Teenagers speak in poetry, prose, and photos

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Lisa Schottenfeld was only a sixth-grader when she discovered that she liked to write. For several years she concentrated on short stories. Then, in high school, she branched out into poetry.

"It's easier to get my feelings out in poetry than in prose," says Lisa, a high school senior in Canton, Mass.

Now her talents are reaching a wider audience. Her poem, "Into the Mold," is one of 125 essays, stories, poems, and photographs appearing in "TeenInk: Our Voices, Our Visions," the first anthology written exclusively by teenagers.

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Subjects range from friendship, families, and heroes to love, loss, and the challenge of fitting in. No topic is too personal or controversial to write about: drugs, suicide, divorce, unwed motherhood. But in addition to students' trials, the book records their triumphs, offering a wide-ranging portrait of adolescence that refutes stereotypes.

"It definitely helps people to see that we're not just a group of apathetic teenagers," Lisa says. "We do have passions and beliefs." She adds, "It's nice to know that your work is in print, and that people who don't know you are able to read what you're thinking and feeling."

Compiled by John and Stephanie Meyer, the book is the latest venture in a publishing enterprise that began 11 years ago in their basement. As parents, they shared the conviction that young people have much to say, but few opportunities to express their views. School newspapers usually focus on news, features, and sports. And high school literary magazines are scarce.

To help fill that void, the Meyers sent out fliers soliciting teenagers' articles, fiction, poetry, and reviews. The response provided enough material for the first issue of a monthly magazine called 21st Century.

Today the magazine, now titled TeenInk, averages 30,000 submissions a year. Selections chosen for the book first appeared in the magazine. They were also "teen-tested," reviewed by more than 3,400 students.

In an interview in their second-floor offices in suburban Newton, Mass., where a sheltie named Tyler serves as "office dog," the Meyers reflect on their mission.

"When you see all the good things teenagers are doing, and when you listen to them talk about some of the things they're interested in and concerned about, you realize how much they have to offer," says Mr. Meyer.

Over the years, as the Meyers have pored over some 300,000 submissions, they have watched topics evolve.

One theme running through the book stresses the need to distinguish between what is real about a person and what is just appearance. Diversity ranks as another favorite subject. As teenagers become more ethnically mixed, the Meyers observe, they grow more tolerant and accepting of differences.

Teenagers are also more optimistic than in the past, they say. Students are more focused on education and more committed to getting good grades and going to college. "Today's teenagers think they can change the world and make a difference for the better," says Mr. Meyer. "They feel confident about their ability to make things happen."

Fewer students write about economic issues today, he adds. That contrasts with the 1980s and early 1990s, when many expressed concern about their parents' job losses.

Yet loss remains a frequent theme. "The whole focus on loss has become much more pervasive," Mrs. Meyer says. "Many more young people are dealing with loss at an early age as a result of driving accidents, violence, suicide. Divorce is the loss of a family as they once knew it. Even moving represents a loss."

What students write about most compellingly - both positively and negatively - is their relationship with their parents. Many also talk about wanting to grow up, get married, and have a family.

"The thing that kids care most about, deep down, is their families," Mr. Meyer says. "Anybody who minimizes the importance of families in the lives of teenagers is really missing the most important ingredient in them."

Again and again, he adds, students say that their parents' support and affection are among "the strongest motivators and one of the most important ingredients they need to help them through what is admittedly a difficult period in their lives."

In an essay titled "Hockey Dad," Brendan Murphy, a high school sophomore in Milton, Mass., pays tribute to his father for supporting his love of hockey. The piece, in a chapter called "Heroes," appeals to students and parents alike, Brian says, adding, "Kids from any age group know the feeling when their fathers and mothers influence them."

Kun Jia is a high school junior in New City, N.Y. Her essay, "Miracle on Eighth Street," describes the day she and her family visited the house, now rundown, where they lived when she was a child. Calling herself "a pretty literature-ish person," Kun says that the book gives her writing "more dimension" than it had as an English assignment.

"There are some people who think my writing is actually legitimate," she says, a trace of wonder in her voice. "It makes me feel good."

Next spring the Meyers plan to publish a sequel, "TeenInk 2: More Voices, More Visions." Other future books will focus on specific topics: family, friends, heroes, love. All proceeds go to a nonprofit Young Authors Foundation to support writing and publishing opportunities for teenagers. (The Meyers support themselves through advertising in the magazine, foundation grants, and donations from individuals.)

Although the book's title and colorful cover make teens its main audience, the Meyers hope that adults will also find it appealing. "It will allow them see teenagers in a different light," she says. "They'll know that teens have many caring feelings and insights into the human condition."

Caring is, of course, a mutual endeavor. Teens, Mr. Meyer emphasizes, "really need support, and they really need to be listened to."

Adds Mrs. Meyer, "If we listen to them, we can learn a lot from them."

For more information, see www.teenink.com or write PO Box 30, Newton, MA 02461.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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