This season, publishers are rolling out more volumes for teens that are full of heavy themes, from binge drinking to incest.
By SALLY BEATTY
Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
June 24, 2005; Page W1
Hilary Armstrong was happy to see her 12-year-old daughter Katherine reading at the kitchen table one afternoon -- until, that is, she glanced at the back of the book jacket. "I was mortified," says Mrs. Armstrong. The book, which her daughter got from a friend, had a blurb on the back that read, "After all, no one really wants to go to college a virgin."
The San Francisco mom allowed Katherine to finish the novel, one of the popular "Gossip Girl" series, but started keeping closer tabs on her daughter's reading material. She wishes the book business would help out. "It would be nice if they had a big rating on it, like at the movies," Mrs. Armstrong says.
It's the summer book season: Do you know what your child is reading? To appeal to teens brought up on suggestive music videos and cable-TV shows, publishers are releasing more books full of mature themes and unflinching portrayals of sexual activity, with young protagonists the same age as their target readers. One publisher is venturing beyond its titles on dragons and bunnies with "Claiming Georgia Tate," about a 12-year-old girl whose father pressures her into a sexual relationship and makes her dress like a prostitute. In "Looking for Alaska," prep-school students watch pornography and pass the time binge-drinking. Coming this fall is "Teach Me," in which a male high-school teacher has sex with a student.
And kids seem to be responding: Young-adult fiction -- which has come to be associated with the edgy titles -- is one of the book industry's healthiest segments. Targeting the 12-and-up age group, the segment's sales are up 23% since 1999, according to estimates by industry analyst Albert Greco, a Fordham University marketing professor. (Adult sales in the same period were down slightly more than 1%, according to the Book Industry Study Group.) The young-adult category's top seller by far is the "Harry Potter" franchise, and when the series' last book came out in 2003, Mr. Greco estimates it accounted for almost half of the segment's $406 million in sales. But for children who've outgrown young wizards or just want something else to read, publishers are releasing more risqué titles in the young-adult segment, many of them aimed at teen girls. Last year, even without a new "Potter" book, overall revenue in the young-adult segment increased to $410 million, estimates Mr. Greco. In all, there were more than 21,000 new kids' titles released in 2004 -- double the number in 2002, according to R.R. Bowker in New Providence, N.J., which collects publishing data.
To offer some parental guidance in this fast-changing arena, Weekend Journal sorted through more than 100 of the season's talked-about teen titles. We kept our eye out for literary merit and great stories, and also looked for themes that parents might want to know about. One discovery: The subject matter is rarely clear from a book's title or graphics. "Rainbow Party" features tubes of lipstick on the cover -- though it isn't about girls discussing makeup, but a teen oral-sex party. We also found that girls are the main target audience here, reflecting publishers' belief that more teen girls than boys read. (The idea is that boys stick to fantasy epics.) That helps explain why there are more controversial girl-oriented titles, like "Alice on Her Way," about a 16-year-old who spends a weekend in Manhattan on a class trip.
Publishers say the mature material simply reflects the culture teens are exposed to today, and may help them to process situations they've heard about or experienced. In some cases, they add, the themes help advance a moral message: "Rainbow Party," for example, teaches children about the risk of sexually transmitted diseases, says Rick Richter, president of Simon & Schuster's children's division, which published the title. He adds that he'd be happy to have his 13-year-old daughter read it.
Industry analysts say editors have been emboldened to go beyond the bad behavior of the '80s "Sweet Valley" novels, because of a few risqué-fiction success stories. Last year's "How I Live Now," aimed at children 12 and older and featuring an affair between teen cousins, won the 2005 Michael L. Printz Award for young-adult literature. Many more have been commercial hits, including the "Gossip Girl" series, for readers 15 and up, with seven installments since 2001 and more than two million books in print. (Most young-adult titles sell fewer than 20,000 copies, analysts say.) The "A-List" novels, about rich teens looking for trouble, have had 945,000 books printed since 2003, while last year's "The Clique," a chronicle of spoiled middle-school girls, is already a three-book series with 1.15 million copies in print.
The risqué titles are at the center of a mounting debate, as bookstores throughout the country struggle with whether to stock them. Barnes & Noble and Borders, for example, carry the "Gossip Girl" series, but both have declined to stock "Rainbow Party" in stores. (Both retailers sell the books online.) On the other hand, some independent sellers are invoking the First Amendment in defending their decision to stock such titles. The four-store Harry W. Schwartz Bookshops in Milwaukee, stood firm recently when a mother of three called to criticize them for carrying "Rainbow Party" and threatened to take her business elsewhere. "If we had said we wouldn't carry it, the phones would be lighting up from customers because we didn't carry it," says Elly Gore, the chain's children's-book buyer.
For our review, we talked to retailers, publishers and book clubs to come up with some of the summer's most talked-about titles. We checked them out ourselves and also asked a panel of readers to comment on content and literary merit. We then gave each our own parental-guidance advisory. Here's our list, starting with books with the most adult themes:
CLAIMING GEORGIA TATE
By Gigi Amateau
Candlewick Press, 208 pages
$15.99, in stores
The Plot: After her grandmother dies, young Georgia is sent to live with an abusive father she hardly knows. He passes her off as his girlfriend. A transvestite comes to her rescue.
The Buzz: Ms. Amateau says the transvestite character was influenced by the "compassion and empathy" she encountered working with AIDS patients in the early 1990s. The novel marks an ambitious push into the young adult market by Candlewick, a publisher of books like "Guess How Much I Love You," about two bunnies competing to share their affection. Candlewick is giving it a first-print run of 15,000, high for an unknown author.
Reviewer's Take: Our 28-year-old reader called it grim but uplifting.
Parental Guidance: Strong caution for mature subject matter. The story is told from the girl's perspective, so young readers may not understand everything she's experiencing. The publisher recommends it for children 14 and older.
By Paul Ruditis
Simon Pulse, 248 pages
$12.99, in stores
The Plot: A promiscuous high-school sophomore plans an oral sex party.
The Buzz: One of the summer's most contentious teen titles, though some librarians say it could spur parent-child discussions. "He brought to the surface a pretty serious problem in many communities that no one wants to talk about," says Pam Spencer Holley, a retired librarian in Hallwood, Va. The author's name may be familiar: He's written books based on TV shows "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "***** as Folk."
Reviewer's Take: Sex scenes between boys and girls, and boys and boys, made our 40-year-old reviewer feel squeamish.
Parental Guidance: Simon & Schuster says this is for children 14 and older. We suggest parents read it first.
THE CLOUD CHAMBER
By Joyce Maynard
Atheneum, 274 pages
$16.95, in stores
The Plot: A teenager grows up on a failing dairy farm in 1960s Montana and deals with his father's attempted suicide.
The Buzz: Ms. Maynard is best known for "At Home in the World," her 1999 tell-all about her romance with the reclusive, older author J.D. Salinger. This is her first book with Atheneum, a Simon & Schuster imprint known for literary works.
Reviewer's Take: "Cheesy dialogue and narration that talks down to readers," said our 22-year-old reviewer.
Parental Guidance: Publisher says this is for ages 11 to 14, though suicide subject may upset some children. www.wsj.com