Maybe when Gen Z comes of age and we get to the end of the demographic alphabet, there will be a slowing down of religion and spirituality books written especially for teens. But, for the moment, teen Bibles, teen books about Wicca and other books about spirituality written just for adolescents are going strong.
Publishers have practical reasons for hooking teen readers early. As Dwight Baker, president of Baker Books, told PW, "The balance of our careers will be spent serving those people." Brian Singer-Towns, development editor of the Catholic Youth Bible at St. Mary's Press, agreed. "We've created a society where people target youth in a special way, and teens expect it. If we don't do that, we're going to lose out."
Traditionally, most publishers have "steered clear of spirituality for teens," according to Lisa Braun, publicity manager of Llewellyn Publications. But the tide has turned, and even publishers who have never had a robust teen line are getting into the act. Augsburg Fortress, having recognized the need for quality books for this age group in religion and spirituality, plans to add a line for teens starting in 2004, according to acquiring editor Martha Rosenquist. "We are looking for fiction and high-quality books that deal with life issues and struggles."
This fall, Inner Traditions, a longtime publisher of books on personal transformation, launches a new imprint, Bindu Books, tag-lined "Making the Point for Teens" (the bindu point is the mark many Indians put on the third-eye chakra). "Many of our staff have young children," noted managing editor Jeannie Levitan. "We want our children inculcated into these ideas in age-appropriate ways."
Teen Themes Rule
What distinguishes a book for teens from an adult religion book? Why can't teenagers just read Phillip Yancey and Starhawk? They can. "Publishing for teens does not mean that teens shouldn't, can't or aren't reading adult books," said Baker.
But certain things make teen books distinctive. Publishers agree that teens don't want to read esoteric dogmatics, apologetics or theology. They want to know how to apply their faith in daily life. They want to take action and see concrete results, both in their own spiritual lives and in the world around them. Llewellyn's Wild Girls: The Path of the Young Goddess (April) by Patricia Monaghan tells the stories of young goddesses in the folklore of different countries, but also gives teen readers crafts to do, like making meditation pillows. That way they can see—and use—the fruits of their spiritual labors, said Braun.
Levitan said, "Teens are interested in things that they can specifically do in putting something into practice. They want to know 'How do I meditate, what kind of ritual do I do, how can I read my aura?'" Inner Traditions's The Thundering Years: Rituals and Sacred Wisdom for the Journey into Adulthood by Julie Tallard Johnson (April) offers step-by-step rituals for teens to perform with their friends. In a ritual for "releasing your anger," for example, teens can gather in a group, and, to the sounds of stomping and drum-beating, crush small clay pots that symbolize the things they are angry about. Being active, said Levitan, is critical to teens, not just when it comes to spiritual growth but also social responsibility. "They don't just want to hear about eco-spirituality. They ask, 'What do I eat? Where do I go to recycle?'"
IVP's publisher Bob Fryling agreed. He said teens are especially interested in connecting religion to racial reconciliation and the environment. That's why IVP published Faith on the Edge: Daring to Follow Jesus (ed. by Paul Tokunaga et al., 1999), which, said Fryling, "emphasizes discipleship and is for people who are serious about their faith, who want to connect that to issues like the environment and financial stewardship."
The bestselling title for teens from Jewish Lights is Lawrence Kushner's The Book of Miracles: A Young Person's Guide to Jewish Spiritual Awareness (1997), said publisher Stuart Matlins. "It looks particularly for ways to see their spiritual life acted out in the world, drawing a very close connection between spiritual life and tikkun olam, or repair of the world."
One of the newest offerings in the Complete Idiot's Guide series from Alpha Books/Pearson is The Complete Idiot's Guide to Teen Spirituality (August 2000) by William Grimbol, a Presbyterian pastor. It too gives practical and active ways for teens to pursue and discover their own spirituality, such as keeping a prayer journal, writing poetry and creating personalized worship experiences to share with friends and family.
In Llewellyn's Teen Witch Kit, author Silver Ravenwolf provides young would-be witches with everything they need: a crystal, a pentacle necklace, divination tools, spell materials, a book, even a fold-out altar. (Sales may have been aided by a little release-time controversy; some potential consumers thought teens were too young to learn how to cast spells.) The kit came out in the summer of 2000 and some 24,000 units have already sold.
