Christopher Collins, 13, who attends Marshall Middle School in suburban San Diego, and Alexandra Roquemore, 17, who attends Valley High School in West Des Moines, Iowa, are both typical teenagers. He likes boogie boarding, playing PlayStation 3, listening to My Chemical Romance on his iPod and watching the San Diego Chargers. She likes oil painting, speaking French, listening to Sarah Brightman on her iPod and hanging out at the mall with friends. And they both love reading fiction.
Collins, whose favorite novels include "Maniac Magee" by Jerry Spinelli, and the "Cirque du Freak" vampire series by Darren Shan, likes reading books because "unlike movies, you create the world in your mind. Books make me laugh, cry, and truly connect with the characters and provide an escape to a different reality." Roquemore, whose favorite novels include Kate Chopin's "The Awakening" and Stephanie Meyer's "Twilight" vampire series, likes reading books because she can "experience someone else's life and understand different points of view. It provides a healthy escape from the real world to a world where everything is possible."
While it may sound like they were recommended to NEWSWEEK by the American Booksellers Association, Collins and Roquemore are both very real teenagers with a genuine passion for books. And they're not alone. Contrary to the depressing proclamations that American teens aren't reading, the surprising truth is they are reading novels in unprecedented numbers. Young-adult fiction (ages 12-18) is enjoying a bona fide boom with sales up more than 25 percent in the past few years, according to a Children's Book Council sales survey. Virtually every major publishing house now has a teen imprint, many bookstores and libraries have created teen reading groups and an infusion of talented new authors has energized the genre.
"This is the second golden age for young-adult books," says David Levithan, an acclaimed author of several young-adult novels ("Wide Awake," "Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist") and executive editorial director at Scholastic Inc., the world's largest publisher and distributor of books for kids and teens. In just the past few years, Scholastic and many other publishers of young-adult (also known as YA) fiction have seen "amazing success," says Levithan, who calls this the "most exciting time for young-adult literature since the late 1960s and 1970s when 'The Chocolate War' [by Robert Cormier] and 'Forever' [by Judy Blume] were published."
Levithan and others cite several reasons for this perfect storm for teen lit, the most obvious two being the increasing sophistication and emotional maturity of teenagers and the accompanying new freedom for writers in the genre to explore virtually any subject. Another is that bookstores and libraries are finally recognizing this niche and separating teen books from children's books. "Teenagers don't want to walk past the Curious George books to get to their books. They want and deserve their own section," says Levithan, who points out that "because of MySpace, Facebook, blogs and authors' and publishers' Web sites, young readers are communicating interactively now with each other and with authors." Another reason for the YA boom cited by Levithan and others is that teen books have become an integral part of today's overall pop-culture entertainment menu. They segue into television series, movies, videogames, cartoons and the Internet. If teens see that, say, "The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian" is coming out in theaters, they'll read the book in advance of the movie.
Maybe it's even simpler than that. Jack Martin, assistant coordinator of YA services at the New York Public Library, says that the single most important fact is that young-adult books are simply better and more diverse than ever, and readers are responding. "There's so much good writing now, that's the key," says Martin. "They're telling better stories, and there is such variety, something for everyone." And, yes, he admits, it started with the Harry Potter books, which have "generated a passion for reading in an entire generation of preteens and teens and many have taken that passion with them to other books." Martin suggests that the Potter series has captured the interest of young readers who otherwise would never read fantasy, or read at all, and instilled in them an enthusiasm for reading in general. "Harry Potter has made kids trust the book as a source of information that is exciting, not just a school assignment," he says, adding that the most popular books for teens now are fantasy. Also popular are graphic novels, adventure, romance, humor and, as has always been the case in the YA field, coming-of-age stories.
But amid this good news there is a subtext of controversy because of the mature content of many of these books for teens. Some, like the "The Gossip Girls" series that is popular with young girls, are graphic in their depictions of drinking and even sexuality, while others, such as "13 Reasons Why," look at teen suicide. Others are graphically violent and uncompromising in their language and depictions of real-life situations. There are books written specifically for teens about just about everything, from meth addiction to sexual abuse to the war in Iraq.
Still, most of these books, even the darkest ones, cling to some semblance of hope. And most are smart, well written and do not pander or talk down to their audience. That's a welcome change, because for more than a decade, the common knock on young-adult books has been that there were too many so-called problem novels that self-righteously told kids how to behave in a "just say no" fashion. "A lot of those books were based on fear, they were cautionary and sermonlike. Teen readers rejected them," explains Martin. "Too many books for teens just stated obvious messages, like 'doing drugs is bad.' But now the messages are imbedded into the story. This new crop of writers would rather present drugs as a miserable existence and show what it's like to live through this experience than to preach."
There may also be some pain behind this book-reading trend among teens. A majority of teens interviewed for this story agreed that reading books—especially fantasy fiction—is a healthy way to momentarily escape from the sometimes debilitating stresses of adolescence (grades, peer pressure, sports, parental pressure, etc.). Madison Springgate, 17, who attends University High School in Morgantown, W. Va., is an avid reader of fiction because it takes her to a world different from her own: "With all the stressful things about school and sports and getting into college, it's really relaxing to get into bed and read about kids that are experiencing the same things but also are more interesting than your own life."
