Teen novels: What kind of values do they promote?
New York — Girl meets boy. Girl moons over boy. Girl gets boy. Girl and boy wander off into the sunset, shyly holding hands. An age-old formula novel - but with a twist. These are teen-age romances, slickly packaged and given the hard sell, and girls are buying them by the truckload.
They're the junior version of the adult romances found at supermarket checkouts everywhere, the same cheap editions, the same second-rate prose, the same predictable plots. But there are a few differences. The teen-age characters never go beyond a chaste kiss. And the teen-age books are sold in schools.
Scholastic Book Services, one of the most respected names in educational publishing (its advertising claims it reaches half of the schoolchildren in this country), and Xerox Education Corporation are promoting the romances through their school book clubs. Xerox distributes Bantam's ''Sweet Dreams'' and Simon & Schuster's ''First Love,'' while Scholastic publishes its own ''Wildfire'' (run-of-the-mill romances), ''Wishing Star'' (romances which revolve around a problem - a physical disability, tough home or school situation, or personal problem), and ''Windswept'' (sanitized Gothic romances) series.
In addition, the books are sold in bookstores, as are offerings from several other publishers. Harlequin, a name synonymous with adult romances, will soon enter the teen-age market as well.
Teen romances are nothing new. What is new is the hard sell these are getting: magazine, TV, and radio advertising. And what's also new - and perhaps alarming - is that the hard sell continues in the classroom.
This is what concerns some educators, who object to what they see as using the authority of the schools to exploit students.
But there is also concern about what's old about these books. A representative of the National Council of Teachers of English calls them ''a giant step back into the 1950s,'' not only because of the way males and females are represented, but also the virtual invisibility of anyone other than the white middle class.
''There's probably enough excellence to go around that we don't have to use that formula-written mediocrity,'' says David Darland, associate director of instuction and professional development of the National Education Association, the largest organization of educators in the country. The NEA so objects to the romance series that it has joined with the Council on Interracial Books for Children (CIBC) in protest.
The current issue of the CIBC bulletin is devoted to the romance books. The CIBC/NEA joint editorial states:
''(The romance books) represent a backsliding, a regression to the most sexist messages of the 1940s and 1950s (and they're not so hot in the racism department either). A new generation is now being subjected to the same nonsense - good looks and the right clothes are a girl's most important attributes, there is no need to take responsibility for your life because a man will do it for you , life 'ends' (at 16 years old, if you're really lucky) when you can walk off into the sunset with the perfect boyfriend. . . .
''What concerns us most, however, is the fact that these books are being sold in the schools, thereby giving them a validity they might not otherwise have.''
Editors and publishers of the series, and some educators, defend the books, pointing out that they must be what the students want, since a single story sells up to 90,000 copies through the book clubs. And just as many are sold in stores.
The clubs offer a selection of books periodically throughout the school year (Scholastic's Teen Age Book Club nine times and Xerox's Read four times) at prices students can afford, generally below bookstore prices. It's up to the teacher to put together the order and collect the money, and distribute the books when the order arrives. The teacher earns points toward free books or teacher aids for each book sold.
The offering of books runs the gamut: Scholastic's first circular for this school year ranges from the classic ''Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl'' to joke books and movie tie-ins, with the emphasis heavily on the latter. Highlighted is ''A brand-new WILDFIRE Romance!''
''I don't think we would offer more than one Wildfire a month in the club,'' says Wildfire editor Ann Reit. ''I don't think we should drown the kids in the Wildfire books.''
But in addition to the highlighted Wildfire title, another one is ''backlisted'' in this brochure, a standard practice. Several non-Wildfire romances are also listed. And the Wishing Star and Windswept books are also offered through the club. A recent brochure for the Xerox Read club featured three romances on its cover.
The books are squeaky clean, in the first-kiss, will-he-ask-me-to-the-dance? genre. Most of them are set in middle-class suburban settings, occasionally in a more rural or more urban setting. With one or two exceptions, the characters are white and financially comfortable.
The girls seem to be conventionally beautiful, with long shiny hair and clear skin. They all have bouts of shyness or insecurity. And they all want A Boyfriend, who is invariably a year or two older, strong and conventionally handsome.
With their requisite happy ending, the plots are either predictable or contrived. The girl always ends up with the boy of her dreams, or with someone even better. Along the way, she may work out a problem of some sort, ranging from the -agony of being too beautiful, to painful shyness, to her parents' divorce. But the core of each book, as Reit points out, is the romance.
Scholastic was the first to realize the potential for the romances and has been pushing its line for two years. Each romance title, says Reit, sells double what a ''classic'' sells.
''In a two-month period, a good seller can sell up to 90,000 copies, and it goes down from there, but I would say the least it would probably sell is maybe 55,000 copies.'' But, she adds, ''You take something like 'Marmaduke' (a dog cartoon character), you give them 'Marmaduke' and it can sell over 100,000 copies in that two-month period.''
She says that the books' success is an indication ''that Scholastic is a company that knows the reader.''
The line is obviously very successful financially for the company, but Reit rushes past that to talk about the benefits she sees for the reader.
''I hope that what we are giving them are books that when they read them they know the writer knows them and likes them and respects them, that they're not looked down upon. That even these first relationships with boys are not brushed off.
