Like most consumer-based businesses, publishing pivots on the demographic with the largest spending power. These days, that honor falls to the tweens. Numerous industries, from fashion to entertainment to skin care, are all scrambling to reach this hugely influential group.
So what’s a “tween”?
At its core, the tween age group is those kids who fall between early childhood and adolescence. Back in the 1990′s, we lumped them under the umbrella term “middle grade”. And while the tween reader may be anywhere between eight and fourteen years old (the average age being 10-14), tween is more of a mindset than an age. Whereas a true middle grader is happy with traditional story fare for ages 8-12, tween readers are more sophisticated. They’re inching toward young adulthood, and want to get glimpses of the teen issues they’ll soon be facing. But tweens prefer to digest those issues from a distance. At their core, they’re still kids. Tweens are being pulled in two directions simultaneously. On the one hand, they want to dabble in their own independence and exploration of who they are, and on the other they live in a post-9/11 world where many of them are more protected than in the past, with less time away from direct adult supervision. So tweens want books that give them the thrill of self-reliance and autonomy, but still bring them safely home at night. And most publishers prefer to keep it tame when brushing up against young adult themes. For example, instead of dealing with sexual issues, tween characters might buy their first bra, get their first period, or experience their first kiss.
Middle grade books have always revolved around the concerns fundamental to that age group’s very existence—home, family, friends, school, peer group. Tween books stay true to these ideas but move them into a slightly more worldly arena. In The Steps, Rachel Cohn takes a standard middle grade dilemma—a 12-year-old whose parents have split up and formed new families—and places the NYC-bred Annabel in Sydney, Australia, for a first visit with her step-siblings. Annabel begins her vacation determined to bring her father back to America, but after she sees how happy her dad is with his new wife (happier than he ever was with Annabel’s mother), she develops a new mindset: I hadn’t liked the idea of having so many families, but the Steps were not my choice. What was my choice was whether or not I would make the best of my new family situations. Annabel learns that she has more control than she thought over her own happiness, pushing her toward young-adult maturity.
Simply writing authentic portrayals of the middle school experience can win the hearts of tween readers. Lauren Myracle earned kudos her tween titles Eleven, Twelve, and Thirteen, which follow protagonist Winnie Perry through three years of physical, emotional, and social development. The books are light, hip, and friendly, and give adolescent girls a roadmap to navigating their own tween years. Other tween titles that highlight girls’ issues include Me, In Between by Lauren Baratz-Logsted (12-year-old Lacey is a year younger than her eighth-grade classmates, yet more physically developed. She’s torn between trying to appear both older and younger than she really is.); and The Truth About My Bat Mitzvah by Nora Raleigh Baskin, where protagonist Caroline inherits a Star of David necklace from her grandmother and begins to wonder about her mixed religious heritage.
Even classic “boy” topics like sports are given the tween treatment in Mike Lupica’s Heat (12-year-old Michael lives in the shadow of Yankee stadium but is too poor to attend a game. He dreams of leading his team in the Little League World Series, but is benched until he can prove his age with a birth certificate, which was left behind when his family fled Cuba.) James Howe takes on bullying with a group of seventh grade outcasts who decide they’re no longer going to tolerate namecalling in The Misfits, and Louis Sachar appealed to both genders with Holes, which deftly braids mystery, tall tale, folklore and contemporary issues with the middle grade themes of friendship and the teen realization that society’s underdogs should not be ignored.