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In their own words

Why let adults tell them how their life is? Teen authors are writing it as they live it.

April 05, 2006|Josh Getlin | Times Staff Writer

New York — BY the end of "The Notebook Girls," the story of four teens at an elite New York high school, the main characters have had the kinds of experiences that make parents cringe -- oral sex, the loss of virginity, binge-drinking, pot smoking. But Julia, Sophie, Courtney and Lindsey have also matured. They've mended fences with their parents and thought deeply about the world. They're on their way to college.

"Looking back on everything, I realized we all figured ourselves out in this mess," Courtney writes in a farewell note to her pals. "There's nothing we can't share."

The book is raw but also sentimental, the characters obsessed with making their way through high school's cruel pecking order. Parents are the objects of complaint, but they're on the periphery of the story. There's despair, and a happy ending. It reads, in other words, like the typical "young adult," or YA, novel, found in the teen sections of bookstores and mostly written by adults. But "The Notebook Girls," which will be published next week by Warner Books with a first printing of 40,000, is not a novel, it's a real-life account written by four actual teenagers.

"We wanted to tell our story in our own words," said Julia Baskin, one of the authors. After all, as she pointed out, "We lived through it."

Or, to put it more bluntly: Why let a bunch of middle-aged people tell you what it's like to be an American teen?

That attitude is spreading as more teenage writers storm the barricades of publishing, starting with the YA category but by no means ending there. Indeed, some titles that previously would have been seen as young adult are now also being marketed to adult readers.

"Why should I have to wait years to get a book deal?" asked Robyn Schneider, a Barnard College student from Irvine and author of the novel "Better Than Yesterday," which will be published by Delacorte in 2007, and is aimed at both audiences. She describes the book, written when she was 18, as the tale of "four top students at an elite East Coast boarding school [who] run away to Manhattan, fall in love and learn to take the SATs a little bit less seriously."

While revenue in other sectors of the book industry remains flat, YA is booming. Sales for fiction alone have grown more than 23% in the last six years, and projections are for continued growth, even if you subtract the "Harry Potter" books, according to Albert Greco, a Fordham University business professor who studies publishing trends. Girls make the vast majority of these purchases, and publishers have focused most of their marketing strategies on them, through hugely popular paperback series such as "The Gossip Girls," "The Clique" and "Making Out."

A key reason for the success of YA books, which run the gamut from romances to mysteries, thrillers to self-help, religion to sports, is that there are far more teenagers than there were 15 years ago. They're part of the 12- to 21-year-old demographic that spends a staggering $170 billion annually on entertainment, including books.

And notwithstanding the case of JT Leroy, the adult who conned readers into thinking a cross-dressing teenage prostitute had written the well-received books "Sarah" and "The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things," publishers are increasingly willing to take teenagers seriously as the authors of adult titles as well.

This week, the adult division of Little Brown is publishing "How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life," for which Harvard University sophomore Kaavya Viswanathan received a $500,000 advance as part of a two-book deal. She wrote the novel when she was 17. Her book, with comic echoes of "Mean Girls" and "Bend It Like Beckham," tells the story of a brainy Indian American girl who is convinced she can't get into Harvard unless she develops a personality and has a good time in high school. DreamWorks just bought film rights; the movie is being co-produced by Contrafilm and Alloy Entertainment -- which recently guided "The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants" to the screen.

"I don't see a huge talent difference between one age group or another," said Viswanathan, who finished her novel while she was taking five courses at Harvard and studying for finals. "It all comes down to who has the dedication to sit down every day and put something on paper. It all starts from there."

These teen authors are not the first to find their way to publication, of course. Mary Shelley famously wrote "Frankenstein" in 1816 when she was 19; Maureen Daly began writing "Seventeenth Summer," a 1942 title that many consider the forerunner of the modern YA novel, when she was 17; S.E. Hinton wrote "The Outsiders," a 1967 novel that became a cult classic and later a movie, at 16.

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