Teens, Tweens, and Secret Reading

After our discussion about books as mirrors or windows at different stages of life, I'm setting up a tentative hypothesis. Ready? Here it is:
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.

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.
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"?

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?


Love this topic Mitali!

Living here in VERY white Connecticut, I'm curious how the few who look different feel and react. My 11-year-old daughter's best friend is one of the few African Americans in their school. I've often wondered how she feels about it, and have sort of wanted to broach the topic, but I'll just keep my ears open (instead of opening my mouth).

As for my daughter? She doesn't even notice. They became fast friends when H moved here 2 years ago, and Amanda told me about her new friend. She told me her hair was "fuzzy and cottony" but not that her skin was brown.
CLM said…
Maybe that is true for marginal readers but I spent junior high reading Katherine by Anya Seton, Georgette Heyer, and Norah Lofts. My friends found this odd but when I did an oral report on the Black Plague, everyone was agog. Maybe the key is to ensure the child loves reading before those self-conscious years? It is true that I didn't read a lot of books about other cultures but that has never interested me very much, as a child or as an adult.
eluper said…
What about boys who want to read "girl" books or vice versa (although I think vice versa is less of a stigma). Imagine a boy trying to check out Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants in a line with all his friends around...

Before the days of anti-theft pylons, I used to stick the book in my bag covertly without checking it out, read it and then reshelve it when I was done. Those days are over.

I remember when they installed the book detector in our library. Then the game was to pick the most embarrassing book and sneak it into an unsuspecting friend's backpack.

Hilarity ensued when we got The Joy of Sex and Mein Kampf into one friend's backpack.
Alex said…
Great topic, Mitali. As a librarian, I leave books kids might be embarassed to take out around on tables/displays, and create booklists for them or posters to advertise them, so that kids can covertly pick them up when no one's looking. It's a passive-aggressive technique but it works.
Doret said…
Working at a bookstore I like to use the slip in approach. When helping a middle grade reader of color, I will suggest a few books I think they may like but sometimes I will slip in a book or two that would be considered a mirror reads.

I think the trick to making this work is having the slip in book in the middle of the stack.
If its on the top the kid may think you are trying to piegonhole them as a reader (why are you giving me this because I am Chinese, India, Black, Latino) and get turned off. In the middle its just another book in the stack.
Mitali Perkins said…
Thanks for librarian and bookseller tips, Alex and Doret.

Jennifer, I think you're wise to watch and wait for the right time to talk about that with your daughter's friend. Eleven can be such a sensitive age.

CLM, I think you're right about getting them to love stories before they become tweens. If a kid is an addicted reader by then, s/he won't stop.

Eric, I'm clutching my backpack when you're around. But you're right -- I feel a twinge when teachers assign RICKSHAW GIRL as a required read to girls AND boys. But it's a twinge, and it passes. :)
PiLibrarian said…
Alex and Doret's techniques are super -- I'm also a fan of the covert recommendation. In our school library we are very firm about not telling what students have checked out, and I make a point of including potential 'mirror' titles in my recommendation lists and booktalks. We also try to be clear that our suggestions are just guesses -- 'here it is, you might like it, but if it's not calling your name it won't hurt my feelings.' Because the book might call that student's name next week, or next semester (when I'm not looking :-)

Thanks for the tweak, Mitali. It likes me now!

Wendy said…
I have no real insights to offer, but oh, does this ever bring back memories about being a gay teenager. I was simultaneously desperate for stories and semi-reluctant to admit it and scared of anyone finding out I was even interested--I remember feeling sort of jealous of the idea that a "regular" girl would be able to read books about gay people without it being a big thing and having it cause all these conflicting feelings. I was very covert about reading anything gay from about 13-15, I would say; for the rest of high school I at least felt easier about it for myself, but still reluctant for anyone else to know what I was reading. The odd jealousy continued, though. Like only straight girls were officially allowed to read gay books.

I guess what would have helped me most, if I'd ever sought the help of a librarian or bookseller (something I never did anyway, but especially wouldn't let anyone see me checking out a gay book), is for that person not to notice or comment on the subject matter of what I'd already chosen whatsoever, but to get the "right" books in my hands anyhow.

The world is different now (in some parts of the country, anyway) from how it was 15 years ago, but I do think that teenagers still have more coming-out angst than they make readily visible. Societally it may be a little easier to come out, but personally, I think it's probably still really, really hard. (And sometimes teens will deny that at the time and only realize it after they're through that stage.)