Parents understand that “tween” girls (ages 9 through 13) face a period of tremendous physical, social, and emotional change. It’s not enough for adults to simply dispense positive messages. Kids need reinforcement from other sources as well. The Beacon Street GirlsTM book series (created by B*tween Productions, Inc., and authored by Annie Bryant) fuses serious issues facing tween girls with joyful, well-rounded characters, including a girl with dyslexia. Based on the real-life needs and experiences of tweens, these age-appropriate books provide quality experiences that reinforce parents’ efforts to build their daughters’ self-esteem and help young girls express their individuality.

We recently spoke with Addie Swartz, founder and CEO of B*tween Productions, Inc. about the Beacon Street Girls book series.

Q: The tween characters in the Beacon Street Girls books are interesting, well-rounded girls. They encompass various ethnicities, abilities, disabilities, and family situations. How did you decide what disabilities and scenarios you would include in your stories?

A: Our goal was for the Beacon Street Girls characters to capture the essence of real-life girls attending middle school today. We wanted our characters to serve as role models who are as interesting — and as vulnerable — as the girls reading about them. Before developing the characters, we spoke with hundreds of girls in communities up and down the Eastern seaboard. During focus groups, which were really ice cream and pizza parties, we interviewed a healthy cross-section of girls from different socio-economic groups. We met them in after-school programs, at Boys and Girls Club centers, and at soccer games. I also have two tween daughters of my own; they and their friends provided input as well. We asked girls about their passions, challenges, family situations, and concerns. They provided great ideas and input about what the characters should be like — even how they should look and dress. School emerged as a common theme among the girls we spoke with. From this field research we created composite characters.

Q: You’ve done an authentic and accurate job of portraying Maeve, the character who has dyslexia. her as a well-adjusted girl with a learning disability. In developing her character, what type of research did you do?

A: We interviewed many girls with learning disabilities (LD), and we found them to be wonderfully alive. However, it became clear to us that kids with LD are often teased in school. To ensure that Maeve’s character was accurately represented, we also spoke with several learning disability experts. Learning disabilities represent too serious a matter to not get it right. We consulted with national reading experts, including Joyce Hakansson, formerly at the Center for Applied Technology (CAST), and faculty at the Carroll School, a private school for students with LD in Lincoln, MA. The experts also read the books before publication to make sure Maeve’s character and her experiences are believable. Based on the input we received from the experts and girls with LD, Maeve emerged as a warm, vibrant, rich character who contributes a lot to her family, friends, and community. Yet, she struggles with organization and reading. For example, in one of our books, Maeve dreams up and initiates a community service project. She has great leadership and vision; but, because she is disorganized, she needs her friends to help her carry out the project as a team. The story highlights her talents as well as her need for support to carry out her goals.

Q: What kind of feedback have you received about Maeve’s character?

A: Girls love Maeve! She’s one of the most popular characters, because she’s so full of life, and nothing seems to get her down for long. She is resilient and funny. Girls love her “live out loud” attitude as well as her vulnerability. Maeve definitely speaks to girls with learning issues, and we’ve received some heartfelt letters from girls with LD who feel camaraderie with her.

Parents and experts (including some national dyslexia organizations) also give Maeve’s character a high approval rating. We hope that Maeve’s character will help girls who don’t have dyslexia to better understand LD and the limitations it creates. Academic pressure these days is tremendous, but if a student struggles in school it doesn’t mean she can’t make a wonderful contribution to society.

Q: In addition to dyslexia, what other types of challenges and situations do the Beacon Street Girls stories address?

A: Our books cover a wide range of real-life issues and experiences. Our characters represent a variety of ethnic groups and cultural backgrounds. Some of our characters live in “traditional” families, while others live with single, divorced, or adoptive parents, or in multi-generational households. We also address tween problems like poor body image, bullying, mean girls, and mean email. For example, in a future book we’ll introduce a character who struggles with childhood obesity.

Q: It’s great that your books are geared for a general consumer audience, not just girls with disabilities. What do you hope to accomplish by getting these books into the hands of thousands of tween girls?

A: The mission of our company is to empower girls everywhere — irrespective of their challenges. We want them to believe anything is possible for them to reach their goals — whether big, small, or in between. We use storytelling to create positive messaging, to encourage them to accept themselves and their families and make the most of what they have and who they are. I want the books to be a road map for girls so when they face their own challenges – or meet other people with disabilities – they will have some ideas for working around those challenges. In creating the Beacon Street Girls book series we hope tween girls (and their parents) will find a rich literary world that helps girls develop resilience, self-esteem, and healthy behaviors.