Article of the Week--Do you know what your teens are reading?

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Greg Halpin

Jun 26, 2005, 6:52:26 PM6/26/05

'You're Reading...What?'

This season, publishers are rolling out more volumes for teens that are full of heavy themes, from binge drinking to incest.


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.

[Teen books]
This season's book offerings for young adults include novels about basketball and elves as well as more risqué titles.

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.

See other books for children and young adults0 that appealed to our readers, as well as picture books for younger kids0.

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:

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 "Queer 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.

By John Green
Dutton, 272 pages
$15.99, in stores

The Plot: A teen boy at boarding school has a frustrating relationship with a complex girl named Alaska.

The Buzz: This debut novel Mr. Green started when he was 23 -- and finished at 26 -- is set in a school similar to one the author attended in Alabama. Soon he may be able to give up his day job as production editor at the American Library Association: After receiving an $8,000 advance for "Alaska," he signed a contract for two more young-adult novels at $20,000 each.

Reviewer's Take: The plot is a bit thin, but the tension between the boy and a strong-willed girl is very real, said our 27-year-old reader.

Parental Guidance: Caution. Some stores are stocking this book, marketed for children 14 and older, in the adult section as well. It has sex, smoking and profanity -- but consequences, too.

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.

By Julie Hearn
Atheneum, 263 pages
$16.95, in stores

The Plot: In 1645, during the English Civil War, a teenage healer named Nell is falsely accused of witchcraft by a minister's daughter.

The Buzz: A break for the author, a British journalist who was at one point so cash-strapped she went on state assistance. Ms. Hearn knows her topic: Her courses at Oxford included a history of witchcraft. The book has made an award list in the United Kingdom, and she received a low six-figure advance on this and a second book from her U.S. publisher.

Reviewer's Take: Our 22-year-old reviewer called it a well-written historical novel that reads like a mystery.

Parental Guidance: Publisher says this is for ages 12 and older. Its themes are weighty, but handled discreetly.

By Peter Abrahams
HarperCollins, 384 pages
$15.99, in stores

The Plot: Ingrid, 13, is cast in a school play and gets caught up in a murder investigation.

The Buzz: This debut children's book from bestselling thriller writer Mr. Abrahams underscores an odd discovery: When established authors of books for grown-ups write for children, we found, they tend to avoid the explicit content found in works by newer authors. HarperCollins encouraged Mr. Abrahams to write for children because one of his earlier books, "The Tutor," featured scenes from the perspective of a 10-year-old girl.

Mr. Abrahams says he kept things clean on the advice of his mother, also a writer. "She said, 'Don't use too much sex or violence,'" says Mr. Abrahams. "So when you do use it, they still have punch."

Reviewer's Take: Good suspense, our 10-year-old reader said.

Parental Guidance: A pretty safe pick -- it centers on a murder, but there is no blood or gore. For children ages 10 and older, the publisher says.

By Christopher Paolini
Alfred A. Knopf, 704 pages
$21, August

The Plot: A boy and his dragon confront a dangerous land of elves.

The Buzz: Retailers expect this fantasy novel to be one of the biggest children's books of the year behind the latest "Harry Potter," which comes out July 16. "Eldest" is the second installment in a series by 21-year-old Mr. Paolini, a home-schooled writer who started the first, "Eragon," when he was 15. That book went on to be a surprise bestseller and now is being made into a movie by Fox 2000. Knopf has scheduled a giant first-print run of one million for "Eldest."

Reviewer's Take: Our advanced eight-year-old reader couldn't wait to read it, and loved the magic and swordsmanship.

Parental Guidance: The publisher says the book is for ages 12 and older. There's nothing here beyond the typical fantasy-book gore, which didn't bother reviewer Sam.

By John Feinstein
Alfred A. Knopf, 256 pages
$16.95, in stores

The Plot: Two students win a writing contest. The prize is a trip to the college basketball finals, where they overhear a plot to throw the championship.

The Buzz: Bestselling author Mr. Feinstein says he wrote "Last Shot" for his then 10-year-old son, who found it tough to read his father's grown-up books. When Mr. Feinstein's agent approached his longtime publisher, Little, Brown, they were "lukewarm" -- so she went to Knopf, which offered him a $125,000 advance. Little, Brown says it countered with a "modest" lower number because it already had a children's sports author in its stable.

Reviewer's Take: Great plot twists, our 10-year-old reader said.

