Hot on the heels of the fast-selling Sweet Dreams series come First Love, Wildfire and Heartlines.
Pat Triggs takes a closer look at what is being offered in the name of Teenage Romance.
Last Autumn teenage girls in their thousands proved their willingness to extend their reading from magazines like Jackie, Patches and Blue Jeans, to full-length novels. They did it in the most conclusive manner – by parting with ready money in exchange for books in the Sweet Dreams series. There was, it seemed, a gap in the market ripe for filling. As so often happens that gap had been identified first in the United States. Sweet Dreams originated there with Bantam and along with other similar series has been highly successful. Last year’s moves to import that particular version of the American Dream into Australia and Britain far exceeded the expectations of publishers behind the series. Sales have been astounding. In April of this year two other American imports, First Love from Silhouette and Wildfire from Scholastic hit the bookstalls and in June the first home-grown product, Pan’s Heartlines series joined them.
Let’s look first at
Teenage Romance, American Style.
All the stories, from whatever publisher, have a similar formula. The press release which heralded First Love from Silhouette (imported by Hodder and Stoughton) sets out the publisher’s view of the product.
‘Aimed at the previously untapped market of 10 to 15 year old girls, First Love provide teenage romances in a crisp modern style. Written by a specialist team of writers, First Love has none of the sensuality of the adult Silhouette lines yet upholds the proven formula of top editorial quality, realistic situations and happy endings. While removing the reader from the depressing realities of life, these stories are at the same time strong on identification. They are usually told from the heroine’s perspective, and deal with different adolescent concerns – their feelings as they mature, their day to day problems, their first romantic encounters. With settings both familiar (eg. schools and parties) and exotic (eg. a resort or a cruise) they trace the heroine’s growing awareness of herself as an individual and as a romantic being. The tension in the story usually lies between her fantasy and the reality – with the hero often helping to bridge this gap.
Although colloquial, slang and dialect are used only when appropriate for characterisation. Implicit in the stories are moral values which will help the First Love reader to develop her own sense of responsibility.’
The product is created and packaged as a result of continuous consumer research’.
The First Love press release again:
‘Research has proved that there is a lack of contemporary literature particularly for teenage girls as their choice of reading matter is limited to either children’s books which are too young or adult books for which they are not quite ready. As a result they turn to magazines.
First Love aims to encourage the reading skills of teenagers. The series has been based on the findings of market research specifically conducted for Silhouette by highly experienced psychologists. All aspects have been carefully examined from the editorial content through to the series’ name and the covers.
Photographic covers are preferred because they increase the realism.
The First Love series had a perceived value of 80p-£1.50. At 85p therefore it represents excellent value-for-money, an important consideration for money-conscious teenagers.’
As a final clincher:
‘86% of all adult romance readers (myitalics) thought First Love books were excellent for encouraging young girls to read.’
Editorial direction about the content of all these stories is strong. I quote the following extract from ‘guidelines to authors’ as reprinted in the American journal Inter-Racial Books for Children Bulletin.
… they are always written from the viewpoint of the young heroine and deal with her day by day problems, her uncertainties and her first romantic encounters. The heroine is 15, 16 or 17 and the hero no more than a year or two older than she. Though usually they are still in high school, it is permissible for the hero to have just graduated, especially if the novel takes place in the summer…
… Prominent in these novels is the heroine’s inexperience and shyness of dealing with the inevitable misunderstandings of a first romance . she should be from an ordinary middle-class suburban family which is warm and supportive … The plot is moved by a conflict or conflicts embracing adolescent life – finding one’s identity, finding that special boy, choosing between suitors … There can be no explicit sexual involvement between the couple except kissing and feelings of attraction.’
Typical titles are Saturday Night Date, Sixteen Can Be Sweet, New Boy in Town, P.S. I Love You, Please Let Me In.
A couple of publishers blurbs give a taste of the standard plot.
When her old boyfriend went off to college Sarah Jordan felt lost and alone, especially when she thought about the Winter Carnival and Senior Prom. How could she enjoy her senior year without him? Then she met a new classmate, Bernard St Onge. Soon his European charm had her heart singing that old sweet song again. But was she really free to form a new relationship? And would Bernard be interested or had he already fallen for the wiles of Lisa Forster, the scheming class siren. (Serenade, First Love).
