We know what our customers buy and we know what they tell us. What we can’t do is look into every child’s bedroom and inspect exactly what they’re reading. Just because adults buy specific books for the children in their lives doesn’t mean the kids are enjoying them. And I’m starting to think social media, and our age difference, is adding to my gap in understanding what’s genuinely happening in the minds of today’s kids.
Case in point: I was teaching a ballet class the other night and I asked my preteen students to name their favorite pop music. They all looked at each other nervously, as if they didn’t want their friends to judge their taste. “Justin Bieber?” I ventured. Snide laughter followed. “New Direction?” Dead silence. Then one girl raised her eyebrow and said, “You mean, One Direction?” I turned red as they all rolled their eyes, again indicating I was completely out of touch. They mumbled a few other answers of bands I’d never heard of and immediately forgot. It was time to move on so I could regain my dignity.
As I drove home from that class, I wondered if I was as out of touch with children’s books as I was with music. Everything I see in popular media, from People magazine to Facebook, communicates that Justin Bieber and New—excuse me—One Direction are the hottest things around. Could I have been that off?
My assumptions about what kids are reading these days come from our bestsellers, and what the children and teens I’m close to tell me. Recently I read Pippi Longstocking to my 7-year-old stepdaughter (her choice). That was one of my favorites as a kid and I was happy to see it has endured.
I asked a 17-year-old Mercer Island High student what she was reading and she said One Hundred Years of Solitude, because a boy she liked had challenged her to read it. When I asked her if she liked the book, all I received was a casual shrug. The information was useless. I wanted to hear the books that kids are passionate about, but at that age maybe it’s better that they just take it all in without getting overly into anything so subversive as Catcher in the Rye. Who knows?
I suspect that kids are reading older books much more than adults, who tend to look for the next best thing. Children, who have more time and less discretionary funds, seem to spend more time in libraries than adults. They’re more likely to find old classics there than new releases. Kids also don’t follow current affairs like adults do, so the same timeless stories are more important than the latest true crime case or celebrity memoir.
I’m also willing to bet that the long tail theory applies even more to kids as they get older. While yes they may have spent a brief period of time reading The Hunger Games or Harry Potter, as time goes on they’ll more likely find books that suit their individual interests, the way I used to read the Satin Slippers series (now unfortunately out of print) because I loved ballet or my brother read about Wilbur and Orville Wright because he wanted to become a pilot.
In any case, when choosing a book for a child, the best thing to do is get a sense of what they like. It’s easy to give them a generic bestseller, but if you make the mistake of giving them Justin Bieber when they like Death Cab for Cutie, you’re going to look like an idiot. Trust me.