Saturday, July 7, 2007

Becoming bookworms -- While adult book market lags, teen readership keeps increasing


They may be plugged into their iPods, avidly surfing the Web and chatting on their cell phones, but many teens also are tapped into an activity that is decidedly low-tech -- reading.

"A wonderful trend in the book industry is the increase in young readers," said Eileen Fesco, owner of the Book Mouse in Ottawa.

Nationwide, teen readers are the fastest growing segment of book buyers, with teen book sales on the rise even though adult book sales are falling. And teens are borrowing more books as well. The Young Adult Library Services Association is the fastest growing division of the American Library Association.

Locally, book sellers and libraries have seen similar trends. Fesco said book sales figures for adult fiction are neck-and-neck with sales of books for teens and children.

Jessica Parker, Teen Zone coordinator at Reddick Library in Ottawa, said circulation of teen books is steadily increasing and this year's enrollment in the teen summer reading program is at an all-time high. Patti Smith, assistant director at Robert W. Rowe Public Library in Sheridan, said circulation has climbed among teen readers since the library created a young adult section and created programming geared toward that age.

So what's driving the teen book market?

One factor may be that those in the book industry recognize there is a teen book market. Where once teens graduated from the children's section to the adult shelves with little offered in between, books aimed at a variety of teen interests now can be found.

"Teen fiction deals with real topics that teens deal with. The Teen Zone (at the library) is different in that we have to weed out books because topics are constantly changing," said Parker.

More and more authors are writing specifically for teens, bringing with them quality text and diverse subject matter -- but Fesco warns that sometimes the topics of these tales may ruffle parents' feathers.

"We carry books about the death of family members, about sexuality, about teen drug and alcohol abuse, about teen pregnancy, about family dysfunction -- they may come from a family where the mom or the dad is an addict," she said. "(Teens) need these books. Sometimes they don't know where to go and they are trying to understand."

Smith saidwhile topics like suicide and homosexuality may not be what adults would choose for teens, these books often strike a chord with young people as they try to understand the world around them

"You really have to put aside your own ideas about what kids that age should be reading," she said. "We think they are too young, that they shouldn't want to know about these things. But we have to remember that it is 2007 and those things are out there."

Fesco notes one theme always is en vogue for teen girls -- love and romance, though even that theme has taken on a new twist since love stories involving witches and vampires, such as "Twilight" and "New Moon," are popular, emulating the success of such TV shows as "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Charmed."

Girls tend to read more than boys, Smith, Parker and Fesco noted, and as such more books are geared toward female interests. Books about cliques at school -- the latest title in Lisi Harrison's popular Clique series is "It's Not Easy Being Mean" -- and friendships, such as the "Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants" series, are top sellers.

But that doesn't mean boys aren't reading, too, though their interests tend to gravitate toward sports. Books like "Heat" and "Travel Team" are popular and increasingly books about the military and war are creeping onto shelves as the conflict in the Middle East continues.

"They like the vampire books, too, but not the ones about being in love," said Fesco.

Boys -- and girls -- like graphic novels as well. Graphic novels tell their stories in comic book fashion, using illustrations as well as dialogue. Graphic novels are aimed "at two populations we have trouble attracting -- boys and reluctant readers," said Parker. "But I love reading them, too. I had a hard time getting started, but now I'm hooked."

Smith said her library has tapped into these quality teen books to draw young people into the library. Creating a young adult section with books geared specifically for that age and offering programming teens enjoy, like a young adult book discussion group and movie and game days, has helped boost circulation in that department, she said.

"If you get in books that they like, they will come in and grab them," she said.

Parker said libraries are responding to today's teens, hoping to ditch the stodgy image some teens associate with the library by remaining up to date in terms of technology and teen interests. Libraries across the country, already offering online access, also are beginning to purchase MP3 players and video games to be checked out in the same way they lend CDs and DVDs.

The hope, she said, is that while teens are at the library to go online or check out a video game, they also may pick up a book that interests them at one of the displays of popular teen books.
And once they start reading these books, they are often hooked.

"They want to read about kids doing thing, teens doing things, important, life-changing things," said Parker. "They relate to that more than a story about a guy who is 40 years old."