With a combined 300,000 copies in print and more than 13,000 Facebook fans, the Perfect Chemistry trilogy, which concludes on August 16 with Chain Reaction, appears to have perfect chemistry, not only among the characters on the pages but with readers as well. Certainly, Walker Books for Young Readers, which has an announced 150,000-copy first printing for Chain Reaction, is confident in its appeal.
In the launch title, Perfect Chemistry (Jan. 2010), author Simone Elkeles introduced Alex Fuentes, a member of the Latino Blood gang, who falls in love with a popular blond cheerleader at his high school. His brother Carlos is framed by a drug lord and falls for a professor’s daughter in the sequel, Rules of Attraction. The final installment centers on Luis, the youngest Fuentes brother, who also has an unlikely romance.
Elkeles’s own hometown provided inspiration for the trilogy. “I based it on my high school’s rival, Highland Park High School in Illinois,” she explains. “The Hispanic community that lived on one side—literally—of the tracks, and the kids living in huge mansions on Lake Michigan went to the same school. My father was Israeli, and my husband is as well, and the push-and-pull of cultural differences fascinates me. I thought, ‘What if someone from one side of the tracks fell in love with someone on the other side—how would friends and parents deal with it?’ And the Latino community is huge on honoring family and on brotherhood. That’s what fired me.”
As part of her research to create her novels’ gang-tied characters, Elkeles flew from her suburban Chicago home to New Jersey, where she hung out with gang members. “It took the kids a couple of days to realize that I was down-to-earth and cool,” she says. “These boys have it rough, and my heart goes out to them. They feel like they don’t have choices, and I hope my books inspire them to get out of the gang and, like Alex, find a way to be the hero.”
Elkeles, who has spoken at juvenile detention centers, is gratified that her novels about the Fuentes brothers have struck a chord with many teens who might not normally pick up a book. “I get a lot of mail from boys in detention centers, including one from a center where they only had a few copies of my novel,” she says. “They had a deal with each other that they’d read a couple of chapters and then slide it under the door to the next guy. I think that’s very cool.”
The author easily identifies with reluctant readers. “I hated to read as a teen,” she recalls. “I didn’t understand the classics at all. When teens tell me they hate to read, I say, ‘Good. Then you’ll love to read this.’ I try to write stories with lots of action and dialogue, stories that grab you and don’t let you go. That’s what I like to read, so that’s what I write.”
Emily Easton, publisher of Walker Books for Young Readers and editor of the trilogy, attributes the success of the Perfect Chemistry novels to several things. “For reluctant readers, the books are easily accessible, with very short chapters and a pacing that moves the story along quickly,” she says. “I also think the gang theme is exciting to a lot of readers, since it shows them a setting they don’t often see in literature. And for any reader, I must say that it’s Alex Fuentes all the way. Everyone falls in love with him. I’ve read a lot of comments from fans, and he definitely inspires devotion in readers.”
Walker did not issue ARCs of Chain Reaction to help build suspense surrounding the trilogy’s finale. The publisher is promoting the novel with national consumer advertising, trade advertising, a 14-city author tour, a radio satellite tour, and a blog tour. Walker has also created a Simone Elkeles app and a consumer book trailer to follow up the well-received trailers promoting the first two books in the trilogy, which Easton says “absolutely helped build the buzz for the trilogy.”
Elkeles, who says that writing Chain Reaction was slower going than the trilogy’s earlier books (“I wanted to make it right, since I have such respect for this series and didn’t want to cheat myself or readers”), isn’t exactly sure what her next novel will be—but she has an inkling about where it might take her.
“I write edgy, sexy, teen romances, and that’s what I’ll continue to do,” she says. “Will my next book be about a gang member? Not necessarily. Will it be about Latinos? Maybe, maybe not. I like to write books that touch my heart. I want to entertain, and I love to entertain myself. Fans always say they laughed and they cried while reading my books. And I tell them that I laughed and cried while writing them.”
Chain Reaction by Simone Elkeles. Walker, $17.99 Aug. ISBN 978-0-8027-2087-0