Kate Milford, author of Greenglass House (Clarion), who is also a bookseller at McNally Jackson Books in Manhattan, organized a panel at the bookstore held on October 27, with Newbery Medalist Rebecca Stead, and Printz and Caldecott Honor author Mariko Tamaki, moderated by Connie Hsu, senior editor at Roaring Brook Press.
Milford sought to address a sector of publishing that she feels is overlooked: books geared for kids who are 12-14. When kids are reading past middle grade, which is typically considered for ages 8-12, and aren’t quiet emotionally ready for the heavier themes of YA suggested for 14-18 year olds, where do readers, booksellers, and librarians turn? “As a bookseller, it’s hard to know where to put it, how to sell it, who to sell it to,” Milford said of books for readers that fall between these age ranges. And increasingly, parents are concerned about the content of books for kids in this age group. On the topic of ideal bookstore placement for these titles, Tamaki said: “It really surprises me that in this country it’s really easy to buy a gun, but we don’t know where to put a book.”
Milford also offered anecdotal evidence she heard from writer friends that agents and editors suggest that they age characters up or down in order to better fit a book into a middle grade or YA category. But aging the characters up or down doesn’t serve the kids who need these books, Milford argues. “The age is so awkward,” she said, “that it’s important to have books for them.” Tamaki added that many of the books she’s fond of, in particular Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye, address this age “where it gets ugly,” with themes of intensifying female friendships and bullying. “I write about that age for adults, not thinking about the kids,” Tamaki said. The age is one that author Stead said she is frequently drawn to, as it’s “the first point where I felt I was making my own life.”
In the books for kids older than age 15, many thresholds are crossed, Hsu said. Books cover “sex, drugs, human trafficking, anything goes. Where are the limits?” Tamaki answered: “I try to be honest. We were talking about sex and drugs at this age, but we weren’t right about any of it. When you’re a kid, everything is anthropology. Everything is observed and overheard.”
Stead, in observing her own kids and their classmates, wanted to address the issue of bullying in her new novel, Goodbye Stranger (Random/Lamb, Aug.), but much of the “language of bullying,” she saw, were “gay epithets.” So initially, she wrote parts of the text to reflect this, what seemed to be the most authentic dialogue to give her characters. But she was bothered by the language, so she reached out to an editor, who is gay, to read parts of her draft and offer advice, before she sent the manuscript to her own editor, Wendy Lamb. “Optimistically, he said that ‘the language may date your book,’ ” and Stead took away from the exchange that “you have to have the courage to do what you need to do, and know that you have choices,” and she ultimately chose to change the wording.
The panel also addressed the topic of feminism, important to the authors in discussing titles aimed at girls coming of age and forming identities amid social pressures. Tamaki addressed her own mission underpinning the books she writes, citing a need to dispel the “emotional woman” stereotype and making sure that for her characters, “whatever emotion a woman is coming out with makes sense.” Stead addressed clothing standards in junior high schools, where at a recent assembly for parents, an administrator shared the school dress code, displaying a slide that said: “If you have a son you don’t have to worry about any of this.” The double standard of dress among genders, as well as the awkwardness of young teen bodies and the difficulty to find clothes in stores that covers up what administrators think girls should cover up, is something that Stead wanted to address in her books, without becoming overly didactic. That’s the problem with “subtlety,” she said. “People think different things. One person said that [Goodbye Stranger] cast a shadow over feminism, another said that it was a great feminist book.”
Overall, the panel began a conversation that should continue, as titles for this age range gain traction and accolades. Tamaki cited recent examples, including comics like the Lumberjanes series, Raina Telgemeier’s books, and Cece Bell’s El Deafo (Abrams/Amulet). The panelists agreed that the difficulty and awkwardness of the age, one that Milford argued many adults try hard to leave behind, makes it even more crucial for kids to have access to books that can help them process the growth they’re undergoing. Milford cited a scene in Tamaki’s This One Summer (First Second), in which the two main characters dance alone in their room. The age, Milford said, is about “trying things out, but wanting moments of abandon.” To which Tamaki added that as one enters adolescence, “now it’s awkward, and the dancing is over.”