Abby’s summer on Castle Island is a lot of fun – at first. She’s popular with the kids. They invite her to parties and Abby is the centre of attention!
Then she meets Guy. He’s Abby’s dream boy, with blond hair and a terrific smile! But the other kids don’t like him. He’s an outsider in their in-group. Abby knows she must make a choice… and it won’t be easy.
It’s certainly a formula which sells. It’s also one which predictably has sparked a debate among critics, teachers, librarians, authors and publishers.
Criticisms of these series are directed mainly at the heroine. She is always white, pretty, (supposedly) intelligent. She never has weight problems, spots or other teenage afflictions. She invariably comes from a happy supportive affluent home where adults are communicative, understanding and loving. Conflict with parents or siblings is practically unknown. The stories are accused of being sexist. The dominant adult female role offered is that of being a mother (or grandmother, or wife). Even when mother has a job this is shown as less important and never impeding her primary function which is to mother (i.e. provide food and good advice). The heroine may aspire to college and a career but this is seen as secondary to getting a boy. Or more properly getting the right boy. Our heroines start out knowing that happiness = getting a boy. They end up knowing that happiness = getting the right boy. And the stories are very clear about what constitutes the right boy.
All boys worth considering in these series are good-looking with broad shoulders, slim waists, ‘rangy muscular frames’. They all have strong, even white teeth and eyes that can range from ‘intense blue’ to ‘interesting brown, flecked with green’. Guy Winship in The Summer of the Sky Blue Bikini (Wildfire)’ Looked like the guy in the Marlboro ad’. So how do you tell Mr Right from Mr Wrong? Well, the right boy is ‘sensitive-looking’, he has ‘an open friendly face’ or ‘an open frank gaze’. He’s clearly ‘open and honest’, ‘what you see is what you get’. He may be ‘shy, serious, formal’, especially if like Bernard St Onge in Serenade he is Belgian. ‘I could not be like American boys, so bold. I did not know how else to tell you how I felt.’ (He’s just dedicated to her his brilliantly original composition for classical guitar: Serenade for Sarah.) He’s articulate, ‘says all those wonderful things that any girl would love to hear but that no kid around here would ever dare to say. Chris spoke the language of poetry’. (One Day You’ll Go, Wildfire).
Above all he’s much more interested in and concerned about our heroine than about himself. ‘Melissa almost melted with admiration for Marshall. None of the selfish hint of wanting to have her alone to himself that Greg would have voiced. Instead Marshall showed a true concern for her feelings, understanding that it had to be something pretty important to her.’ (Please Let Me In, First Love).
He’s gentle, polite, careful of her feelings, ‘mature’, understanding – though, of course much the same age as our heroine!
What an impossible ideal for real life fifteen and sixteen year old boys (or indeed real life adults) to be measured against. Almost as impossible as the ideal of parents and family life depicted here also.
The Stuff of Dreams?
But, you may say, these books come from the dream factory. They are escapist reading. A little junk never did anyone any harm. Perhaps not. Consider though that these stories are being gobbled up as fast as they are produced, often by young impressionable readers. (Remember, First Love’s target is 10-15 year olds.) Are these the best dreams we can offer them? Dreams peopled by two-dimensional characters identified mainly by how they look and what they wear. Is it helpful for a thirteen year old to be offered a vision of being sixteen that is so far removed from reality? The girls in these stories face no real problems, no difficult moral dilemmas. They accept without question or struggle the values of their parents. They like dating and kissing but feel no real passion. ‘ Ecstasy mingled with concern’ rushes through Melissa when Greg thinks it’s time to make their relationship ‘more … meaningful’. The concern Melissa feels is not about coping with her own powerful sexual feelings: it’s simply about how to hang on to her dishy football hero boyfriend.’ Could she keep dating him if he made a nuisance of himself about his needs?’ After all one of her new cheer-leader girl friends in the in-crowd had told her, ‘I hold Louis on two kisses a week’.
