I began teaching middle school students in summer enrichment classes soon after I finished college. From the beginning, I had trouble. I knew that lots of tweens were reading post-apocalyptic, highly gory books that were well known and well loved in the adult world, but I didn’t know what kids I’d have in my class. It was frustrating worrying that I might introduce them to literature that was actually great, but would be a far cry more violent than anything they’d ever read.
I have found this problem in a lot of places; for instance, I think Feed by M.T. Anderson is amazing social commentary. It is essential reading for kids growing up as digital natives. However, it is just awash with swear words; I don’t mind them, but I hate the idea that the swear words might be the reason why a child (or that child’s parent) couldn’t draw the important truths from that book.
It feels, often, like I cannot find the in-between: there are elementary-level chapter books that are sweet and fun and joyful, but (often) not really works of great thoughtful importance. Then, almost all of a sudden, kids jump from that into YA. I want to find more books that are truly in the in-between, something that can ease kids into great story without all the stuff that raises their parents’ eyebrows.
I’m not for banning books or even for banning specific kids from reading books, but I do think there ought to be more options that aren’t traumatically violent but still have incredible storylines, especially in the YA dystopia genre that is so wildly popular with middle school audiences. I think that lots of good writing is being done, but I just want more: more thought-provoking literature that isn’t also making kids grow up too soon.
I’ve often thought that maybe this is too silly of a wish. I might be wishing kids could stay “young and innocent” for longer than any kid reasonably can in this day and age. I know that lots of kids don’t have the option of avoiding real-life violence, much less avoiding it in the books they read, so perhaps this is an unnecessary pipe dream. Most likely, though, kids who encounter a lot of violence in real life wouldn’t mind a book or two that engages them fully but doesn’t rely on gore for its conflict.
Thinking all of this through has really put me in a place to ask what reading for pleasure is for; what purpose it serves. Certainly, it is entertaining, and a lot of kids pick up—for example—YA dystopian novels just to have that edge-of-their-seats rush. Perhaps the fact that I am usually teaching a creative writing craft class is the reason that I long for more go-to “in-between” books, ones that my students can pore over in order to learn more about how to write well. I’m picking the book for 20 kids, often very different from one another. Most of them won’t tell me if violent books are triggering for them in some way, so it feels safest to find a book that doesn’t trade in excessive violence. Though maybe safety isn’t something I can guarantee with any book…as books always have the possibility of destabilizing a worldview.
If you think of some, share your favorite middle school reads that are high-quality writing but don’t focus on gratuitous violence and tragedy. Kids can handle more than we think, but I always like to have a good list of books that won’t make a child who already has a lot on their mind feel worse. If you can’t think of any personally, maybe be the person to write this book; I’m trying to do the same.