"I have a love-hate relationship with this category," Kristen McLean announced as she opened the panel on tween readers, which was part of the American Booksellers Association's Day of Education, sponsored by Ingam, at BookExpo America.
McLean, the executive director of the Association of Booksellers for Children, moderated the panel, which included Charlotte L. Doyle, a professor of psychology at Sarah Lawrence College; Stephanie Anderson, manager of WORD Bookstore in Brooklyn, New York; and Liz Szabla, vice president and editor-in-chief of Feiwel & Friends.
All three panelists agreed that the "tween" label is primarily a marketing distinction, but the category is a useful one for 8-to-12-year-old readers and their parents.
"I think most parents have just as much anxiety about their kids' reading as their kids do," said Anderson, who added that she prefers to talk directly to child readers about their likes, dislikes, and reading level. The ability to recommend books that satisfy both parents and children "is one of the greatest opportunities facing independent bookstores," she said.
Offering books that engage tweens at multiple levels is essential, said Doyle. "There may be a mismatch between a child's reading level, cognitive level, social level," she said, but children who read below grade level are often unwilling to read books written for younger readers.
"They would rather not read than read something they perceive to be below their age level," added McLean, noting that can lead to weaker readers abandoning books during the tween years. One group is especially at risk, said Szabla. "I don't think we can talk about this age group without being frank about the differences between boys and girls... At no time is it more dangerous to lose [boys] than these years."
To avoid that, Szabla encourages children to understand that "if it's not interesting, it's okay to put it down" and give up on a book. Feiwel & Friends has also experimented with book covers that "speak to the visual sophistication of this age range," like the dark cover of The Black Book of Secrets.
Doyle pointed out another factor that appeals to tween readers: "Their ability to understand two dimensions is the reason tweens find puns so delicious," she said.
Although visually sophisticated design appeals to tweens, the same is not true of books filled with pages of small print. "I have so often noticed when kids pick up a book that I know is a wonderful book, but the type is small," and they set the book aside, said audience member Carol Chittenden of Eight Cousins in Falmouth, Massachusetts. Szabla agreed that it can be a problem, but explained that production methods are the cause: When middle grade hardcover books are published as paperbacks, the publisher shrinks the type size to fit the same words onto a smaller page.
Anderson addressed an area of perennial concern to booksellers: how to respond to parents' questions about a book's "content," a euphemism that generally refers to sex. "I think parents do tend to be more open-minded than we give them credit for," she said, but because parents have little control over what their children see in other media, they have tried to maintain some control over reading material.
One of her tactics is to tell concerned parents not only what content appears in the book, but also how risky behavior or bad decisions are resolved. Anderson explains that "because of their basic narrative structure, you see how these things play out in the end" and what conclusions the reader can draw from those consequences.
Anderson has also found that many books that were published as young adult titles two decades ago are being reissued as middle grade books, but she still shelves them in the young adult section. The books don't raise parental hackles, but children can satisfy their own social expectations by choosing something from the "teen section."
Several booksellers in the audience said that reviews by their tween customers were both useful to booksellers and a draw for other tweens. "At that age, they are not shy about telling you they don't like it," said Page One's Andrea Greenlee, who added that members of the store's Advanced Reader Club receive gift cards in exchange for reviews.
Doyle summarized the bookseller's role in working with tween readers: "The trick is to show children that there is a wonderful world in books."