page burners: sex and the teenage girl

what goes on between the covers is now what goes on between the covers of new fiction aimed at young adults

by tania padgett
newsday staff writer

april 4, 2006

cover of lust, a book aimed at teenagers.  media credit: simon & schuster children's publishing. she had the type of body that looked even better naked than in clothes. soft without being fat, and more delicate than her usual costumes of preppy, neatly creased jeans and cashmere cardigans or short, tight little black dresses let on. she was still a pain in his ass, but they'd been in and out of love pretty much since they were 11 years old and he wanted to get naked with her for even longer.

sound like a passage from a sex-soaked danielle steel novel? it isn't. and the audience isn't the typical adult female romance reader.

this book, "nobody does it better" (little brown, $9.99), is aimed at girls, ages 14 to 18. it's the latest (2005) in the bestselling "gossip girl" series by cecily von ziegesar.

and that was just page one.

young-adult fiction has come a long way from nancy drew, the 16-year-old sleuth whose most intimate encounter with a guy was probably a batting of eyelashes at boyfriend ned nickerson.

but today's teenage fiction, with its slick covers, eye-riveting blurbs and steamy plots, is exploding off bookstore shelves, fattening anemic publishers' profits and attracting millions of television-worshiping teens. the market has become so lucrative that non-book publishing companies, like mtv, are elbowing into the increasingly crowded niche.

but the books' popularity has also given rise to a small chorus of detractors who worry that the content is too racy. in many of the books, teens have sex, do drugs, use profanity, and plot and scheme against each other with glinting treachery.

naomi wolf, whose feminist work, "the beauty myth," launched her to fame, argued in an essay for the sunday new york times last month that today's books for teens "package corruption with a cute overlay."

"the problem is a value system in which meanness rules, parents check out, conformity is everything and stressed-out adult values are presumed to be meaningful to teenagers," she wrote.

in the past year alone, the biggest sellers in the young-adult market have been series, including "gossip girl," "the clique" by lisi harrison and "the a-list" by zoey dean. and sales are showing no signs of slowing down. plots are fast-moving and dramatic, but also formulaic: party-hopping girls with runway-model looks, who often leave skid marks racing from one reckless rich and famous adventure to another.

many girls, some as young as 13, gobble these books up, vaulting titles to the top of the new york times bestseller list and emboldening publishers to start developing movies or television series from their content. meanwhile, producers of popular teen tv shows, such as fox's "the oc" and mtv's "laguna beach," plan to roll out books based on those series as they try to capitalize on this literary bonanza.

"books are catching up with the rest of entertainment and becoming much more attractive to the young teen audience," said leslie morgenstein, president of alloy entertainment in manhattan, which developed the "gossip girl" books. "and the content is no worse than what girls are already seeing on television."

a potent brew

a teen's backpack stuffed with racy titles developed for this market.  media credit: newsday / tony jerome. brisk sales of these books are not surprising. mix a recipe of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll, or hip-hop, and you've created a potent brew that is sure to at least pique teenage interest.

it wasn't that long ago when the young-adult fiction market was much like the geeky girl or guy at the high-school dance: around but largely ignored. ten years ago, the classics, fantasy books and innocuous series such as "sweet valley high" dominated sales. but demand for teen books with more adult themes began to coincide with the advent of edgier content on cable television and the boomlet in u.s. teenagers.

between 1990 and 2000, the number of youths between ages 12 and 19 climbed to 32.4 million in the united states, an increase of 4.5 million, according to a survey by media mark research last year using u.s. census data.

that increase also brought a tidal wave of teenager spending income (about $115 million in 2003), which was not lost on the book industry. from 1995 to 2004, book sales in the young-adult market surged 86.9 percent to $444.4 million, according to statistics compiled by albert greco, a marketing professor at fordham university in the bronx.

joe monti, a book buyer at barnes & noble, said the release in the late 1990s of "smack," by melvin burgess, about british teens on heroin, and "holes," by louis sachar, about a teen sent to summer detention camp, helped change the face of the young-adult market.

"unlike other books, these tackled tough issues that teenagers face," monti said. "the sales were incredible."

during a recent visit to the b. dalton booksellers store in roosevelt field, a group of division avenue high school students from levittown were found eyeing the young-adult selections. katie duggan, 17; danielle yarsinske, 18; diana hajjar, 18, and allison o'rourke, 17, acknowledged that many of the books are "mindless entertainment," but that hasn't stopped them from snapping up the latest popular titles.

"i've read all the ['gossip girl'] books," said duggan, a senior. "the characters are rich and live such dramatic lives. and their parents never tell them anything. i sometimes wish my parents were like that."

hajjar said, "it's like 'sex and the city' for teens."

"i wasn't a big reader before," yarsinske added. "but i really enjoy the books."

o'rourke, who would prefer burying her nose in shakespeare and other classics, said she doesn't have "a problem with teens reading them."

nor do a handful of parents and librarians who specialize in young-adult fiction and agreed to talk to newsday. the adult content in these books does not wreck teenagers values, said barbara paulinski at floral park memorial high in floral park. "i'd like to think [the books] present a teaching moment for parents," she said. besides "i don't think you get your basic core values from what you read or what you hear. you get them from your home."

"i don't think many of the young adult books are done irresponsibly," said teri germano, a librarian at masters moriches shirley library, in shirley. "many are done with reason and sensitivity."

that, of course, has only whetted publishers' appetite. but their stampede to snap up young-adult dollars and market share did yield at least one public major misstep. simon & schuster's release last year of "rainbow party," an unflinching tale by paul ruditis of teen oral sex, sparked heated discussion and a slew of newspaper articles about the salacious nature of teen literature. the novel's front cover boasted a photo of opened colored lipsticks; its back cover was filled with provocative blurbs. many stores refused to stock the title and the much-promised sales never materialized.

barnes & noble's monti said he chose not to stock "rainbow party" because it was competing with other young-adult fiction that was better written.

bethany buck, vice president and editorial director of the division that published "rainbow party," said the dustup created by the book was "because adults don't want to believe that teens are having sex." she said the company plans to continue publishing books aimed at teens.

morgenstein, of alloy entertainment, described the "rainbow party" failure as more of an aberration than a controversy.

"this company is in the business of creating mass entertainment," morgenstein said. "at the end of the day, the market draws a line at what is too edgy."

alloy has been at the helm of bestselling teen fiction, he said, helping to produce 40 books last year, 17 of which were national bestsellers, including "the a-list" and "the clique."

tv and movie projects

cover of the au pairs, a novel by melisssa de la cruz.  media credit: simon & schuster children's publishing. morgenstein said the company is in talks with warner bros., the wb and universal to develop "gossip girl"; "the au pairs," another bestselling series by melissa de la cruz, and "the a-list" into television and movie projects.

mtv has announced plans to follow suit. louise burke, the young-adult book president for the music video network, said it plans to release this month the first installment of four different book series.

the books are colorful, well written and move with the same breathtaking pace as an mtv video. "'gossip girl' set the bar," burke said, "but nobody knows teenagers better than mtv. we're planning to take the market down."

and that, according to the detractors, is the exact direction where teenage values are heading. wolf, the author, said she believes pornography is surreptitiously being slipped into the milieu of teens without their parents' knowledge.

as a result, "young girls are becoming numb to the sexual experience," said wolf, who suggested putting rating labels on the books. "they do it with movies. i don't see why they can't do it with books."

copyright 2006 newsday inc.
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