The right boys it seems don’t have ‘needs’, and neither do nice girls.
Anne Simpson, an Australian librarian has some interesting views on the effect of all this on boys, their reading habits and their developing ideas about what love is. I’d like to quote extensively here from an article by her which appeared last September in Review, the journal of the Schools Libraries Branch of the Education Department of South Australia.
‘Boys are given no point for identification in these stories. Male readers are unable to compete with male characters who are so mature and unselfish, so competent, sure, good looking, high-minded and so sexless. Whether their emotional response is one of confusion, disbelief or disdain, the end result is that boys turn away from such literature which is unrealistic, sentimental and pat. They turn to non-fiction for their serious reading and to pornography for reading which recognises sex.
Sexual stereotypes are re-inforced, readership is further segregated. Neither sex is in any way prepared by these books for the emotional and physical actuality of real life relationships. In fact they are actively deceived. The author’s own hang-ups about sex are handed on, as is tellingly demonstrated by one author’s defence of her books as she unwittingly gives herself away, calling sex a “problem” and lumping it with suicide. “It is easy”, she says, “to write about the more dramatic problems of sex, suicide etc…. but not every girl engages in sex, drugs, suicide attempts etc.” Critics are continually confusing sexuality and sexual feelings with explicit sexual activity (not, by the way, that there should be anything wrong with that), and seem to think that by acknowledging the sexuality of young people, they are opening the floodgates of pornography.
It is ironical that by denying the characters any sexuality in teenage books, specifically the male characters, they are indeed leading one half of the teenage population to pornography (or at least to girlie magazines), to satisfy their natural curiosity about sex.
The current romance series, with their deliberate omission of any reference to sex, coupled with their easy availability and accessibility seem to me to be a significant and worrying further development of this trend of the polarisation of girls’ and boys’ reading habits and subsequent expectations of what love is about.’
What is also lacking, for me, in these series is the very quality for which we have learned to value American children’s books: humour. These heroines are po-faced, self-obsessed young women: there’s no sense of perspective, no wry self awareness, no sense of the ridiculous. Nothing to help build a teenage survival kit.
So what have the British to offer? Teenage Romance, British Style
`For a welcome change’ says the Heartlines press release ‘the story lines of this British-based series are so real that the endings are rarely neat and happy and the situations are painfully real’. Pam Lyons ‘a key Heartlines author’ writes: ‘The area between childhood and adulthood is an emotional minefield. And whoever dreamed up the phrase “the young years are the best years” obviously had either a very bad memory, or else was wrapped in cotton wool from the age of 14-20! The truth is, the teen years bring with them not only pimples and periods but also a whole gamut of new emotions and experiences. Heartline stories highlight the whole kaleidoscope of these intensely traumatic and emotionally fraught years’.
So we have Maria in Tug of Love in conflict with her strict Italian father over Joey who comes to work in the cafe; Hazel, into Punk and Heavy Metal, truanting and getting involved with rich middle-class Rolo, a biker and leader of the gang, in He Was Bad.
All human life is here?
We are far away from affluent suburban middle America. Hazel lives in a two bedroomed flat; Dad is a salesman, `mostly out on the road’, Mum’s always buying things at coffee mornings. Lainie’s dad is a taxi driver and their villa holiday in Summer Awakening is their first trip abroad, the result of two years saving.
The British stories are stronger stuff in some ways and would not be likely to find favour with moral majority parents in the States who must thoroughly approve of First Love et al.
In Heartlines marriages break up (He Was Bad and A Boy Called Simon). Parents are less than perfect. Lainie’s mum in Summer Awakening who nags, is narrow-minded about bikinis and over indulgent to younger sister Shara, confesses to a brief but passionate Italian affair when she was seventeen and on holiday with a friend although engaged to Lainie’s dad. The result was big brother Brian. Wine and beer appear without attracting much comment. (In the American series alcohol is almost as big a no-no as sex. Melissa, offered a can of beer at a party in Please Let Me In is `shocked’).
