by Ms. Antona
I spend a lot of time in the Teen Sections of Bookstores.
Not as a lurk or anything, but because of this literary circle, I want to see what writers are imagining and what publishers are marketing.
The past few years, there has been a lot of fantasy.
Maybe that is the next step from the Harry Potter Series (MG) and the Hunger Games Series (YA)..
Or perhaps it is because kids, even those who reach their teens, are still wondrous enough to love magical realism.
I get asked a lot about what books to choose for one’s child.
One of the women I’m working with has a niece who is a voracious reader. She is far above her grade level but is a tween. Tween is that delicate space from being 9 to being 13. They want to feel some growing sense of self and choice, they don’t want baby books, and most have moved beyond needing illustrations, even pencil ones, to be absorbed in a book. They are MG.
MG books, whether non-fiction, fiction, fantasy, or pre-coming-of-age all tend to feature central characters who are emerging to middle school. There are series I liked that began with pre-MG for 3rd-4th grade readers who are taking on chapter books. The Ruby and the Booker Boys Series is ones my daughters read when they were younger. There were others that gave me choices, as an African Diasporan mom, for my daughters to know Black kids can be central characters.
I used the Lexile score to understanding reading levels. I also talked to them about the books they like, talked to real booksellers at children’s book stores, and talked to librarians. That was a period of time, 8-10 years ago, for my daughters and almost 14 years ago when these books started to emerge on the scene with more diverse characters.
In running a literary circle for middle school and high school teens, I have a lot of considerations in what makes the 10-week cut. It is one of the main reasons I invite parents to register and the teens to identify their upcoming grade.
One can have a high reading and intellectual level, but not have the emotional and maturity level for some content. Content matters.
A lot of early YA books available when we started this literary circle were stereotypical. There isn’t a singular Black story. It was one of the reasons our early selections were more historical and literary fiction. We read some Morrison and Hurston and Walker and Danticat. These writers are considered adult writers, but they were writing in a less-graphic time than writers today.
YA or Young Adult Books today are more contemporary, set in this century, and have strong moral, ethical, and spiritual undertones. They are meant to spark a conversation, give a world perspective, and be a trusted source for teens to wade through complicated situations they may not want to talk about with parents.
That brings me to processing through book choices.
Kids today, those born post 2000, are high information. They have a level of sophistication that was not possible in my teens. They are more independent, have smart phones, know the workings of Tik-Tok and the virtues of Instagram vs. Twitter vs. Facebook vs. Snap Chat. They have on-demand TV and music lyrics that make me want to wash out my ears. They’ve had entire TV series for teens with topics that are beyond what I was watching at 14 or 16. They are more aware of issues surround sex, drugs, and identity. This is part of their reality.
Which plays into book choices.
I still believe in the power of words to make a difference and in developing imagination.
I’m also a bit leery of some of the scenes in books that either allude to teen sex and dating or are straight out about it from the first ten pages. I’m also leery of those that have a stereotypical urbanized story that assumes all Black teens are into drugs, gangs, being intellectually deficit, or live in broken homes. We skipped the entire Buford High Series back when this literary circle started because over sexualized covers and sensationalized story lines weren’t what we were about.
We want our readers to engage in stories that get them to think, that are fodder for good discussions, that enhance cultural understanding, and that center them in the story.
YA books or Young Adult are the ones you find in most high school libraries. They are for high schoolers and most of the central characters are usually between 10th-12th grade. They cover coming-of-age, independence, a lot of firsts, and emerging adulthood. It is for this reason that sensitive topics will come up. In 2020, that can and will include sexual activity or the choice not to, drug use in high school, first car, first everything. They include developed storylines of race and gender, sexuality and choice.
There are a couple books on the 2020 reading list that have great characters and story lines, but are inappropriate for MG readers, may not even be what parents want their 9th or 10th grader reading. One of the books I’m pondering has a strong female central character in an out-of-the-box role in STEM who is making life choices that I wasn’t ready for my teen daughter to make. I’m considering the book and if I will put a huge disclaimer up for parents.
Choosing books in the teen section takes a lot of nuance. The covers are art pieces that compel you to pick it from the shelf. The jacket information is inviting and the author information usually brings me to a “yes.” However, like a lot of books or movies that have a great storyline, there will be that “scene” that makes you uncomfortable. One of the classics considered a mother of the sci-fi genre, has life and death, imagination and emergence, love and sex, all with a protagonist that started in the story at age 15. yet, it is great writing and we will cover it. Perhaps the blessing and gift of YA (Young Adult) fiction is that it gives room for exploring sensitive topics in a way that adult fiction does not.
Adult books are just that. Almost all of literary works fall in this category. The protagonists are emerging adults at 18-22, college age, or “full on adults” who are living the complexities of life from marriage and divorce to kids and mortgages.They deal with issues in life and the writers take these central characters to give us a glimpse of the possible or impossible. This includes fantasy, romance, literary works, feminist/womanist work, and the lyrical. A lot of the Pulitzer Prize and Man Booker Prize books are adult. There are also those that have some crossover appeal, like Little Fires Everywhere that became a Netflix series. There were distinct storylines and features of the characters that included the same themes of discovery and identity. More YA writers can be considered moving into the cross-over because of the well developed storylines.
Readers in the 2020 Literary Circle are invited to help make book selections, to veto a book selection, or to choose an alternative to the one we are reading that week. Choosing the right book is a nuance and an art.