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Publishing's Queen of the Teen Romance Finds Success With a Formula

April 20, 1986|ELIZABETH MEHREN | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — The formula was perfect, and it sprang into her brain with such precision, such determination, such confidence that Francine Pascal could do nothing but run to her typewriter and record it:

They are the most perfect twins in the world, Elizabeth and Jessica Wakefield. One is good, one is bad. Cliffhanger endings. Continuing characters.

The action is always carried by the kids. They run their world, which is very appealing.

"That's it," Pascal said. "It was waiting for me. No one was doing it."

But now Pascal is doing it--writing the Wakefield twins into every conceivable teen-age twist and turn--to such an extent that she has become a one-woman publishing industry. Starring blue-eyed, flaxen-haired Elizabeth and Jessica, her Sweet Valley High series now numbers about 12 million books in print. During a single week in January, Pascal's teen romance stories occupied 18 out of 20 places on both B. Dalton's Young Adult best-seller list and Waldenbooks' "Top 20 Titles--1985" for young adults.

An informal survey conducted by 'Teen magazine (circulation 1,016,000) indicated that the Sweet Valley High series was the No. 1 reading choice among its readers.

Pascal's "Caitlin" romance trilogy--featuring the rich, beautiful and spoiled Caitlin Ryan, the major power manipulator at a fictional Virginia boarding school called Highgate--boasts 700,000 copies in print, and a new trio of Caitlin titles will be published monthly beginning in November. In August, Pascal and Bantam, her publisher, will launch yet another teen series, Sweet Valley Twins, focusing on the Wakefield girls at age 12. Cloverdale Press, packager of both the Sweet Valley High and forthcoming Sweet Valley Twins series, reported that 1985 was the most profitable year in its six-year history, a fact Cloverdale president Dan Weiss attributed in large part to the success of its teen series.

It is the series concept, and its accompanying "brand-name identity," that in large part distinguish this current boom in young adult reading material from literary progenitors that date back to the 1940s. First love/young love was the theme, for example, of Betty Cavanna's "Going on Sixteen" (1946), as well as Rosamund Du Jardin's "Practically Seventeen" (1949). In 1956, Beverly Cleary covered much the same territory in "Fifteen."

But in those early years of teen literature, parents and librarians were almost exclusively the purchasers of books read by children and young adults. Now, as a 1984 study by the Book Industry Study Group revealed, more than 70% of the books young adults read are acquired on their own. As a result, publishers, packagers and authors alike have aggressively targeted this youthful book-buying market, customizing advertising, publicity and marketing methods to these young consumers.

Almost exclusively female--"The truth is," Francine Pascal said, "boys read until about age 12, then they go outside and don't come back in until they are about 18"--teen romance readers were shown in a recent Bantam Books survey to be ages 14, 15, and 13 in that order, with more 16-year-olds reading the books than 12-year-olds.

Lest anyone question the magnitude of the teen-literature phenomenon, most readers in the Bantam survey said that they read between six and 10 books a month. While most said they did not limit their reading to teen-romance novels, they said they chose those books in large part to identify with the heroine, but also to be lost in the story, to find help in solving personal problems, to relax and enjoy excitement and to understand more about other people's feelings. Mostly, however, they said they wanted to fantasize about romance and the hope of finding love with a real, live boy.

Not surprisingly, the giant growth pattern of these teen romance books has inspired massive imitation, if not outright cloning. Under its Archway Paperbacks line, for example, Simon & Schuster has announced a new "Out of This World" series. Aimed at young adults aged 11 and older, the series will center on the adventures of Max, a beautiful teen-age alien who has come to earth to learn how to be human. "I've come millions of miles to see you," Max proclaims in a special promotional display. "I'm Max and I'm OUT OF THIS WORLD!"

All of which makes a more realistic--but also ragingly successful--teen writer like Norma Klein turn a pale shade of out-of-this-world purple. "It's like eating junk food," Klein said of this trend toward escapist literature for young adults. "It produces an appetite for more junk food." For publishers and readers alike, Klein argues, that hunger becomes voracious: "All it does is make the few publishers who weren't doing romances have romance lines."

Underlying Morality

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