With lighthearted, unmistakable "girly" covers and a chatty, often madcap narrator, a flock of peppy new books has flown onto the scene over the last few years, settling on bookstore shelves.
The books, with their trendy covers and catchy writing, resemble the "chick lit" enjoyed by women in their 20s and 30s. But storylines set firmly in the world of high school, featuring girls contemplating their first boyfriends, mean that these books are aimed at a younger audience: they are "teen chick lit."
Though there have certainly always been books showing teenage girls navigating through their social lives in a more or less lighthearted manner, the lineage of this current crop can be clearly traced back to a single common English ancestor: Bridget Jones, of diary fame.
"Definitely Bridget Jones kicked the whole thing off. But what kicked it down to teens was Angus, Thongs," said Bethany Buck, v-p and editorial director of Simon Pulse (publisher of such teen chick lit staples as Cathy Hopkins's Dates, Mates series and Niki Burnham's Royally Jacked).
Buck is referring to Angus, Thongs, and Full Frontal Snogging, the initial volume in a series of books by Louise Rennison, first published in this country in 2000. The books star sassy Brit teen Georgia Nicolson, and are narrated by her in a quirky slang that's partly English vernacular but mostly utterly idiosyncratic--and wildly hilarious.
"Louise Rennison identified girls' cravings for funny, more sophisticated material featuring protagonists their own age," said Cynthia Eagan, senior editor at Little, Brown, and editor of the Gossip Girl and A-List series. "So in Angus, Thongs, etc., you could get the sophisticated, philosophical outlook of a character who's as appealing as Bridget Jones, but her issues were that of a high-schooler instead of a 30-something unmarried office worker."
"Angus, Thongs was first out of the gate, and Harper published it with a lot of energy and enthusiasm," said Abigail McAden, executive editor at HarperCollins Children's Books and editor of Meg Cabot's bestselling Princess Diaries series. "Stargirl was next, and Jerry Spinelli was already a big deal, of course, but the package on that book and its ensuing commercial success had a lot to do with its appeal to teen girls specifically. The Princess Diaries was a quieter publication. We put a smashing cover on it and put it out there to see what would happen. And it took off!"
Though teen chick lit revolves around high schoolers, the actual readers tend to be a couple of grades younger--junior high school--age girls just on the brink of the experiences they're reading about.
"The audience for these seems to be primarily 12--14-year-olds--I do not see a lot of high schoolers reading these. The demographics feel much the same as they did for Sweet Valley High in the 1980s," said Walter Mayes, library media specialist at The Girls' Middle School, Mountain View, Calif., and bookseller at The Storyteller in nearby Lafayette.
A certain upbeat air is a defining characteristic of teen chick lit. Rather than tackling the big issues dealt with in the so-called "problem" novel genre, these books explore lives of "ordinary" girls who, unburdened by terrible issues or secret tragedies, do their best to navigate high school life.
Stephanie Keller, manager of Blue Kangaroo Books in Danville, Ill., traces the trend's genesis to "the realization that girls needed an alternative to the depressing topics they had been reading for a decade. It became acceptable for girls to be goofy, clumsy or, better yet, witty. That is what has really made the change."
Eagan of Little, Brown pointed to humor as the books' defining characteristic: "Teen chick lit, like adult chick lit, has to be at least a little funny. Usually it revolves around a girl's angst-ridden but witty foray into womanhood, battling the perils of cool boys who might or might not like them, uncool parents, and other peer and academic pressures."
In the four years that it's been on the scene, the genre has carved out quite a bit of shelf space for itself. And, perhaps inevitably, it has evolved into numerous sub-genres.
"There's already Brit lit and privileged chick lit," said Buck at Simon & Schuster. Other sub-genres she noted include historical, traditional romance and travel lit.
