I was thinking today about uber-young readers, and the sort of genres that have sprang up within that group. I'm not talking about sports stories or little romances that aren't age specific. There are certain types of books that are for some reason almost exclusively aimed at the 10-14 crowd.
Here’s why the Babysitters Club is a big hit with the middle school set; it strikes home. Ditto books about school or parents. When you regularly spend your Friday nights watching a six-year-old launch GI Joe dolls off of the couch and into his own eye, you want to feel like there is some sort of status that comes from doing this. Enter The Club. So tweens want to read these books about people "just like them", and no one else does. But books for junior readers have clustered around a number of other genres and theme genres as well, sometimes surprisingly specific.
First of all, there’s fantasy. It isn’t a mystery why kids read fantasy- it’s awesome.; full of adventure and love and danger and silly-looking creatures. Harry Potter is obviously the quintessential magic book, but true nerds will also fondly look back upon the Redwall series, books by Tamora Pierce and the Half Magic series. The latest ones are called The Olympians by Rick Riordan. I was reading them aloud to a boy I myself was doing a little nannying for for some extra cash, and I’m not gonna lie here… I literally bought the last few books in the series after the job was over because I neeeeeded to know if they destroy the evil titans! (I told the cashier it was a present for my nephew. The one I do not have.) What is weird about fantasy though is that lately (i.e. since Tolkien) it has been almost exclusively for children. Science fiction isn’t like this. We have Brave New World, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Dune, and Ray Bradbury in general. But not so much with fantasy. I really don’t know why.
Now here’s a really weird, specific genre that bizarrely seems to come out for kids in about fourth grade: Books chronicling the lives of Jewish people hiding in Nazi Germany (or Nazi occupied Europe). Besides The Diary of Anne Frank there was Number the Stars and Behind the Bedroom Wall. There were many others. I read so many of these stories that I remember spending years of my childhood narrowly evaluating every cranny and crevice, nodding sagely to myself and thinking that would be a good place to hide Jews. I even had specific Jews in mind- family friends to be stowed away in the back part of the coat closet, classmates to be hustled into the attic. Kathy likes dogs I would think maybe if we kept her under the house we could sneak a dog down to keep her company. In retrospect, of course, I am appalled, but to my nine year-old brain, safety was the priority, and the danger was angry German Nazis. For the longest time, I could NOT understand the prevalence of the genre but I’ve come to realize that as far as historical fiction goes, WWII is perfect for this age group. They can have very clear “good guys” and “bad guys” and they don’t have to examine the nuances of the war or even the ideals behind it. This is no American revolution; it is straightforward hide/ escape or be killed. And kids can definitely get that.
Another genre that seemed to come out of left field is the absolute epidemic of books about horses. Wild horses, racing horses, the relationship between wide –eyed, blond, precious American children and their horses. The high point was The Black Stallion and the low point was probably some story about a horse escaping his pen and running across the country to be there for his owner’s birthday. I , personally, hated The Red Pony, but you can’t keep a literary blog and cite Steinbeck as a low point of anything, especially a subgenre with protagonists with names like thunderbolt. Why are horse books so cultishly followed by tweeners? Who knows! Why not dogs or rabbits or eagles? Maybe it’s the glamour of associating horses with historical royalty and knights and cowboys, but they definitely have a fanclub.
The last trend I remember defining my young literary life was an obsession with books written as diaries of historical people- usually princesses, and usually hardbound only with little satin ribbons and gilt-edged pages, so that the producers could charge some erroneous amount for about 20 poorly written pages. But we longed for them. There was a book for Cleopatra, Anastasia, Marie Antoinette… naturally leaving out all the unsavory bits (i.e. almost all accuracy). I do have to admit that I loved reading them, though, and they definitely sparked an interest in reading and in learning about (the good parts) of history. And really, what more can you ask?