Stephanie Anderson (l.), manager of
WORD Books in Brooklyn, N.Y.,
and ABC executive director Kristen
McLean, at the Tween Reader panel.

At a panel on tween readers held earlier this month at the New Atlantic Booksellers Association conference in Baltimore, Association of Booksellers for Children executive director Kristen McLean, who got her start selling toys, observed that 15 years ago, the toy business changed its definition of “kids,” from age 12 to age eight. Around the same time, she said, publishers and booksellers began breaking out middle-grade fiction. Citing an article in the Los Angeles Times that the average age for a girl’s period to start dropped from 17 to 13 between 1850 and 1950, she suggested that the two things are connected. “We’re not just talking about a social change, but a physical change,” she said.

Sexuality educator and consultant Deborah Roffman, author of Sex and Sensibility (Da Capo), agreed. However, she asked that booksellers not use the word “tween,” which causes her as much distress as the sound of a bug zapper. “Tween,” she said, is a marketing tool. In fact, “tween” negates much of the work of the past century to show that children at age eight are very different developmentally from children at nine, 10, 11 and 12. “What do eight-year-olds and 14-year-olds have in common developmentally?” she asked. “Nothing.” The reason that marketers have lump them together in a single category and treat them as “short adults,” she claimed, is that they have a lot of disposable income.

As a member of the first generation to grow up with YA novels, 24-year-old panelist Stephanie Anderson, manager of WORD Books in Brooklyn, N.Y., said that she thinks that children as young as eight should read what they want. Drawing on her own experience doing just that, she said, “I feel like it didn’t hurt me. It kept me from making a lot of bad decisions.” Still, Anderson does try to discourage younger children from reading books that are too sophisticated for them. For example, when an elementary student wants to buy Twilight, she tells them that it’s boring, a reaction she remembers when she tried to read books that were too old for her.

Anderson also recommended that parents of 10-, 11- and 12-year-olds “preread” books. She’s found that mothers who don’t have time to read an adult novel particularly enjoy prereading, and that people in their 20s still like to read YA. In addition, children enjoy being able to talk about books with their parents. One of her current prereading favorites is Terra Elan McVoy’s Pure (Simon Pulse), about three girls who take a purity pledge, which one girl breaks. Some books are written to be read by children who want to read up, noted panelist Liz Szabla, editor-in-chief of Feiwel and Friends, pointing to debut author Jill Alexander’s The Sweetheart of Prosper County. For her, the key way tweens decide what to read is if they have a friend who is reading it.|Ellen Mager, owner of Booktenders’ Secret Garden Children’s Bookstore & Gallery in Doylestown, Pa., suggested from the audience that one way to keep kids reading age-appropriate books is to post reviews by children for books in their grade level. “I won’t let a third grader review a seventh-grade book,” she said. “What you want to look at is the context in which things are introduced to a child,” Roffman responded. “Children can’t put context around messages.”

Look for more discussion on this subject at next year’s BEA: McLean said that she will recommend a similar panel as part of ABC’s educational programming.