m looking for stuff written preferably within the past 10 years or so, hoping it will reflect a world she’s more familiar with.

What do I mean by romantic?

She’s mostly into puppy love—she’s not ready for explorations of obsession or abuse. She’s made uncomfortable by movies that move much past the intensity of Disney kisses—she thinks people look weird when they get into heavy kissing. She probably has a point.

The romance doesn’t need to be the focus of the story—some of her current favorites are about best friends who happen to have boyfriends—but I’m looking for themes that will appeal to a kid intrigued by interpersonal relationships, often between girls and boys.

So many tween books focus on an exciting plot at the expense of any kind of character development or interesting relationships. I also have this (perhaps misguided) sense that many of the books that seem to be aimed explicitly at girls are about nothing but fashion, makeup, dances, and boys—the kind of catty talk she’ll already be dealing with at school. It’s still all plot and no character development, but the plots are about mean girls.

I’m hoping for books with an exploration of interpersonal relationships and interesting character development and that doesn’t come about through trauma.

What is appropriate content?

I’d prefer to avoid character death being a big component of the story, which seems to exclude most “serious” and “good” literature aimed at her age. We don’t need stories of tragic things that could happen to kids—she’s at that age where the world is already scary enough and she wants to solve everything. The world will present her with enough problems; her pleasure reading doesn’t need to add to it.

I’m also not a big fan of the trend toward “There’s all this stuff going on that we really ought to bring to an adult’s attention but that would derail the plot so let’s assume none of the adults in our lives will act rationally so it’s best to keep them in the dark!” I get it—kids have a life that doesn’t always involve adults. But I’m not OK with underlining the idea that hiding potentially dangerous stuff from your parents is the way you should handle such things.

Some mystery or suspense is fine, but I’ll let her seek out outright scary stuff for herself—I’m looking for things I can hand her so she can escape the stress of homework and rehearsals for a bit. I don’t want them to add to the stress in her life, and she feels things so deeply. Crying jags because she’s worried about what will happen to the characters aren’t terribly uncommon, and not necessarily what we’re looking for. That said, she read and loved the entire Harry Potter series. I don’t think we want to go scarier or darker than that just yet, though.

As far as genre goes, she enjoys stories about kids she can identify with. She also likes supernatural stuff including the idea of vampires (a series she loves—My Sister the Vampire—is very tame and not terribly vampy. No actually biting people, for instance). Fairy tales, fairies, and princesses are still awesome. However, my primary blind spot is for books that are about normal kids but which aren’t about “big issues” or aren’t crap churned out for mass consumption. Overall, I’m hoping to find some plots and characters with some depth and development that doesn’t involve rape, abuse, drug use, explicit sex, kidnapping, or death.

The request.

So maybe I’m asking for the impossible. But I’m hopeful that by crowd sourcing this, the comments here will turn into a great list of decently written escapist novels for the tween set. I know a lot of other moms who would be grateful for this list. Please feel free to pass this request along to any librarians, teachers, parents, and/or fans of literature aimed at a younger crowd!

Oh, and in case you care, we watched disc 2 of season 2 of The Muppet Show on Friday, and the kids loved it. The Muppet News Flash (particularly the one where the reporter explodes) had my kids literally rolling on the floor laughing. It was awesome. Apparently there really is something inherently hysterical about exploding Muppets.

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21 Responses to Good Tween Brain Candy

  1. Monica says:

    Recommend pinging the folks at Smart Bitches Trashy Books.

  2. ayvalentine says:

    My friend Tiara Agresta (who also designed my logo – you should look her up. You can find links on my Many Thanks page) recommends the collection Such a Pretty Face. I found it on Amazon, and I’ll definitely be taking a closer look.

  3. Sarah says:

    I was of similar reading level – I started raiding my dad’s sci-fi/fantasy bookshelf for books around sixth or seventh grade, starting with something about a magical bicycle and then moving on to Douglas Adams. With the caveat of “I was and am absolutely horse-crazy,” I recall really enjoying the Thoroughbred and Saddle Club series at about that age. I recall reading some of the Sweet Valley High and Babysitter’s Club books, but those series have gotten so huge, I had a hard time getting a grip on them even then.

    • ayvalentine says:

      I loved horses, too, so I was reading a lot of Marguerite Henry and The Black Stallion series, but she doesn’t care about horses much (horrors!). I was too old or too snobby for Sweet Valley High and The Babysitter’s Club. Are they any good? I had this impression that they were vapid, but I never actually read one.