Books offering prayers for teens also sell well. Ballantine hit the jackpot with Prayers on My Pillow: Inspiration for Girls on the Threshold of Change (1999) and More Prayers on My Pillow: Words of Comfort and Hope for Girls on the Journey to Self (2000), both by Celia Straus. Joanne Wyckoff, senior editor, said, "If a kid is having a hard time, sometimes if they just sit with a prayer about that issue, or a meditative device, they can actually gather strength. The prayers have provided a place for teens to go."
The success of Prayers on My Pillow has inspired at least one spinoff. Susan Piver Browne has produced I'm More Than What I Seem: Prayers for the Journey to Self, a spoken-word CD in a 48-page book aimed at teenage girls. Actress-moms like Annette Bening, Kathleen Turner and Amy Irving read Straus's prayers; a portion of the proceeds go to benefit the charity Motherless Daughters.
The Need to Explore
Teens today are more interested in learning about a variety of religions than those of generations past were, according to publishers. Jon Sweeney, associate publisher of the Skylight Paths imprint at Jewish Lights, said that young people haven't abandoned their religions of origin, but "the ghetto mentality is going away. An evangelical Christian 17-year-old will say to her pastor, 'I'm going to a yoga retreat this weekend,' and she isn't going to understand why he doesn't think that's cool."
St. Mary's Press's Singer-Towns said that even teens who are committed to one faith have a real interest in what other people believe. "That scares some Christians, but I think it's just part of this multicultural world we live in. Teens are curious." Singer-Towns said the Christian publishing world has not done a good job of addressing that issue, but it is vital for that to change. "Otherwise teens will read some proselytizing text, rather than reading a book from a Christian perspective that can lay out the different faiths" and show clearly why Christians believe as they do.
J. Countryman's associate publisher Allen Arnold agreed: "They encounter other religious traditions more, and teens don't want to be spoon-fed the answers. Questions are not bad. There ought to be resources for kids to think through the questions." One book that has successfully offered that is the youth edition of Jesus Among Other Gods by Ravi Zacharias (Word, 2000). The book was originally published as a primer for adults, laying out the differences between Christianity and other faiths like Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam. "As we worked on the adult book," said Moberg, "we realized it was great stuff. But Ravi's a little demanding to read. We thought it would be nice if this were available in an easier presentation for younger readers." Word has printed just under 25,000 units and "most of those sold," according to author relations manager Debra Wickwire.
Word is not the only publisher bringing out youth editions of adult books. In May, Zondervan will release a student edition of The Case for Christ by Lee Strobel and Jane Vogel. Based on Strobel's popular adult book by the same title, this student edition tackles problems like theodicy—which addresses the baffling question of how an all-powerful, all-good God allows evil—in student-friendly terms.
Extreme and Authentic
The two biggest words in religion publishing when it comes to teens are "authentic" and "extreme." Haley Morgan, Extreme for Jesus brand manager at Thomas Nelson, said that describing faith as "extreme" began as a parallel to extreme sports. "Extreme sports demands a lot of us," said Morgan. "It's not golf. An extreme sport demands discipline and courage. It's all or nothing—do it or die."
Albury publisher Pat Judd echoed the point. "Kids are willing to just go for it. They're willing to break their neck snowboarding, they like an extreme football league. Teens are into the extremes, so they need books about extreme faith." But, added Morgan, teens aren't easily fooled. "They're looking for something that's authentic. Christian publishers have been remedial, talking down to teens. We have to be more real about the issues, and straight-talking to them. We can't just assume they're not having sex, we have to ask, 'How do we stop them from having sex?'" To that end, some of the commentary in the Extreme for Jesus Bible (which has sold over 300,000 copies in 16 months) might "shock readers," said Morgan, referring to the passage that describes Mary was an unwed mother.
IVP's Fryling agreed that authenticity is the key to reaching young readers. "The things we find that really touch students," he said, "are authenticity, genuineness, candor, grappling with real issues, avoiding pretense and hypocrisy—gutsiness."
The need for authenticity is one of the reasons J. Countryman wants to start publishing more books for teens by teens. "There aren't a lot of books to that target audience by people who are in that life stage themselves," said Arnold. "It's fine to have a book by a 65-year-old saying, 'This is some information you'll value.' But it will be received in a totally different manner when it's written by someone their age who says, 'I don't have all the answers, but I am living this journey.'" It's no coincidence that Countryman's lead teens-writing-for-teens book is Genuine: How to Be Real in an Artificial World (June) by Stacie Orrico.
