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"These books are just blasting out of the stores," reports Patricia MacDonald, executive editor for Archway Paperbacks. "It's really a phenomenon of the Nineties. And the wonderful thing is that it's mostly word of mouth--one kid telling another how exciting these books are to read. That's practically unheard of in young-adult publishing."
Of course, publishing-circle insiders were saying exactly the same sort of thing 15 years ago when a very different sort of teenage novel first reared its acne-riddled head.
"During the late Seventies, early Eighties, the 'problem' novels were very popular with teens," explains MacDonald. "You had your divorced parents, your premarital pregnancy, your suicide, your drugs--you know, disease-of-the-week. Then the teen romance novel came on the scene and from there it went to the teen soap opera.
"But 'problem novels' have had it," MacDonald continues. "Nobody wants to read about someone's parents divorcing because it's been done so often before. To some degree, the same thing's true with the romance-soap stuff. But I personally believe young-adult thrillers are the books of the decade. Just look at Agatha Christie and Mary Higgins Clarke. These books could go on forever."
Unlike MacDonald, however, young-adult-literature expert Alleen Nilsen has considerably less faith in the life span of a fictional dead teenager. So little, in fact, that when Nilsen and co-author Ken Donelson revised their 1980 textbook Literature for Today's Young Adults this summer, the pair made only passing mention of the thriller phenomenon.
"What do we think of these books?" asks Nilsen, an Arizona State University professor of English. "As little as possible," she laughs. "We try to pretend they don't exist."
But in view of the glut of adolescent mayhem rolling off the presses these days, that might take a considerable stretch of imagination.
"These books are a fad, just another phase before the kids move on to something else," Nilsen continues. "Or at least we hope they are. But right now, it's really an uphill battle. There's mountains of this stuff out there. Naturally, you'd like to see kids focusing on better books, but if they want to read this kind of stuff, there's little we can do to stop it."
One Phoenix mother faced that problem when her 9-year-old daughter showed up recently with a thriller about a young baby sitter terrorized while tending a neighbor's children. The mom reports that her daughter (who previously read little but Pocket Books' saccharine Sweet Valley High saga) became so involved in the thriller that the girl excitedly issued chapter-by-chapter progress reports to anyone who'd listen.
"At first it sort of bothered me that she was so engrossed in this type of book," confesses the mother, herself a well-read woman. "But as I listened to her chattering away about the various clues and who she thought had done it, I realized, 'What's the harm?' At least this book was getting her to use her imagination and causing her think. I suspect that wasn't the case with those teen romance books she was reading."
With varying degrees of acceptance, Valley librarians have come to the same conclusion.
Diane Tuccillo, youth librarian for Mesa Public Library, is positively charitable about the junior-grade chillers. "Kids like to be scared," she says. "They like to get a thrill, just like anybody else who enjoys watching scary movies or reading a scary book. These books are definitely a lot more low-key than some of the Stephen King-type of books published for adults. This is a way for the kids to get that thrill and still enjoy reading on a level that they can appreciate."
Tuccillo has a point. How many teenage bookworms have actually gone on murder sprees after reading the latest Fear Street epic? Although there's no research to back it up, probably no more than the number of readers who built electronic robots after reading a Tom Swift opus, the junk fiction of another generation.
Still, isn't there something slightly disconcerting about a junior high school girl fantasizing about being strangled by that cute guy who sits next to her in study hall, or dreaming about being chased through a morgue by a hunky psychopath brandishing a scalpel?
"These books, most of the ones I've seen, anyway, are not literature and no one's pretending they are," says Elaine Myers, children-youth librarian at the main branch of Phoenix Public Library. "It's formula fiction and it's certainly not great writing." Nevertheless, Myers stocks what she calls "potato chip books" because "that's what the kids want to read."
"It's a dilemma," concedes Meyers, who points out that the adult best-seller list isn't exactly a hotbed of highbrow literature, either. "But at least we're getting the kids in the door, and that's a start."
Myers says she takes some consolation in the fact that the junior slasher novels are so popular that they're never on the shelf anyway. As a result, she says, hopefully many young readers will wind up selecting something of greater substance.
Like, perhaps, Library Check-out--They'll read good books. . .if it kills them!
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