  4. Jess Banks says:

    Sarah Wendell at Smart Bitches is also on Twitter, and a hoot to follow: @SarahSB. We converse regularly that way, and she’s very cool. A lot of what the website does is farm out questions just like this to “The Bitchery.” 🙂

    Has MR read any of the Gail Carson Levine books yet? Ella Enchanted, for instance? Smart, funny, modern takes on fairy tales FTW. Also, did she read any of the L.M. Montgomery books when she was prepping for the play back when? I read and re-read Anne of Green Gables from her age well into my teens.

    Also, back when I was in my early teens, I was totally enraptured with this series of historical YA romances set in different time periods. They’re called the Sunfire books, and they were all titled with just a girl’s first name. There’s a reminiscence and some brief synopses at the end of this blog post:

    • ayvalentine says:

      She loves Gail Carson Levine – one of her favorite authors. We tried LM Montgomery – I couldn’t get into those when I was a kid and found them equally slow reading them aloud to her. She owns some, but she hasn’t gotten far either alone or with me. She should maybe try them again, though. I was surprised by how overtly religious they were.

      The Sunfire books sound very cool. I will look into those and also start following Sarah Wendell on Twitter!

    • ayvalentine says:

      The Sunfire books aren’t easily available any more I don’t think, but there’s one named Amanda and one named Jessica! 😀 Good thing to keep an eye out for at garage sales and used book stores.

  5. Josh Roby says:

    I dimly remember the Cam Janssen books being decent, but my recall is so dim I can’t remember what age range they’d really appeal to.

    I foresee the same issue with my own two-year-old daughter, and I have half a mind to start writing what I want her to have available in a few years. 😉

    • ayvalentine says:

      Cam Jansen is cute, but already well below her – they’re perfect for precocious 1st or 2nd graders, though (make a note for the future! Otherwise you miss windows).

      And yes, there is an amazing lack of books aimed at precocious kids. I get it – it’s a small market. But usually full of parents who will grab up anything that seems appropriate! I would hope books in this demographic could get published.

    • ayvalentine says:

      😀 I knew you’d come through for me! Can’t wait to check all of these out.

      I picked up Chains – it might be a little heavy for her just yet. I think she’ll like it soon, though. Maybe even by summer.

  6. Beth says:

    Hi. Our mutual friend E asked me to post some suggestions since I’m a children’s librarian. There are actually a lot of good, somewhat quiet, books for this age group (girls especially) that deal with realistic interpersonal relations. Here are some of those that I would recommend:
    “The Summer Before Boys” by Nora Raleigh Baskin
    “Junonia” by Kevin Henkes
    “The Penderwicks” by Jeanne Birdsall (first in a series)
    “11 Birthdays” by Wendy Mass (first in a series)
    “The Secret Language of Girls” by Frances O’Roark Dowell (first in a 2-book series)
    “The View from Saturday” by E. L. Konigsburg

    For books with a more fantasy edge, but touch on similar topics, along with Levine I think she might enjoy:
    “Dealing with Dragons” by Patricia Wrede
    “The Incorrigable Children of Ashton Place by Marywood Rose (first in series)

    In terms of mystery, I think she may like:
    “The Westing Game” by Ellen Raskin
    “Masterpiece” by Elsie Broach

    Finally, I would see if your public library subscribes to the database Novelist – it is a great tool to find read alikes and genre recommendations. Hope some of these work out well for her, they are all books that I personally love!

    • ayvalentine says:

      Thanks so much! Many of these are new to me. And the ones that aren’t (Dealing with Dragons, The Westing Game) are already favorites. This is a great list, and I’ll see if our library has Novelist.

  7. Chad Underkoffler says:

    It’s not really a romance book/series, but there is romance in the background: A Wrinkle in Time, and sequels. (Might be too old, though.)

    • ayvalentine says:

      We’re reading those aloud as a family – we’re a couple of chapters into A Wind in the Door. 🙂 I loved them as a kid, but it helps to be able to talk about it as we read it – some parts are dated or confusing.

  8. Jess Banks says:

    Oh, I forgot: Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli (somewhat romantic) and Sideways Stories from Wayside School by Louis Sachar (not at all romantic, and perhaps a little easy, but hilarious).

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