Surviving Tween Readers' Advisory

The kid likes one thing, the parent wants another. How should librarians proceed? 

Tweens are just beginning to define who they are, and as far as reading goes, they’ve started to set their preferences and tastes. Their brains are developing at the same time as their bodies, and as you may expect (or remember), it’s exhausting.

Tweens, like most children, tend to want to read what older kids are reading. I can relate to this, as my sister, in first grade at the time, was continuously caught with her older sibling’s copy of The Hunger Games.

In a world of Lexiles and Fountas and Pinnell, parents often want their kids to excel beyond their current skill. Still, many books targeted for tweens are intense coming-of-age stories, such as Gary Paulesen’s Hatchet and Gary D. Schmidt’s Orbiting Jupiter. It’s easy to find content that parents consider too mature.

At the same time, many adults also believe that kids are their best censors—they’ll stop reading if the content is too much for them. So why are we librarians constantly on the battlefields defending contested books for tween readers?

Library professionals are very familiar with the parent-child dual reader’s advisory question. It shows up in interviews.The kid likes one thing, and the parent wants another. It’s the predicament of content versus complexity. There is more than one way to provide a successful book recommendation. Here are some suggestions.

Be prepared

For those tweens who insist on reading what the older kids are reading, and will only get a book from the YA collection, it’s best to have a mental arsenal of squeaky-clean teen reads to appease picky readers and/or parents. Do research by reading reviews, and read a few YA titles in each genre. Avoid love triangles, squares, or any other shape. Aim for younger protagonists. You can even recruit some high school volunteers to help you make a book list.

And don’t pay too much attention to reading levels. “[We’re] treating reading too much like a science. It needs to be treated more like an art form,” says censorship expert Pat Scales, who writes SLJ's Scales on Censorship column. “Science is exact, art is looking at the whole composition—to create a painting of a reader, [we need] to look at them as a person.”

Make a mission

I don’t know about you, but I always feel guilty if a member asks what I thought about a book and—gasp—I haven’t read it yet. It’s even worse if I haven’t heard of the title. Furthermore, I feel like I’m lying if I recommend a book without reading it first. Even though we librarians may appear to have superpowers, we can’t have read everything, and I have to remind myself that.

To get over the discomfort of recommending something I haven’t read, I’ll turn the recommendation into a favor: “I haven’t read this one yet. It’s super popular, and I hear it’s really good. Would you mind reading it and getting back to me?”

Bonus points for students who decide to write a review for our library website. That brings the reader back into the library to start building a relationship. It makes them feel important and that their opinion is worthwhile.

Reps vs. weight

You don’t go to a gym and grab the maximum weight you can lift, right? You find something you can comfortably repeat. When kids want to read books below their lexile level and parents object, I remind the adult that reading lots of books that are fun, but not necessarily challenging, can be just as beneficial to the child’s mind and development as reading one book at or beyond their level. The last thing anyone wants is for our young reader to burn out on reading books altogether. Books are supposed to be enjoyable—not work. Sometimes grownups need a reminder of that.

Scales also stresses the importance of reading books that are vital to childhood experiences that can be missed if kids limited by difficulty level. Make Way for Ducklings, for example, requires the attention span of an older reader, she says. Scales encourages that children “go through all stages of childhood” and not rush through “in the name of giftedness.”

Find a middle ground

If all else fails, try to find some middle ground between the guardian and the child. Perhaps the child only likes nonfiction, and the guardian wants them to expand to fiction, or vice versa. Neither will budge. You might get them to leave with a historical fiction novel based on a true story. The trick is finding the right balance between popular and provoking. Popularity has clout with tween peers, and thought-provoking can, ideally, spur a conversation within the family. Initiating a conversation between them can open doors to more otherwise questionable books for the future.

Even the most challenging reader’s advisory scenarios can end with a book in hand. Do what librarians do best, and listen to what the kids have to say. If you treat library members of all ages with respect and attention, you can come to a happy resolution.

Christina Keasler is the youth technology librarian at Glen Ellyn Public Library. When she's not working with the 3D printer, she's teaching cool things to kids and staff about robots and virtual reality. Christina is also a huge advocate for middle schoolers, and a master of corny jokes.

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