Indeed, the emergence of the chick-lit subgenres may stem from authors simply looking for that "special something" that will make their submission stand out in a crowded field. This change has been observed by Kate Seaver, editor of Dorchester Publishing Co.'s Smooch imprint, home of Katie Maxwell's The Year My Life Went Down the Loo. "The majority of the books published under the Smooch imprint could be categorized as chick lit for teens," Seaver said, "so most of the submissions I receive are geared in that direction. The change I see is in the wider variety of submissions. I've read paranormals, fantasies and mysteries with a chick-lit tone. In fact, in October we published Boy Down Under-- [chick lit] with a fantastical twist, in which a strong, sassy heroine must discover if her new boyfriend is real or imaginary."
One subgenre that deserves special mention--for both its influence and sales volume--is privileged chick lit, best exemplified by the Gossip Girl and A-List series published by Little, Brown. Chronicling the lives of wealthy students at a fictional girls' high school on Manhattan's Upper East Side, the Gossip Girl books have sold more than 1,300,000 copies since they first appeared on the scene in 2002. And introduced as a West Coast cousin to Gossip Girl, the A-List series details the lives of Beverly Hills' teen royalty -- and has sold over 350,000 copies since its launch in September 2003.
Little, Brown's Eagan recalled the beginnings of the Gossip Girl and A-List series: "I was reading an article in PW about one of the first book proposals that was being sent around via e-mail. It was for a series of YA novels about private-school girls who gossiped about each other and caused a lot of mayhem. The word "gossip" definitely caught my eye, and it just sounded like fun. It was so unlike anything that was in our pipeline."
According to Eagan, Cecily von Ziegesar (who was then an editor at the packager 17th Street Productions) wrote the proposal for the series and borrowed the setting from her life, modeling the fictional private school Constance Billard after her alma mater, Nightingale-Bamford on the Upper East Side.
"Because of the instant success of Gossip Girl," Eagan continued, "We wanted to re-create the same winning formula but with something different, hence the A-List. Since Hollywood is dangled in our faces every day, I figured a chick-lit novel with a celebrity setting would be very appealing. The A-List lets readers live out their Hollywood fantasies instead of just flipping through paparazzi pictures."
The latest addition to the Little, Brown chick lit stable is The Clique, written by former MTV producer Lisi Harrison, in which a likeable middle-class junior high schooler is thrown into the veritable piranha bowl of an exclusive Westchester day school. Launched this past June, with a second volume published in September, the series has already sold more than 90,000 copies.
Standing Out in the Crowd
Given the sweeping popularity of teen chick lit, it's small wonder that editors are receiving a growing number of proposals for books that fit into the genre. This crowded field enables editors to pick and choose, selecting only those examples that truly stand out.
As McAden at HarperCollins described the heightened competition, "It's not enough that a girl meets a guy and writes hilariously in her diary about it. She also needs to have a quirky job and a gay best friend and a mom who ends up dating the dad of the guy she's into, and on top of all that the writing really has to shine. But," she added, "don't send me that book, because I already have three like it under contract!"
The trend has also opened the door for authors who, in the past, may not have considered writing for a younger audience. "The trend that I've noticed is adult romance writers writing for teens, trying to get into that," said Buck at S&S. "They're very savvy; they know how to market themselves; they know how to get to the right people."
Though the Mates, Dates books, the Princess Diaries and Eagan's glam chick lit books show that series are successful in this genre, teen chick lit lends itself to single titles as well. In fact, for some editors, the stand-alone novel is the preferred form.
"I tend to gravitate toward one-offs," said McAden, explaining, "It's critically important to me that these books be well developed and complete on their own. Sometimes when you're working on a planned trilogy or series you can fall into the trap of not making each book as good as it could be by itself."
Still, sometimes a book conceived as a solo ends up being the start of a series: "The Princess Diaries was bought as a single title," McAden recalled. "But Mia's world is so rich that Meg [Cabot] has been able to continue writing about her."
