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The Hardly Boys

July 22, 2010 By:
Tula Batanchiev, JE Feature
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The cutesy and optimistic Babysitters Club book series may have titillated teens of yesteryear, but today's young adults are going in for much darker fare.

Dark, depressed teen fiction is on the rise. There are fictionalized narratives about eating disorders, and fantasy novels about teen prisoners. Publishers are taking more risks; literature is reflecting recent world events; and such frank literature gives teens a way to openly tackle taboo subjects, according to industry experts.

Still others suggest dark narratives are nothing new: Since the 1990s, books about self-mutilation, rape and teen suicide, such as Cut, You Don't Know Me and Speak, could be found on bookshelves, said Michael Bourret, a literary agent for Dystel & Goderich Literary Management.

Yet few of those titles were bestsellers. Today, with the rise of steam punk -- a genre of machine-based science-fiction set in Victorian times -- more dystopian narratives are selling than ever before. Sales were up 5 percent in early 2010, and are projected to climb another 30 percent over the next five years, according to PW/IPR Book Sales Index.

"I don't think it's that teens are now more interested in exploring these issues," said Jay Asher, author of the acclaimed teen suicide novel Thirteen Reasons Why. "It's just that publishers aren't afraid of these themes like maybe they once were."

Melyssa Malinowski, head of book reviews for Bookdivas.com, a Web site devoted to female teen fiction, compared her own teenage years in the 1990s to the vibe for young people today.

"The driving teen consumer was happy, and craved happy, lighter Y.A.," she said, using the industry shorthand for "young adult" literature.

"It was not so socially acceptable to be carrying around a fantasy novel, or to tell someone you had some sort of psychological issue, like [obsessive-compulsive disorder] or that you were suicidal," she added.

Back then, formulaic novels like Sweet Valley High and The Babysitters Club thrived because they were consistent and comforting.

Asher's 2007 novel examined the reasons why a teenage girl ended her life. The word-of-mouth hit sold more than 240,000 copies in 2009.

"A lot of people think suicide is a controversial subject to tackle in a book for teens," said Asher, whose book was inspired by a teenaged relative's suicide attempt. "But for me, it was a very real and personal topic, so it wasn't something I shied away from or thought was out-of-bounds."

Lauren Oliver wrote Before I Fall, a narrative about transformation and redemption in which a dead teenager gets seven chances to relive her last day. The idea for her second title -- love as a contagious disease -- came to her after media popularization of the swine-flu epidemic.

The depressed economy, a two-front war and several devastating natural disasters help drive what this group reads, she said. "Popular art, of any age, for any age, reflects those cultural movements."

And, "for the first time in a long time, teens are actually able to explore themes that they've always been worried about and thinking about, but never had any cultural medium that was reflecting it," said Malinowski.

Tech transformation is another factor.

With young people now tethered to their personal machines -- their iPods, laptops, BlackBerrys and iPhones -- machine-based fantasy fiction only seems natural.

Kate Colquitt, a librarian at Greenburgh Public Library in Westchester, N.Y., suggested that books like Incarceron and The Hunger Games derive from our increasingly technology-based society.

Malinowski pointed out that she thinks it's escapism.

"You need a world that could be yours, but is not. You need a teen that takes matters into his or her own hands and is successful," she said. "You need that thrill -- that rush that comes from the story climax. You need to step outside your life, to walk next to someone else."

Librarians also speculate that teenagers want safe ways to learn about others' experiences. Reading a book about a black youth growing up on the South Side of Chicago allows a suburban teen to experience another culture from an armchair.

When one Kentucky girl read Wintergirls, about a teen's struggle with anorexia, she posted the following on the book's Facebook page: "This book helped me understand what my friend is going through."

"This book is amazing," a high school senior from St. George, Utah, posted on the same page. "In fact, it was this book that opened my eyes to what I was doing."

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