Countryman isn't the only publisher turning out books for teens by teens. In August, Harper San Francisco released The Secret Life of Teens: Young People Speak Out About Their Lives, edited by Gayatri Patnaik and Michelle T. Shinseki. In November, Concordia published Called to Be: Devotions by Teens for Teens, a collection edited by staff members. One of Health Communications' many successful teen titles is Teen Ink: Our Voices, Our Visions, edited by Stephanie H. Meyer and John Meyer. Released in September 2000, it has sold 73,812 copies.
Content and tone distinguish teen books from adult spirituality books. But the books often need to be marketed differently too. Many Christian publishers are finding success tying teen books into music stars. Genuine is written by 14-year-old Christian music sensation Stacie Orrico. "Teens buy more music than almost anyone," noted Arnold. "Their life has a soundtrack going at all times. Any time we can tie into that with a positive role model—not Britney Spears, but someone whose music they love and who is leading an authentic life—we should."
David Moberg, the executive v-p and publisher of Word, agreed: "We need to use spokespersons to position our products with young people. Music groups are a great way to do that." This is hardly a new technique, Moberg noted. Rather, it is "adapting basic marketing strategy to that different audience."
In August 2001, Shaw Books, an imprint of WaterBrook Press, will bring out the Red Hill Devos series, a tie-in with Pamplin Records' Red Hill Records and their teen-aimed music. The four devotionals deal with identity (Someone Like Me), friendship (My Own Monster), finding direction (This Thing Called Life) and love and dating (Forget Me Not). Each book offers a month's worth of readings and questions, and boasts a CD by a recording artist from the Red Hill label (including 15-year-old singer Katy Hudson and hit group Aurora).
One book with a music tie-in that has done phenomenally well is Jesus Freaks: Stories of Those Who Stood for Jesus, the Ultimate Jesus Freaks (Albury, 1999) by the popular band D.C. Talk. It has sold almost 550,000 copies. One of the keys to the success of Jesus Freaks, said Judd, has been its Web site. Web tie-ins have helped other titles too. Ballantine's Wyckoff said that one of the reasons Celia Strauss's Dreams on My Pillow has done so well is that "Celia is so devoted to interacting with her readers on the Web site." Kregel Publications has developed a site to tackle questions of ministering to the "Net Generation": ww.eMinistryOnline.com, which supplements the book eMinistry: Connecting with the Net Generation by Andrew Careaga (February).
Even when they don't boast their own Web site, books for the Internet generation also need to look different. Moberg said it's important to realize that "kids communicate in pretty sophisticated ways. Most kids are gaining most of their information on the Internet. They're very sophisticated visually; colors, designs and graphic images are very important. Creating a product for a 15- or 16-year-old has to have a certain minimum look to it to be credible."
Pat Judd said that "kids like books that look different." Jesus Freaks looks like an ancient manuscript with rough-cut pages, an "aged" cover and no back liner. Countryman did "a huge amount of research on cover colors" for Genuine, Arnold said. "We went through 45 to 50 colors." And they asked teens what they liked. Colors that continually did well were primary yellows and greens. Younger teens (Genuine's core audience) gravitated toward bright, almost neon colors; 15- and 16-year-olds preferred darker hues and silver. Countryman also found that young teens love to find quizzes and other interactive features scattered throughout a book.
Levitan noted that designing books for teens can be challenging. The cover of Inner Traditions's Teen Astrology: The Ultimate Guide to Making Your Life Your Own by M.J. Abadie (March) initially showed "a very goofy bunch of kids crammed into a phone booth. It was a stock image—we wanted to show young people." Teens hated it. When the book releases, it will have a different cover, Levitan said.
Some publishers caution about overdoing the neon. Dwight Baker said, "The assumption is that this is the electronic generation so there has to be more eye-candy. An intimidating rectangle of great text is too much for them to handle." But, said Baker, that can be condescending. "Kids don't like to be talked down to," and they can handle real books, with real (even monochrome) text.
Haley Morgan disagreed. Today's teens are "completely nonlinear. They don't think like traditional book readers. A lot of them pick up Christian things in particular and are bored in one sentence. Right out of the gate we're losing their attention." That's why she said we can expect more products that look like magazines. "We'll be offering quick reads, things you can start reading in the middle." Morgan emphasizes that doesn't mean she's compromising content. Indeed, it is her passion for the content that motivates Morgan to find new ways of drawing teens into her books. "We want to get Christian kids' attention. If a kid is walking down the hall with an orange leather Bible, someone's going to walk up and ask, 'What's that?' That won't happen with Mom and Dad's black leather Bible," said Morgan. "If I have to make eye-candy to get kids to read it, I'll make candy."