The Curse of Tween Fiction

So, I've mentioned that I got this box of
free books from Scholastic. And it's been an interesting (as well as
fun and thrilling) situation, thinking about how getting something for
free affects you, and thinking about what sorts of books my kids are
drawn to, and thinking about ethics and integrity and reviewing in
general. About why it seems that it's accepted practice for reviewers
to get free books (and entrance to movies, etc) while people seem to
feel that when reviewing other products nothing should be free. I can
think of reasons for this: a book
won't change like a restaurant meal, and there aren't 7 different similar ones
to compare like a dress or a beauty cream, but still.
I thought to myself, "Well, if they're going to send me books, maybe
I'll drop my no-harshing-on-books rule, just review the ones I want
to, for better or for worse. Maybe I'll unleash all my pent-up
frustration with the world of books, of children, with the world in
general. Maybe that will make it more fair." But the thing is, things
rarely follow just the trajectory you think they will.

In the big box of books were a few slim sparkly books called the
Candy Apple Series with its own chick-lit-esque slogan: Fresh, sweet,
take a bite. I must be clear: seeing a whole packaged format like that,
with pink and glitter and cutesy illustrations, set me against them
from the start. I took one out, The Sister Switch, and oh my goodness
how I hated that book. HATED it. And it wasn't just the weak
characterization, the bright-cute tone, the cloying and hideous
falseness of the whole thing. It was the way it was trying to do this
to my daughter; it felt like Scholastic was reaching out with its long
tentacles and trying to sell her a version of herself, a self that
could be made entirely into a commodity. They were trying to sell her
an identity, complete with likes and dislikes, interests and outlooks.
Come on! Here's a self all ready made, for those little 'tweens who
aren't so sure who they are. You have nothing to lose…but your soul.
From its compulsive dichotomization (I'm sporty, and she's into
music!) to the quiet menace of its insistence on girls' having crushes
on boys (you WILL be heterosexual and obsessed, you WILL care without
end about what others think of you), I hated it, hated what it offered as a story, hated what it was trying to tell my child about herself. Oh dear God, how I hated this book
and everything it stood for.
Enter book 2 in the series, read only to bolster my argument: Making Waves.
is what happens when you try to bolster your argument; sometimes it
just doesn't go the way you want. Don't get me wrong: this book was
bad. BAD. The characters were empty, the insistence on the familiar
routine of crush/lip gloss/friends!/popular

popular-mean-girls was just as I had
left it in the other book, but somehow there was, buried beneath
this, a thin thread of humanity. Add to this that the writers of this
one are also the pair behind T*witches, a true favorite of Diana's. It
was as though we'd found them in a closet, every now and then you could
hear the thin squeak of their voices through the hideous structure that
was the series.
And then I was railing about these books, complaining to Diana, I
noticed she was reading another one: Life, Starring Me! Now the thing
is, written up on the door of my girls' room are The Rules (written
after a particularly painful fight between them), and one of those
(number 5?) is "Don't Make Fun of What Other People Like." So even
though she was mostly agreeing with me (Yeah, mommy, they are sort of
plastic) I was drawing back in my vitriol, and so I decided to read the one she was reading. And here's the
thing: it was good. Really good, good as in if I knew a girl who
happened to be interested in Broadway shows I would seek it out and get
it for her good. It had people, it had heart, it had something other
than a marketing angle.
So where does that leave me and my integrity? I'm not sure. I think the
whole attempt to package these writers is entirely wrong-headed. I
think the formula that most of these books seem to abide by is
spiritually bankrupt, and bad for the world. I don't know why this publisher had
to try to drown one good book and all its idiosyncrasies in the horrid
pink sea of what it thinks 'normal' girls like. I wish it had a
little more faith in the girls, I wish it didn't try to do what they fault all those "mean" girls in the books for doing: try to make everything alike. I just wish it didn't have to go around making everything worse.

4 thoughts on “The Curse of Tween Fiction

  1. I love your honesty — love, particularly, the sentence: “I think the formula that most of these books seem to abide by is spiritually bankrupt, and bad for the world.”
    Say it loud!


  2. What a great rule your smart, smart girls have. This is a line I try to tread with my daughter. I try to let her love pink glitter and purple (drowning victim) lipstick and everything covered in Princesses and have faith that my smart, savvy little girl will grow out of it just like I did. But I also try to expose her to anything I can that will speed that growing out of it process up some.
    We just read a book in a series about a princess school that was gnaw-off-my-own-hands-bad, but then we read a Sugar Plum Ballerinas book (by Whoopi Goldberg) and it wasn’t terrible. It was actually kind of good, but definitely wrapped up in that miserable pink mess.


  3. I love this post. And I really love they way you make me think about all the subtle messages in the books my kids will read, especially as they get into those identity-choosing tween years.
    I love the “rule”–sounds like you have smart girls. What are the other rules? (My boys, 3 and 5, are just about to move into a room together in a few days, and it sounds like these rules might not be a bad idea!)


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