Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Bookstore Guerilla: Snapshot of a Teen Reader

One thing I've learned about this world is sometimes you've got to go straight to the horse's mouth. Even if it makes you look like some kind of socially maladjusted stalker person.

So yes, I staked out the YA section at my local Barnes and Noble waiting for a teen to accost and question about their reading habits, and yes, it was supremely awkward.

Luckily, I met Sarah. She's on her school paper, so she understands how dumb you feel walking up to a stranger and asking them for an interview. She was very sympathetic to my plight and didn't make fun of me even a little, although there were definitely shades of "oookay, crazy lady" in her eyes as we spoke. Her parents obviously taught her well.


What are you looking at?

(She's holding Paper Towns by John Green.) I'm just flipping through, seeing what's new. I feel like I've already seen a lot of these.

What gets you to pick up a book?

I guess if it looks interesting or unusual. If the cover attracts my eye. A lot of covers look basically the same, so if I see something different, I'll usually pick it up.

What makes you decide to buy a book

I read the summary first, and if that appeals to me, I'll read a little of the beginning. One book that I read recently, I read the first page and couldn't put it down because it was exactly my kind of book. It was called Gone [by Michael Grant]. It hooked you right from the beginning instead of taking awhile to get going. And it was about a post-apocalyptic kind of world, which I really love.

Most YA writers are adults in their thirties or older. Do you think they get the teen experience right?

It really depends on the book. Some books are really good at capturing your attention and seeming really realistic.

But a lot of them focus too much on high school cliques or romances that sort of stereotype teens, like the Gossip Girl books [by Cecily Von Zeigesar] or Twilight [you guys know]. Those are like trashy reads. They're fun but don't really have any substance. They don't reflect my experience, but they can still be fun to read sometimes.

Are you sick of vampires?

A little bit. There are some books that do it well, but it seems like every other book I pick up is supernatural something. Some writers can really pull it off and make it good and original, but sometimes it's just overdone. I'll give some supernatural books a chance but not all of them.

So it's not just vampires that are overdone, but the whole supernatural genre?

Yeah. I think it started with vampires, but now anytime I see werewolves or fairies or ghosts, I kind of feel like rolling my eyes, you know? But some are still really good. Like I just read Shiver [by Maggie Stiefvater] and I really liked that, but I had to get past the wolf thing first.

How much do you read?

I have to read for English, but that stuff all has to have "literary merit." For fun, I'd say I read about one book a month.

What do you think about e-books?

I prefer real books, because there's something about actually holding it in your hand, and spatially it's just easier to look at than scrolling through a screen. I think that would be distracting.

Do you ever read book blogs or search out favorite authors online?

Not really. If I read a book I really like, sometimes I'll go to Amazon to see what else the author has written, but that's about it.

Edward or Jacob?

Ugh, neither. Who was that guy she went to school with? Mike? Yeah, I pick Mike.

Sarah was the first teen I approached, completely at random, and I gotta say. If she's at all indicative of the average YA reader, I have hope for the future. As you can see, she was knowledgeable, confident of her opinions, and easily able to express them.

A couple of the things she said rang very true for me. Those of you who know me already will know that I was over the supernatural trend, like, yesterday. I can still be interested in and impressed by the odd book that offers a different take on the genre or otherwise rises above the crowd, but vampires and werewolves hold no particular fascination for me. I'd much rather see, say, historical fiction become the genre du jour.

So it's nice to know that Sarah, at least, won't buy a book just because it has a pair of fangs and shiny hair on the cover. Quality and originality still hold the most sway for her, regardless of trends.

The other thing that resonated with me was her comment about how many YA novels portray cliques or romances in a way that isn't representative of the average teenage experience. This has been on my mind for awhile now, since lately it seems like I keep running into these mean girl novels that don't remind me at all of my high school experience. (Nevermind how alien the idea of marrying your vampire soulmate straight out of high school must sound to most tenth graders).

Sure, there were cliques at my school and some truly awful girls who made life miserable for the rest of us, but none of them moved with the kind of self-awareness, calculation, and brutality that one would assume all popular kids operate with if you got all your information about teens from teen novels.

So, what's that about? Either my high school experience is not representative, totally possible, or some of us are going astray in accurately portraying the teen experience. Or maybe writers are consciously sacrificing realism for drama, the escapism factor that Sarah mentioned as being a part of her "trashy reads."

I'm not sure just what all of this means yet. These are bigger questions than I have time for in this post, but it's definitely an area I'm going to be looking into for the YA-5 in the future. First I need to conduct a couple of Highly Scientific Polls, the cousin of the Highly Scientific Interview above.

So what do you think? Are you surprised by any of Sarah's answers? Do you think she's representative of the average YA reader, and if so, what does that say about what we're writing for her and other teens like her?

- Cristin

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