Maria and Joey in Tug of Love drink wine at a party in Exeter and bring home friend Janice rather the worse for drink, and drugs.
More significantly the Heartlines approach, at least on the evidence of the first four titles, recognises the existence of strong sexual feelings in teenagers. In Tug of Love, even before they meet, Joey’s voice on the phone makes Maria feel ‘sort of strange – shivery’. Later when they are at a party. ‘I no longer trusted myself. Just his kisses had sent me reeling… I wanted to stop, but somehow I couldn’t.’ Of course they do stop. The good guys, like Joey, know when it’s better to leave the garden shed and get back to the party. Rotters, like Rolo and Jonty (the rich Cambridge under-graduate of Summer Awakening) are ingeniously prevented from having their evil way. Hazel on Rolo’s parents Hampstead bed has drunk too much wine and has to throw up at the crucial moment (I’m not sure what the moral is there). Lainie, torn between shame and desire, discovers a hidden photograph of Jonty’s steady girlfriend and realises she means nothing more to him than ‘a good time’.
This is going to hurt
It’s a hard life with Heartlines, a far cry from the sanitised Sweet Dreams and the like.
The pay-off for Heartlines heroines is different. The author’s brief seems to be to show young love as one, probably painful, step on the road to maturity. ‘ Rolo was a phoney. Only I’d been too young and immature to recognize it … It isn’t easy facing up to your mistakes and I’d made a lot of them.’ (He Was Bad). `Perhaps all first love leaves a bitter sweet memory.’ (A Boy Called Simon) ‘I wonder how other girls will find a holiday romance – on heartbreak. If they will discover true love -on learn a hand lesson? But then maybe that’s what life is all about, learning for ourselves.’ (Summer Awakening) (Let’s hope she wasn’t too damaged by the experience – burying the bikini she was wearing in the rubbish bin is not a good augury for her future sex life!) ‘Maybe it’s just that I am growing up … But sometimes, well sometimes, I wish it didn’t hurt so much . . .’ (Tug of Love)
Will all this home-grown ‘realism’ make Heartlines more appealing than its rivals? The very different teenage culture of the American series – high school, dating, Senior Prom, Homecoming Queen, ‘going steady’ – doesn’t seem to have deterred British readers. They haven’t been put off either by references to fashion and music now fan out of date, on by photographs on the covers of characters most of the young teenagers of my acquaintance would describe as ‘wallys’. What remains is the fantasy of ‘young love’ – false but reassuring. That is the need that is being fed.
At the end of Heartlines stories the girls are ‘wiser’ in conventional terms but they don’t seem any stronger as people on to know a lot more about themselves. Marriage to Mr Right may not be presented as the future; but what is? Hazel, Lainie. Gabby, and Maria don’t look forward at all. They react to whatever presents itself. Only Hazel forces her life into a new direction – and she ends up on probation!
Where in all these series is the warm-blooded, teenage heroine who is developing a proper sense of herself as an individual, taking change of her life and thinking purposefully and realistically about herself, her world and her future?
And where are the writers who can put her into words that are not plonkingly heavy-handed or weary with cliché? Now there is a dream worth having.
First Love titles, Hodder & Stoughton, 85p each (two new titles every month).
Wildfire titles, Scholastic, 75p each.
Heartlines titles, Pan, 85p each (two new titles in August).
What can teachers do?
1. Several commentators have suggested taking short extracts from popular series and getting girls and boys to discuss some of the attitudes and values presented in the stories, guided by questions like How do you choose your friends? Do you agree that for a girl it’s important to have a boyfriend? In this way the books are not dismissed on condemned by the teacher – rather they are opened up for critical examination. We might learn something of what these stories often their readers from this sort of discussion.
2. Offer better books – the classic answer but not easy to achieve. In this area in particular we need to match books to readers. To do this well means knowing a lot of books. We are working on a list and we would welcome your suggestions for it. Send us the details of each title plus a brief note on the sort of readers who in your view will enjoy it most. Don’t be afraid that everyone else will already know what you do – that’s rarely so. Tell us about even the, to you, most obvious titles. You’ll be adding to the well of common experience which we all need to draw on and share.