Anyone laboring under the stereotypical delusion that teenagers are uncommunicative would do well to stop by Kimberly Kirberger's office. A suite just off a courtyard in the breeze-swept Pacific Palisades, it is a warren of rooms that do not look like anyone under the age of 35 has anything to do with them. The offices are tidy and bright, scented by flowers and aromatherapeutic candles, and were quiet on a recent weekday, save the Plasticine tap of computer keyboard and the occasional modulated conversation.
Yet these glimmering, sweet-smelling rooms roil with teenagers, with their slouching, backpack-toting forms, their indirect sideways smiles, their casually meaningful shrugs. For this office exists as a repository of teenage words--hopes, fears and dreams, some contained in the rows and rows of books on the shelves that line each room, but most revealed in the letters. Hundreds of letters, thousands of letters, hundreds of thousands of letters from teenagers have dropped through Kirberger's mail slot over the last two years, thousands more e-mails have found her electronic address. Thank-you letters and pleas for help, stories of hope and anger, of lost friendship and unrequited love, of death and valor, typed and scrawled, in free form verse and essay form, from houses and schools and apartments and prisons and dorm rooms all around the world.
And every one of them is read, every one answered. By people who absolutely understand--other teens. Because Kimberly Kirberger loves teenagers, everything about them, and surrounds herself with as many as she can find.
In fact, they have become her oeuvre, her specialty, her career. Kirberger is coauthor of the wildly popular "Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul" series, the new "Chicken Soup for the College Soul" and is sole author of the recently debuted "Teen Love Series." Essentially anthologies of real-life stories, and a few poems, about--and often by--teens, the books cover a tremendously wide variety of experiences, from coping with crushes to dealing with addiction to surviving the death of a friend or sibling.
A Spinoff of Her Brother's Project
It started with her brother, Jack Canfield, a personal growth professional who created, with Mark Victor Hansen, the first "Chicken Soup for the Soul" book in 1993.
"I was fascinated," said Kirberger, 45, who was working as a jewelry designer at the time. "I asked if I could be a part of it. So I started reading the letters that began pouring in after the book came out. I was most drawn to the ones from teens. I just love teens," she said. "I had a very happy teenage experience, and some people have accused me of never growing up."
Which is a bit of an exaggeration--besides running the "Teen Soul" fiefdom, she is mother to 14-year-old Jesse and stepmom to 23-year-old Bodhi. And she certainly understands the anguish of loss and change; her jewelry business arose from her need to support her family from home when her first husband was stricken with cancer. He died when Jesse was small; Kirberger married Bodhi's father, John Anderson, nine years ago.
"The letters from the teens seemed more desperate to me," she said. "So I said to Jack, 'Let's do one just for teens.' And he said sure but warned me that teens don't read, and teens don't buy books so I shouldn't be disappointed when it didn't have the same success as the other 'Chicken Soup' books. But I thought that if we just let the kids tell their stories, not use them to disguise advice, we would be successful. And I was right."
She was right, to the tune of 7 million copies sold. And that was just the first one. The second volume sold a million copies in its first month and shot to No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list.
While the first book contains some previously published material, the subsequent volumes are all original works, the majority of which are from teens, many of whom wrote to Kirberger after the publication of the first book. After a few months of trying to deal with the deluge herself, and then with a tiny staff of grown-ups, she decided she needed to hire some specialists.
"I approached teenagers in Starbucks, I contacted teachers, I asked friends and neighbors," she said. "Pretty much the same way I went about getting submissions for the first book. I just asked."
And soon she had put together IAM (Inspiration and Motivation) for Teens Inc., an organization dedicated to helping her favorite demographic group. Within the organization is the Teen Letter Project, through which anywhere from six to 15 paid teenage staff members read and answer the 800 letters and 500 e-mails Kirberger and IAM receive each week. Some of the letters are actually submissions for the next "Teen Soul," due out in April. But every letter will be read and answered by a peer.
"My mission is to show who teens really are," said Kirberger, "not some preconceived conception."