Parental Guidance: The publisher says this is for ages 10 and older, but it's also safe for younger advanced readers.

By Michael Winerip
Candlewick Press, 326 pages
$15.99, in stores

The Plot: An overscheduled junior-high-school student takes on the establishment through his school newspaper.

The Buzz: This Pulitzer Prize-winning author knows the education system both as a father of four and as national education correspondent for The New York Times. This is his first book for children.

Reviewer's Take: "You just wanted to keep reading," says 11-year-old Caitlin, who works on her school newspaper. "I could really see everything that was going on in my head."

Parental Guidance: It's for children age 8 to 12, and it may appeal especially to parents who want to provide a model of how to stand up to authority.

Write to Sally Beatty at sally....@wsj.com1

More Kid Picks

Megan McDonald
Candlewick Press
102 pages, $12.99, in stores
Ages 5 to 8

James Madison, the shortest president of the U.S., becomes the hero of a short kid worried about getting shorter.

Angie Sage
564 pages, $16.99, in stores
Ages 9 to 12

An infant boy with magical powers dies -- or does he? A family of wizards grieves over a lost son while raising an abandoned girl as their own.

Eroin Colfer
Hyperion Books for Children
352 pages, $16.95, in stores
Ages 9 to 12

A young criminal mastermind faces off against his foes; latest in a series.

Phyllis Reynolds Naylor
Simon & Schuster, 336 pages
$15.95, in stores
Ages 12 and up

A church class on sexuality turns out to be good preparation for Alice who is planning a trip to Manhattan with friends

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Toddler Tales

After overexpanding in the 1990s, the picture-book business -- for three-to-eight-year-olds -- shrank an estimated 10% to 15% in 2004, to about $513 million, according to industry analyst Albert Greco. Publishers are countering with higher-quality graphics, more upbeat texts and bigger-name authors including Paul McCartney. We asked parents and young readers to read and report back on some of the talked-about books of the year. Here are the results.

Robert Louis Stevenson
Illustrated by Daniel Kirk
Simon & Schuster, 32 pages
$14.95, August; Ages 3 to 6

The book, about a boy who builds a fabulous city of colorful wood blocks, is based on a poem by Robert Lewis Stevenson ("Treasure Island"), who was sickly as a child and often stayed home to play by himself. Five-year-old Anne loved the story so much she slept with it and begged for her own set of blocks.

Robert Sabuda and Matthew Reinhart
Candlewick Press, 12 pages
$26.99, July; Ages 5 and up

A series of stories within stories about some of the world's most feared and beloved dinosaurs. For our 5-year-old reviewer, it was all about the intricate pop-up designs of the snaggle-toothed theropod and spiny-backed stegosaur.

Karen Beaumont
Illustrated by David Catrow
Harcourt, 32 pages, $16, in stores
Ages 3 to 7

Mr. Catrow, an editorial cartoonist, says the book was inspired by his own traumatic kindergarten experience: He was expecting to be complimented on his drawing of a bird, but instead the teacher admonished him for not following instructions and made him put his head down on his table. Our 5-year-old reader wanted to hear the story -- its sweet but mischievous hero can't keep his promise not to paint anymore -- again and again. A good choice for kids who can't yet read: Anne liked the rhyming verse and guessing words out loud.

Meg Rosoff
Illustrated by Sophie Blackall
Henry Holt & Co., 40 pages
$15.95, in stores; Ages 3 to 8

A group of wild boars does whatever it pleases, rudely. The idea came to the author after she heard boars munching in the bushes outside a restaurant in Tuscany. Our reader, 3½-year-old Chen, loved the boars' rhyming names -- Doris, Boris, Horace and Morris -- and bad behavior. (In one scene, Horace swims in the toilet.) Her mother thought the drawings were cute, but not the book's bathroom humor.

Alan Zweibel
Illustrated by David Catrow
G.P. Putnam's Sons, 32 pages
$14.99, in stores; Age 4 and up

The book was inspired by a letter Mr. Zweibel wrote his kids when their backyard oak fell down. (It's called Steve because his then-2-year-old daughter couldn't pronounce tree.) Our reader, 6-year-old Nell, loved the idea that a tree could be a friend, and so did her twin 3-year-old brothers. The tree's demise was sad, but didn't make the kids uncomfortable -- and inspired them to name one of their trees Steve.

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