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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