When I worked as a librarian the summer after I graduated college, I knew I had found my calling. Having a job that required me to be around books and people that wanted to read them was a dream come true. Nothing was more thrilling than being able to rattle off a nonfiction call number from memory or know the author of a popular children’s book without consulting the database.
However, the first time someone approached me with the question, “Do you know any good books for 8-year-old boys?” I had no idea what to say. So I stumbled my way through a response, did my best to avoid the more girl-centric Daisy Meadows and Francis Hodgson Burnett, and then went home and drew up some lists of books for various genres, ages, and reading levels. The next time someone asked me about vampire novels for pre-teens, I was ready.
That’s what being a librarian was all about—finding the right books for the right child. And I found that there was one thing that spans all ages, genre preferences, and both sexes: the need for relatable, loveable characters. How do you find a book that will engage a child who has no interest in reading? How do you get them hooked on a series that will keep them away from the video games because they’d rather find out what happens next than pick up the Xbox?
Find them a character to love.
What little boy doesn’t like the concept of Robin Hood, Superman, the Knights of the Round Table or Harry Potter? What little girl doesn’t like princesses hidden in attics, horses, fairies, or exotic places like Oz and Olympus? During those months spent directing young people to various series and authors, I found that gender lines were often blurred, especially with tween books like the Percy Jackson and Fablehaven series…and there’s a reason for that.
It’s all because of the characters.
The Magic of Tween Fiction
To clarify: when I say “tween fiction,” I’m referring to the books that are too mature for elementary school readers but not quite mature enough for your average sixteen-year-old (much less adults who are more interested in dry, non-fiction texts about Edmonton Insurance policies or the history of trigonometry. They might learn a few things from tween fantasy if they tried it). Examples include the first three Harry Potter books (after The Prisoner of Azkaban they get much darker), Brian Jacques’ Redwall series, and Diary of a Wimpy Kid with its many sequels.
The most important thing that sets these books apart is their character development. These novels graduate from a one-dimensional Nancy Drew who has perfect hair and clothes, a perfect personality, and a perfectly underdeveloped boyfriend named Ned Nickerson to the three-dimensional Annabeth Chase—the proud, spirited, and ultimately insecure heroine of Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series.
Girls like the series because Annabeth isn’t afraid to smack Percy when he’s being immature, kiss him when he’s being heroic, and generally keep him in line…all while trying to deal with her own character flaws. Oh, and boys like Percy Jackson too because the main character is a young boy who’s funny, brave, unknowingly powerful, and slightly clueless, just like they are.
Brandon Mull understands character just as well as Riordan does. In his Fablehaven series, he introduces both a male and a female protagonist who are of equal importance, have admirable qualities and make costly mistakes, and who become as real to a 12-year-old reader as anyone they know in their classes at school. Kendra and Seth Sorenson might go on epic quests involving all sorts of mythical creatures (not unlike Percy and Annabeth), but ultimately the novels’ draw comes from seeing how the characters will react to any given situation, not how big the dragon is.
The Right Character
Your job as a parent, then (or mine as a librarian), is to find the right character for your children to love. Because the characters that they read about will be the kind of people that your 10-and-12-year-olds want to become. They won’t just be reading about characters—they’ll be building their own character as they explore what it means to be bullied by Draco Malfoy, isolated like Artemis Fowl, loyal like the Grimm Sisters, and full of imagination like Leven Thumps. The characters to which you introduce them will become important parts of who they are, whether their imitation of these heroes is conscious or not.
So instead of browsing the shelves for the most eye-catching cover or the most interesting plotline, look for the stories that belong to good, moral, three-dimensional characters; those will be the books that your children will accidentally fall in love with. Those will be the books that your reluctant readers will come back to again and again and will drive them to ask their librarians for more. Those are the books that will let your children discover what it means to be a kid and what it means to grow up…because Percy Jackson did it first.
And if Percy can conquer demons, be fiercely loyal to his best friends, face the consequences of his own mistakes, and become a real hero in the end, so can your children.
That’s the magic of character.
Melanie Hargrave is a wife and homemaker whose pride and joy is her family. In addition to spending time with her husband and daughters, she loves reading and learning everything she can about anything from Dyck Insurance policies to why her daughters are currently obsessed with Greek Myths and demi-gods from Camp Half-Blood.
(image from here)