by Sarah Evans, Distance MLIS
I remember clearly my first encounter with a copy of Cecily von Ziegesar's Gossip Girl. Reading the back cover, my eyebrows shot up at the quote from Teen People; "Sex and the City for the younger set." My mind paused in wonder for a brief moment. Then I said outloud, "Do teens really need a version of Sex and the City?"
Books for teens are often a cause for concern among well-meaning adults. Authors reach out to young adults by writing about tough issues, perhaps ones they encountered in their own teen years. What issue could be more universal than desire brought on by raging hormones and the need to be liked by someone, anyone? Libba Bray titled her first teen novel A Great and Terrible Beauty to describe that time when we become aware of our sexuality yet are unsure how to handle it. Precisely because teens may not be ready to handle it, parents object to depictions of romance and sex in teen novels. But are these novels serving as examples of behavior or are they describing what really happens? Does life imitate art or does art imitate life?
The answer is both. Authors write what is familiar to them and we find comfort in their knowledge of the human heart. This is especially true since a wider variety of teen experiences are now being published, including gay and lesbian romances such as David Leviathan's Boy Meets Boy. Teens can also read a novel to try on someone else's life without consequences. In Meg Cabot's Princess in Waiting, Mia and her girlfriends become "the followers of the Jane Eyre technique of boyfriend-handling." Of course there are some negative results, causing the girls to reconsider the wisdom of imitating fictional characters. Like Mia, some teens may try to follow in a character's footsteps, only to find that real life plays out differently than the novel. But Mia and friends also realize they can't blame romance novels for their plight. They decide that "romantic heroines from literature really [are our] friends" and have "valuable lessons" to teach us.
I myself finally read Gossip Girl. Despite the cover, it wasn't that shocking. Looking past the posh clothes, fancy homes, and volume of alcohol consumed, I saw characters not that different from kids at my former high school - insecure girls who spread rumors about friends, boys who want to have sex but wonder about love, and couples who second guess themselves but reach out to each other anyway. I realized that this is why this series and many other similar books are so popular with teens, not the potential for illicit content or ideas for future trouble. Teens are looking for stories about what it feels like to be a teen - a commiseration and celebration of what it feels like to be alive.