Elementary-aged kids and upper high-schoolers are more open to fiction with protagonists who are markedly different than they are when it comes to race, class, or nationality.If I'm right, a problem arises for tweens and young teens who aren't part of the mainstream nor bolstered by a strong community affirming their cultural or class identities. Because of a desire to fit in, do they fear reading books in public featuring heroes who resemble them ethnically or socially? Or even a "problem" book about one of their "problems"?
During early adolescence, fifth through ninth grade, most young readers buzz about and share books featuring protagonists they hope to resemble. Also, if everybody's reading it, or watching it, or playing it, odds are they'll want to, also.
Picture an overweight seventh-grader reading a book about a fat kid, for example. He or she might want, need, and love that book, but will only read it covertly, under the covers, with a flashlight. And definitely won't want to discuss it over dinner with Mom.
In middle school, when I was desperately trying to overcome the distance between myself and the all-white, all born-in-the-USA crowd around me, would I have wanted a teacher or librarian to hand me one of my own books? Would I have wanted a friend's parent to ask what I thought about a film like Cheetah Girls: One World, set in India? Not in front of everybody else, that's for sure. (Yes, that's me in those trendy high-waisted short shorts all the other girls were wearing. Remember: my mother never showed her legs in public.)
But if s/he got one of my books to the early teen version of me secretly, I'd like to think that The Not-So-Star-Spangled Life of Sunita Sen or the First Daughter books might have helped in the squeeze between cultures.
By the time I was a junior in high school, I was confident enough to engage an adult in a discussion about a film or book featuring something Indian in front of my peers. But in seventh grade? No way.
How do we connect tweens and young teens to stories that they can read covertly during that stage — stories they might love but skip thanks to the pressure to conform? Teachers, parents, librarians, booksellers, how do you do it?