Buck at Simon & Schuster has found that the genre lends itself to both formats. "With one-offs," she said, "they have to have a great title or concept, but it's a great way to try something." Bestselling one-offs for Buck include The Princess and the Pauper, which is currently in development as a feature film at Disney, and The Au Pairs. Both titles have spawned sequels, because of their success," she noted.
Teen chick lit's enthusiastic reception by its target audience has not gone unnoticed by those whose business it is to get books into the hands of young readers.
Librarian and bookseller Walter Mayes sums up his experience with the books this way: "These are among the most popular titles at the library, the bookstore where I work, and in conversation with librarians and teachers as I travel around the country giving seminars on books for teens."
Wendi Gratz, until recently children's buyer for Joseph-Beth and Davis-Kidd (with seven stores in Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio and Pennsylvania), finds much to like about the trend. "I have been thrilled with the recent rash of these books--as a reader, because they're just fun; as a bookseller, because they sell; and as a literacy advocate, because these are the kinds of books that kids love to read, and that's what they need to become avid adult readers."
Still, the books--especially those featuring wildly conspicuous consumption--are not universally loved.
"I hate the mean spirit of many of them, along with the totally unrealistic economic outlook. So I don't carry Gossip Girls or the A-List in the store," said Carol Chittenden, owner of Eight Cousins Children's Bookstore in Falmouth, Mass. "I've explained quietly to a few parents why I choose not to stock them, and they always appear hugely relieved."
Sara Chaganti, children's buyer at the Bookloft in Great Barrington, Mass., has detected a lukewarm reception among parents as well: "Parents are not crazy about them," she said. "They tell their kids things like, 'Well, you can have one of those and one real book.' They seem to think it's stupid and fluffy."
"We've had a number of complaints from parents--especially about Angus, Thongs," Gratz recalled. "Sometimes they calm down when we explain that a) Angus is a cat; b) the main character in the book is horrified by a classmate who wears thongs; and c) snogging just means kissing--not, er, shagging."
Among girls, there does seem to be one audience that has remained immune to the spell of teen chick lit: "My fantasy readers have no patience with these books," Mayes said. He sees young female readers as divided into two camps: "Some girls dream about slaying dragons and read Tamora Pierce, while some girls dream about more down-to-earth things and read chick lit."
Still, those readers who love chick lit can't seem to get enough of it--no matter what parents and booksellers may think. What accounts for the genre's appeal for girls of a certain age?
For Dorchester's Seaver, "These heroines are normal girls with whom readers can readily identify. [They] make you laugh and cry as you would with your best friends. They reassure teens that they are not alone as they try to make sense of high school and the world in which they live." Keller at Blue Kangaroo said: "Pressures are high on teenage girls from all sides--parents, classmates, teachers and boyfriends. Sometimes you just need a little light reading."
And it's not just teens who crave literary R&R, apparently. The humor of the Angus, Thongs series has garnered its share of grown-up fans. According to Keller, "The series we sell the most to adults is the Angus, Thongs series. We even have college professors coming in for them."
"Though Gossip Girl was originally published as a YA novel," Eagan recalled, "we thought the book would have crossover appeal, and we specifically designed the cover to have an older, cosmopolitan look. Pretty soon we discovered that women and gay men in their 20s and 30s were buying a ton of these books. Our first Gossip Girl "Win a Trip to New York" contest winner was actually a 32-year-old woman."
Getting the Word Out
Media-savvy marketing on the part of publishing houses builds buzz--and sales--among the genre's loyal audience, making these books an easy sell. As Mayes described it, "Word of mouth drives the sales completely. I just try to keep the books on the shelves so the kids can find then. The girls always seem to know about [new chick lit titles] before I can get them on the shelves."
Chaganti at the Bookloft sees readers finding the books via three main avenues: "Most of the girls find out about them from magazines like Cosmo Girl and Teen People. Also they read about them on the Internet. But I think with kids' books, the best advertisement is word of mouth."