Mante Koliakinaite, 15, who attends Deer Valley High School in Glendale, Ariz., and is currently reading "Elizabeth CEO" by Alan Axelrod, says that while she was forced to read at first by her parents, "when they stopped pressuring me, it kind of stuck to me. I got hooked. I think books are popular with teens because of all the stress they're going through. Books are a way a way to just forget about everything for a while. My favorite books would probably have to be the Harry Potter series. They are so amazingly written, and I guess they just take me away when I read them."
Connie LeFever, a former middle-school teacher who coordinates the young-adult section at Bay Books, an independent bookstore in Coronado, Calif., says teen books now act as a sort of therapy for teens. "There's a lot of pressure on teens now, and sometimes they aren't getting what they need at home in terms of communication and support. And they're finding that what they see on TV isn't working in their daily lives," she says. "A lot of these books are resources that are almost like talking to a counselor. There are some quality writers of young-adult fiction now who are telling great stories that resonate with these kids."
Among the most celebrated authors of new teen fiction is Sarah Dessen, whose stark but poignant books ("Just Listen," "The Truth About Forever") are packed with raw emotion. Dessen, who's sold more than 1.5 million books, is one of the hottest writers this side of J. K. Rowling, but she doesn't deal in fantasy. Her books address such topics as divorce, intimate-partner violence, substance abuse, alienation and loneliness. In her latest, "Lock & Key," which is No. 3 on the New York Times best-seller list this week, she tells the story of Ruby, a tough, complex teen living by herself after her mother leaves her. Dessen, whose first two books were consolidated into the Mandy Moore movie "How to Deal," always employs a female narrator in her books.
"I don't want any distinguishing characteristics on my covers, no pictures of girls, not even hair color, because I want the readers to feel that they could be the girls in my stories," says Dessen, who has fought about this issue with her publisher because "with the kind of books I write, readers can hopefully read them and think, 'this book is my school, this is me, these are my friends, this is our lives.' In our popular culture now there is so little that real people can actually relate to. Maybe that's the draw with books that movies don't have: with a book you can lose yourself in it, you can really put yourself in the story."
Dessen loves writing young-adult fiction. "I have a supportive publisher, and really there are no limitations any more in this genre," she says. "And the other great thing is the immediate buzz and feedback. A few days after 'Lock & Key' came out, I got an e-mail from a reader asking me when I was going to write a sequel. This audience buys a book, they read it in a day, or less, and then they go on their blog and write about it. It's immediate. They read it fast and then they are ready for next one. I have an 8-month-old baby, and I'm still promoting this book, I haven't even thought about writing another one yet."
Dessen is very aware of the undercurrent of controversy in the young-adult book scene. A Florida school system tried to ban her last book, "Just Listen," about a girl who is assaulted at a party and finds the strength to speak up about what happened to her. When the passage describing the attempted rape was read out at a school board meeting, chairwoman Jennifer Faliero described the book as "repulsive." Teachers and librarians in the school district had to fight to keep it in the library. "I understand that parents are just being protective of their children. That's of course a good thing," Dessen says. "I just ask that before they criticize my books, they read them and understand the context." And even Dessen agrees that because her books and others deal with mature issues, parents as well as teachers, librarians and booksellers have an added responsibility to know what these kids are reading.
"I wouldn't recommend a Sarah Dessen book to anyone under 15," says Jack Martin. "They are terrific books, but there is an emotional maturity there that some younger teens are simply unequipped to handle. Realism penetrates these books, it's important for parents to know this. That's why it's important that parents talk with their kids about what they are reading, just like it's important for parents to know what movies and television shows they are watching and what kind of videogames they are playing."
Some parents are just saying no to violent videogames like Grand Theft Auto and yes to books. Steve Hunyar, owner of a software company in Alpine, Calif., says his 12-year-old twins are both voracious readers. But videogames are out. "My son enjoys the fantasy-fiction books while my daughter loves the coming-of-age genre." he says. "We do not have a PlayStation nor Xbox in our house, and no video in our cars. Academics and sports keep them quite busy. In fact, there have been times on our vacations when we've had to tell them to put their books down and look around."
As for Christopher Collins, the 13-year-old voracious reader you met atop this story, he says his parents are very aware of what he reads and they approve. His father, Craig Collins, 47, confirms that. "The books that Christopher and other teens are reading now challenge them, and that's what they like about them," he says. "I know there are people who get wound up about Harry Potter and fret that it might be promoting witchcraft and instilling anti-Christian thoughts into young minds. I think such people are fairly closed-minded. The great thing about literature is that it promotes the expansion of thought and the opening of minds."
Collins doesn't doubt that there is teen lit that crosses the line on controversial issues like drinking, drugs and sex. But, he says, the teen books his son has read have "gripped him and opened his eyes to the world. In addition to fanciful topics," he says, "many big issues are also touched upon in these books, including the Holocaust, bullying, death of a parent, death of a brother from leukemia, abusive parents, failure, success, love, war, etc. These are profound issues that I've seen handled tastefully. They're issues that some might think are too big for a teen. But teens, like adults, live in the real world. And I get the sense that they appreciate fiction that's honest and might give them a glimpse of what awaits them as adults."