It’s never easy to be on the wobbly fulcrum of puberty, but
has it ever been harder? The years between 10 and 14 are known
as the storm-and-stress period, because so much change—
physical, emotional, social—can happen seemingly all at once.
Books that address the toughest issues kids face can help them
navigate their way through a crisis, if books on those topics
exist, and if kids have access to them.
“I don’t think there are any taboos anymore,” says David
A Watershed Moment
Levithan, v-p, publisher, and editorial director at Scholastic.
“But the litmus test for me is whether you contextualize some-
thing so that a kid understands what’s going on. Some issues
are very hard to contextualize for an elementary school level,
but it can be done. Rita Williams-Garcia managed to explain
female genital mutilation in No Laughter Here [Amistad, 2003]
so nine- and 10-year-olds could understand.”
“Some would say that discussing suicidal ideation in a YA
book and handing it to a ninth grader might be appropriate,
but there are also seventh and eighth graders struggling with
the topic,” says Lisa Von Drasek, curator of the Children’s
Literature Research Collections at the University of Minnesota
and a former children’s librarian at the Bank Street College of
Education. Indeed, recently released data from the National
Center for Health Statistics, part of the Centers for Disease
Control, show that suicide rates for girls aged 10–14 have tri-
pled over the past 15 years—the biggest increase among any
population subset covered in the study. “The years between 11
and 14 are the most fluid with regards to maturity and
growth—mental and physical,” Von Drasek says. “This age
group can be the most neglected as a group because they are
impossible to categorize.”
“The bottom line,” Levithan says, “is that if something is
actually happening to children—whatever it is—it’s important
to have a way to talk about it with children, and often that way
is through a book.”
Levithan acquired and edited George by Alex Gino (Scholastic
Press, 2015) a book many think has successfully redefined
the outer limits of topics that a middle grade novel can address.
The title character is a boy who wants
to live as a girl but whose family has
not accepted her desire to transition.
The book’s jacket, with the title
printed in a sunny confection of
rainbow colors, looks perfectly at home
among other early chapter books
aimed at third and fourth graders.
“Honestly, what I felt when we
acquired it was that it was one of the
great moments of my career and I
think everybody at Scholastic felt, it’s
about time,” Levithan says. “Not only was this a groundbreaking book, it was ground that needed to be broken.”
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