Every morning before school starts, around 140 students show up to my middle school library for a plethora of reasons—some to finish homework due later that day, others to play games with friends or to catch a few more minutes of sleep. A few browse the shelves for a new book to read while even fewer find a corner and race to finish another chapter in their latest novel before heading to class. Spring is the time of year when academic work intensifies for students and reading for pleasure takes a backseat. However, it seems like the last few years have been an eternal spring and students aren’t reading as much as they used to.
Middle school students have a lot of competing priorities: academics, friends, sports, family responsibilities, and the ever-present social media. Three years into the pandemic, I’ve noticed students’ desire and stamina to read are lower than ever. Couple all of that with the lack of middle-school age characters in books, and it’s easy to see why my circulation numbers are lower than ever, too.
As a middle school librarian, it’s tough to keep kids reading at this age, but frankly, the publishing industry could be doing more to help. Where have all the 13- to 15-year-old main characters gone? While there are a plethora of 12-year-old main characters who are finishing elementary school or starting middle school, we really need more stories for our upper middle school readers. It seems the vast majority of lists, recommendations, and even release day announcements feature 12-year-old main characters. When I look for titles to order for my collection, I get really excited about stories with 14-year-old main characters, because they are the most difficult to find. It shouldn’t be this way. Students typically like to read about characters who are a year or two older than them. By the end of eighth grade, no student wants to read about a 12-year-old, no matter how compelling the story is. If the ultimate goal is for children to develop a love of reading and eventually become adult readers, there needs to be a concerted effort by publishers to promote and release books that acknowledge, represent, and celebrate early teenagers, those who are 13–15 years old.
In middle school, self-image is everything and kids are beginning to feel grown up. When I suggest books to them that have 12-year-old main characters, the typical response is, “That’s younger than me.” Like all readers, middle school students want to read about characters their own age or a bit older, dealing with the same problems they are, in every genre. And while I’m grateful for the books that are set at the beginning of middle school, there is a dire need for more books that take place during middle school and the beginning of high school. Just like elementary readers want to read about what it’s like to start middle school, my readers want books that take place at the start of high school. They need to see how characters encounter new, unfamiliar situations, and rehearse those moments with the main character, before they have to do it themselves in real life. So many middle school students aren’t ready for stories about prom, senior year, and preparing for college. Yet, most of the titles that are currently being released by publishers are either about 12-year-olds in sixth or seventh grade, or characters who are finishing high school. What about the stories and experiences that happen in between? What about books that take place during the summer between eighth and ninth grade, or even better, between ninth and 10th grade? Readers need these stories too, if we ever want them to make it to the YA section.
Recently, I read Karen Jensen’s article in School Library Journal, “New Reports Show a Decline in YA Book Sales and I Have Some Thoughts as to Why That Might Be Happening” and found myself agreeing with every point she made. Yes, we need more humor! Yes, book covers with younger looking characters are an issue! Yes, we need shorter books and more standalones! The one point I would add is, because there are so few main characters for such a pivotal point in a teen reader’s life, the publishing industry is losing readers. Students are finding new ways to spend their time because books either feel too babyish or too mature for them. Readers 13–15 are losing their connection with the fictional world around them, and because of that, they’re not coming back at the ages that YA is targeting. They’re already gone.
I urge publishers to really consider what the futures of YA and adult books are going to look like if we’re losing readers at 13. They need to see themselves, their struggles, and their successes on the page so they’ll keep reading and buying books. Some great new titles filling this gap right now are Aya de Leon’s Undercover Latina, Olivia Abtahi’s Perfectly Parvin and Azar on Fire, as well as Nikhil Out Loud by Maulik Pancholy and Ellen Outside the Lines by A.J. Sass. But the selection is few and far between; readers would greatly benefit from more choices than what’s currently available. Some authors have mentioned to me that they have pitched books with characters in the 13–15 age range and their editors have said no, because no one will buy them. I beg to differ. Students are asking for these books. Librarians want to buy these books. So, publish these books.
Students deserve to see themselves and their stories represented in the pages of books on our library shelves. While it’s a good time to be a 12-year-old reader, those kids will turn 13 and 14 one day and wonder where their stories are. And what are they going to do with their time instead of reading, when they can’t find books they can relate to until the end of high school? Let’s hope they don’t lose their love of reading along the way.
Rachel Grover is a middle-school librarian in northern Virginia and is a member of the Virginia Association of School Librarians. She has written articles for AASL’s Knowledge Quest and School Library Connection and presents at conferences on the district, state, and national level. She specializes in genrefication, makerspaces, and creating a sense of belonging for every student who enters the library.