A key task is finding and using new ways--and even new places--to sell books to an audience for whom books are not necessarily a top priority. "Our marketing department really tries to target areas where kids live and shop, [including] magazines and Web sites," Buck explained. "We had one campaign that was almost exclusively Web-based, for Confessions of a Back-Up Dancer. It was very commercial, about music and pop stars, and we felt that the Web was a great place for that."
"The readers for these teen chick lit books aren't necessarily girls who hang out at the bookstores," said McAden. "They're girls who might grab a book on their way to the eyeliner section at Target. We just want to make sure the books are on the radar of the largest, most inclusive audience--bookworms and mall-goers alike."
In the case of the Gossip Girl books, marketing was woven into the elite milieu of private schools and Manhattan clubbing the books portrayed. "We shipped boxes of books out to private schools in hopes they would 'spread the word,' which also happens to be our campaign slogan for Gossip Girl," Eagan said. "Once the books started to take off, we did Max Racks and Go card advertising nationwide, to try and also reach the 18--34-year-old audience."
Hollywood Comes Calling
With their fast-paced plots and likable heroines (and, in many cases, the lack of any potentially R-rated shenanigans), it seems only natural that these novels are migrating to the big and small screens.
"The Princess Diaries being turned into a couple of movies is a familiar story at this point, but all of Meg Cabot's books have been optioned for one thing or another," said McAden at HarperCollins. "Disney has All-American Girl in development, and Joan
Singleton, producer of Because of Winn-Dixie, is working on the script for Teen Idol. And Simon & Schuster's The Au Pairs (think The Nanny Diaries, set in East Hampton, and crossed with a teen romance) and The Princess and The Pauper are being adapted for television.
Eagan of Little, Brown has her own star-is-born tale to recount: "Warner Bros. bought the movie rights to Gossip Girl and Amy Sherman-Palladino [creator, writer, and producer of Gilmore Girls] is writing the screenplay now. Lindsay Lohan will star as Blair Waldorf, and they're aiming for a 2006 release. Universal Pictures bought the movie rights to The A-List and the duo who wrote The Wedding Planner with Jennifer Lopez will write the screenplay. No stars have been cast yet, but they're aiming for a Christmas 2005 release."
Too Much of a Good Thing?
With plenty of titles available now, and numerous books and series in the works, are readers likely to start suffering from chick lit fatigue? Is a backlash inevitable? Not according to McAden at HarperCollins. "I do think the genre is here to stay," she said, "though at some point there will probably be some market correction. By that I mean that all the competition will raise the bar on what's published and what flourishes."
McAden believes that demand is still strong, "but there are so many books to choose from now that putting a fabulous cover on something and making the story sound enticing isn't necessarily enough. On top of that, readers of the teen books also read the adult chick lit offerings, and that market is absolutely flooded with options. Good ones, at that."
And now that chick lit is here to stay, what are editors looking to do next?
"Something we're trying to do at Simon & Schuster is to hang on to the teen market as they get older," Buck said. In the works are books about young people age 18--24, aimed at "real teenagers--high schoolers" rather than the junior high schoolers who make up much of the audience for the current crop of teen chick lit. Already on Buck's roster are a book called Newly Wed and another called 21, "kind of dealing with that late college experience. It's about a kid who is turning 21 and is in a fraternity."
In contrast with her high-life chronicles, Eagan has a more down-to-earth book in the works at Little, Brown: "I just signed up a project called Bass Ackwards and BellyUp. It's about four teenage women who decide upon high school graduation to disregard societal expectations and follow their creative dreams instead of going to college. The message is about living consciously and knowing that you have choices starting at a young age."
Still, fans of privileged teen chick lit need not fear a champagne drought. Next fall, Eagan is launching a series by Cecily von Ziegesar called The It Girl, "where one of the lead Gossip Girl characters will leave Manhattan for a top East Coast boarding school." And it's unlikely that Eagan will ever completely disown her glamourpuss side. "Clearly, I'm drawn to this type of material," she said, "so if I read something I can't put down or something that is really hysterical and hasn't been done before, I would definitely pursue it."