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Publishers Weekly Children's Features

Self-Help for Teens
Sally Lodge -- 1/31/00
Books of advice are a hit with adolescent girls

The lineup of titles on PW's January children's nonfiction bestseller list speaks volumes about the reading interests of today's teens: four of the five titles on the roster offer advice and encouragement to young adults, specifically to girls. Grabbing the top two spots are the teen-geared installments of Health Communications' enormously popular Chicken Soup series. Written by Jack Canfield, Mark Victor Hansen and Kimberly Kirberger, Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul II and its predecessor have together sold more than eight million copies. The in-print figure for Deal with It!: A Whole New Approach to Your Body, Brain and Life as a Gurl by Esther Drill, Heather McDonald and Rebecca Odes, which holds the fourth-place slot on the list, has reached 100,000 copies since Pocket Books released the title in September. And the fifth bestseller, Sara Shandler's Ophelia Speaks: Adolescent Girls Write About Their Search for Self (HarperPerennial), a June 1999 title, has close to 200,000 copies in print.

To learn why these books hold so much appeal for teen girls, and to inquire about forthcoming books of interest to this age group, PW talked to a number of publishers, authors and booksellers. Several pointed to Mary Pipher's 1994 Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls, a groundbreaking book for its incisive discussion of the prevalent low self-image and self-destructive behavior of adolescent girls, as a catalyst for the wave of teen self-help guides.

"What Pipher did was amazing in terms of creating an awareness that girls need to know how to take control of their lives," noted Michelle R hm, director of Beyond Words Publishing's children's division. Her company's Girls Know Best series, launched in fall 1997, collects writings by youngsters on a variety of subjects and now has three volumes in print with combined sales of almost 200,000 copies. "There was a giant cry for help and we publishers heard it," R hm said. "From going out into the schools and talking to kids, I have observed that things are improving in terms of girls' self image. I don'20t sense the crisis now that existed when Reviving Ophelia was published. I am happy to say that I think we in this industry have done our jobs."

And publishers are continuing to pursue this genre, with a number of new titles on spring lists. Due to its success with teen-targeted tomes, Health Communications has launched a new imprint, HCI Teens, for all books in this category being released beginning this spring. These include the third installment of Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul, due in April with a first printing of one million copies, and 50,000-copy first printings of Michelle Trujillo's Why Can't We Talk?: What Teens Would Share If Parents Would Listen and Feeling Great, Looking Hot & Loving Yourself: Health, Fitness and Beauty for Teens by Bettie Youngs and Jennifer Leigh Youngs.

These last-mentioned authors have also written Taste Berries for Teens Journal, a forthcoming spinoff from their Taste Berries for Teens, inspirational stories addressing self-worth, friendship, love and the like, which has sold more than 323,000 copies since its release last March. HCI has another top seller in Teen Love: On Relationships and Teen Love: A Journal on Relationships by Kimberly Kirberger, which together have more than 400,000 copies in print.

Inspirational journals are a sizzling item in the teen market (Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul Journal has sold more than 862,000 copies in the past year). "We have heard directly from retailers that we could never publish too many journals and that they would be pleased if every one of our teen books came out in journal format as well," Kim Weiss, HCI's director of communications, said.

Lists Reveal a Spectrum of Angles and Voices

The copious collection of girl-targeted books publishers will soon ship to stores is remarkable for its scope and range of advice, from successfully competing in sports to surviving first love. Some spring offerings inspire teens by spotlighting solid role models. These include Jane Yolen's Not One Damsel in Distress: World Folktales for Strong Girls, illustrated by Susan Guevara (Harcourt/Silver Whistle); Girls: A History of Growing Up Female in America by Penny Colman (Scholastic); and Girls Think of Everything: Stories of Ingenious Inventions by Women by Catherine Thimmesh, with art by Melissa Sweet (Houghton Mifflin).

Among the upcoming titles providing counsel on topics of high priority to teenage girls are Attitude (How to Be the Coolest Girl You Know): Tips to Help You Deal, Feel, and Be Real by Lisa McCourt and Aimee McCourt (Lowell House) and Girl Stuff: A Survival Guide to Growing Up by Margaret Blackstone and Elissa Haden Guest (Harcourt/Gulliver). This second title, explained Gulliver editorial director Elizabeth Van Doren, came out of the authors' awareness of "a lack of warm, honest and reassuring books that answered questions adolescent girls have." A key strength of this collaboration between a writer of medical-related books and an author of children's novels, Van Doren said, is "it responds to the big question, 'Am I normal?' with the answer 'Yes,' but emphasizes that this d sn't mean that all girls will experience the same things at the same age."

