Tuesday, July 30, 2013

What a Kid Wants

Mom. Every book I read is the same. It's either really, really poor kids ... kids whose parents have died ... or their parents just hate them or they're idiots ... or they have to save the world and they only have, like, a spoon ... and it's just ... boring.

This is what my 11-year old son told me one day as we were in the car (where we always talk), as he was reading something or another. My 9-year-old agreed. They both started listing the names of books they've read that meet the criteria he listed, and it was pretty much like he said: all of them.

My kids read a few years above grade level (Around my house? Reading is like breathing.), so they read a lot of middle grade and some YA that isn't too risque. And if you're a writer or an editor or involved in middle grade or YA publishing at all, you know that this is what it's all about. Kids who do it themselves. Their parents don't or can't or won't do it for them. They have to be the hero.

So when I tried to pinpoint the answer to his question of "why are all my books like this?" it was a struggle. He wants to read more variety. He's also in the minority, as he doesn't want to read about supernatural creatures. So I told him: this is what the book publishers tell the writers that you want to read. Because that's what's been selling.

But what are the kids--the readers--saying? The YA market is big, and it's booming. Adults love it! But what about the kids? Are they loving it just as much? Maybe it's time to consider a bit more diversity.

The kids are clamoring for something different. When I try to think back to what I loved to read when I was my son's age, I remember Encyclopedia Brown and Nancy Drew. Those kids were their own heroes, too. They worked hard and figured it out. Solved the mysteries. But it wasn't a dystopian, post-apocalyptic world, where their hardscrabble lives forced them into their hero roles. Their parents neither hated them nor were they clownish fools.

I'm sure it started off innocently enough; someone wrote a book that was well-received. Someone else took notice and tried to capture some of the magic. And so on, until bookshelves are stuffed with book after book that ostensibly follow the same storyline. The same played out storyline. But every now and then, there will be a standout.

I'm not saying that there's no place for these heroes; these tropes have given us Harry Potter and Katniss Everdeen and I wouldn't give them up for all the Choose Your Adventures in the world; but that being said, maybe it's time to rethink how we think of acceptable themes for middle grade and YA and expand it a bit?

And my boy seems to be right on point; at this year's Bologna Children's Book Fair, Publisher's Weekly reports that the realistic theme is moving forward, ahead of the dystopian dominance of the past several years--but unfortunately for my son, he's not going to be able to get away from the major conflict "issues" at the heart of most of his books. He may think he wants to read a happy book, but is there anything more boring than a straight-up happy story? It's the conflict that is the nucleus of any good story, it's what keeps us reading.

So I turn to you, everyone reading this post and ask--do you have a book to recommend for a young reader that doesn't feature an extremely poor family, dead (or mean or stupid) parents and a young protagonist whose not charged with saving the world? Because I'd love to hear from you.


  1. Matched has wealthy, living parents but the protagonist has to save the world.

    1. I'm going to look that one up! Thanks for the rec :)