Also offering tips to teens is a new book by a veteran author of the genre, Carol Weston, whose GirlTalk: All the Stuff Your Sister Never Told You has sold 150,000 copies for HarperPerennial (in three editions, the most recent one published in 1997) since its 1985 debut. Private and Personal: Questions and Answers for Girls Only, scheduled for April release by HarperTrophy, offers responses to letters adolescents have sent to Weston, who pens the "Help!" advice column for Girls' Life magazine, the official magazine of the Girl Scouts of America. Though Weston believes teens' concerns have changed little since she began writing this column in 1994 ("Ninety percent of the letters still deal with body image, friends, crushes and family relationships," she observed), she did pinpoint one development that has radically affected teen communication: e-mail. She noted, "Now girls who have trouble talking face-to-face with their mothers can send them an e-mail saying, 'I'm sorry' or 'Can we go bra shopping?' And teen girls who are terrified of speaking to boys can safely send them an e-mail message--'Whazzup?'--and the ice is broken instantly."

Several recent and forthcoming books are offshoots of existing media entities aimed at addressing girls' needs. Pocket's bestselling Deal with It! is written by the creators of gURL.com, a popular Web site that, co-author Esther Drill said, "we established as an alternative to other media for girls, which we found to be very prescriptive. Our site, like our book, avoids talking about what girls 'should' do and emphasizes that there is not one right way to act, dress or think." Drill also noted that much of the material in Deal with It! was excerpted from the Web site's chat rooms and bulletin boards, which offer a forum for girls to share information.

That is also the premise of Crown's New Moon series, created by the magazine of the same name and compiled by an editorial board of girls ages 10-14. Due out this month are New Moon: Writing, exploring ways girls can use writing to express themselves, and New Moon: Money, a guide to finding jobs and volunteer work and creating a budget. Beyond Words has produced a tie-in from another magazine, The Girls' Life Guide to Growing Up by the editors of Girls' Life, which has a readership base of two million. Containing ample quotes from and interviews with girls, this volume, said R hm, "d s a great job of balancing an adult perspective with a girl's perspective."

Girls also advise their peers in Element Books' aptly titled Girl to Girl series by Anne Driscoll, which debuted last March with Girl to Girl: The Real Deal on Being a Girl Today. With sales of 40,000 copies worldwide, this is the company's bestselling paperback to date, said Karen Placzek, Element's director of marketing and publicity. "The response to this book was so positive," Placzek noted, "that we decided to expand various chapters into separate books to shape a series." The second installment, Girls to Girls: Sports and You!, is due next month.

Author Driscoll, who collects much of her books' material from surveys she sends to girls in the U.S., the U.K. and Canada, explained, "The backbone of this series is the theory that girls are, above all, relational. I wanted not only to validate girls' experiences by letting them know that others are feeling the same way, but to include real girls' voices to put them in touch with each other. To a remarkable extent, girls today have a handle on what's going on in their lives and are very resourceful. They can be enormously helpful to each other, and my goal in these books is to facilitate that communication."

Teen Readers Are Book Buyers

Demographics (teenagers are the second largest segment of the American population, after baby boomers) and the increasing amount of money this group spends on entertainment (HCI's press releases estimate $10 billion annually) may well be fueling the success of books geared to this market. Asked about her experiences selling the titles now topping PW's children's nonfiction list, bookseller Beth Diamond Plumer of Time of Wonder, the children's division of Water Street Bookstore in Exeter, N.H., remarked, "One of the most notable things about these particular books is that kids are really buying them for themselves. Lots of self-help or inspirational books for teens are bought by parents, but the main buyers of these books are kids who come to the counter with their crumpled-up baby-sitting money. This group of girls is a fairly self-aware bunch, interested in being strong young women and reading things that make them feel more self-confident. Publishers are doing a good job in this area, though I am much more in favor of books that foster girls' self-awareness than those that give them tips on how to catch a boy."

Plumer mentioned the ongoing debate over how best to shelve these titles so kids can find them--and will perceive them as "hip." Her store often displays titles on such child-related topics as puberty or divorce on a single shelf, but organizes those books aimed at parents on one end and those targeted to kids on the other. At the Book Rack/Children's Pages in Winooski, Vt., Colleen Shipman discussed the shelving dilemma: "The last thing that today's sophisticated teenagers will do is approach an area that says 'for teens.' We usually avoid segregating these advice books and incorporate them into the appropriate section--often psychology--and then use shelf-talkers with age-appropriate writing styles and bright colors that will catch teens' attention."

Publishers are increasingly working with retailers to merchandise books for the teenage market, Susan Weinberg, editorial director of Quill and HarperPerennial, publisher of Ophelia Speaks, said. "We need to find ways to create teen sections in stores that are more appealing than the dread 'YA section.' It is very important that teenagers easily find not only these advice books, but also ATree Grows in Brooklyn."

Not surprisingly, given the expanding teen population and the strength of the economy--and the sales figures of current top sellers--virtually everyone queried was bullish on the continuing success of teen advice books. Quoting from her sales conference presentation of Girl Stuff, Gulliver's Elizabeth Van Doren hit on what may be the pulse of this genre's viability: "There cannot be enough books on this subject, because nobody gets to avoid adolescence."
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