''I like to think one of two things: either they will read these and learn to like to read and move on to other kinds of books, or maybe they never will but at least they'll be reading.''
But those fond hopes are challenged by Alleen Nilsen, associate professor of education at Arizona State University and co-editor of the National Council of Teachers of English journal for secondary schools.
''After adults read 20 Harlequins, do they read Thomas Hardy?'' she asks.
She recalls when she was young, she had to sneak around to read ''stuff like this,'' magazines such as True Romances or True Confessions.
Nilsen points to research which found that people who are good readers enjoyed books as little children and became readers at an earlier age than the market these romances are aiming for.
''I've always believed kids have to get hooked on reading something,'' she says. ''If it's romances, OK, but I wish there was somebody around to tell them it's fantasy.''
Although her own children are in college, she speculates about how they would react if they were reading these romances.
''If my daughter took it seriously, she'd think there was something wrong with her measure of social sophistication,'' she says. Nielsen also points out that her sons would be influenced by the books, even though it is unlikely they would read them: ''If the girls they want to date read them, they're going to influence them.''
''I worry about kids always being disappointed because their own love life never stacks up to these romances.''
She calls the idealized boys in these books ''just as bad as the foldouts where the woman is physically perfect,'' and says there is ''no way real living teen-age boys can live up to these romances.''
Does she see any value in the books?
''Well, most of the words are spelled right.''
Dr. Alvin Poussaint, a Harvard University psychiatrist, minces no words when talking about the teen-age romances. He says they can't help but lead to even more promiscuity among teen-agers, even though the books always stop at the first kiss (and often with the boy pulling away abruptly and telling the girl it's time to go home).
''Everybody knows what it means. Who are they kidding?
''The books keep them eternally stimulated and turned on. They lead to early and frequent sex.''
Both Drs. Nilsen and Pouissant are concerned about the absence of minority characters in the books. Dr. Pouissant's research shows that the absence of minority figures in textbooks adversely affects black teen-agers' self-image. The same holds true for these books, he maintains.
''What a black girl gets, first of all, is that she's not as valued as much as a white girl. . . . The beauty standard is overwelmingly and constantly reinforced as the white standard. . . . If a young black girl tries to imitate these styles and can't, it adds to her own problems.''
Editor Reit says that Scholastic perceives its market as ''middle class, middle America white, so I'm doing books for this market.'' She says that it doesn't matter to a city reader that the characters all live in small towns (''although they don't like foreign settings''), but acknowledges that it might make a difference to a young black girl that the characters are all white. One ''Wishing Star'' book has a secondary black character, and an upcoming Wildfire will feature both a black and a white couple.
Marilyn Kaye, a professor in the college of librarianship at the University of South Carolina, finds more value in the books than does Dr. Nilsen.
''I wouldn't try to defend these books as great literature or learning experiences, but I think they can be just for fun.''
She thinks the books are valuable as an escape to a safer world, where the big question is whether she should kiss him goodnight.
To her, teachers and librarians have two obligations: to give the students what they want to read, and to improve their taste. The trick is to walk the line between the two.
''If a kid reads romances exclusively, why not bring out one with a romantic subplot but of a higher quality?'' she suggests.
She doesn't agree with critics who call the books sexist. The heroine usually has some interest other than boys, she points out, and often the mother works in addition to being a homemaker.
''Having a boyfriend is very, very important. To a 13-year-old girl, it's more important than career goals,'' she says.
Ann Reit agrees. ''There is an awful lot of 'stereotypical' things that go on with adolescent girls. There is a similarity about many aspects of their growing up.''
This is what makes the books especially appealing, she says, because the girls can see themselves in the books' characters.
''I think the books make these girls feel less alone, that when they're reading they say, 'I'm not the only one who feels miserable or ridiculously happy when I see the back of some boy's head.' ''
She defends the books as ''pleasure reading,'' a phrase she uses over and over when discussing the books. Is she concerned about the NEA's distress over the books?
''This is pleasure reading, and I feel that's what it should be, a pleasure.
''Scholastic is a big company and does many things and there are many other areas of the company that are totally involved with educational things and in each club list the reader has a big wide choice of books they can buy if they want other kinds of books.''
NEA's David Darland agrees, in part. ''Scholastic puts out some good material , but these are unfortunate. . . . I wish they would use some criteria for selection.
''While stoutly maintaining that the romance series is pleasure reading, Reit at the same time says that the readers can learn from the books, lessons about jealousy, shyness, or ''being yourself.'' These are the lessons that come through, not the ones about the ''right'' clothes or the ''right'' hair, she says.
In addition, the ''Wishing Star'' series attempts to deal with ''some of the more serious problems of young girls today, like divorce, school difficulties, loneliness, death, parental things, etc. No books will deal with sexual matters, like abortion, unmarried pregancy, affairs. There should, however, be a romance in every book,'' read the authors' guidelines.
The ''Wishing Star'' books on blindness, paraplegia, joint custody, and alcoholism have been criticized by Disabled in Action, a New York group, as presenting ''fantasies, easy solutions to difficult problems in worlds that do not exist.''
Scholastic tried publishing a Wildfire magazine, a collection of short stories, poetry, and articles with titles such as ''Quiz: Does He Like Me?'' and ''Can This Romance Be Saved?'' but after one issue, the magazine met with such protest that it was withdrawn.
The protest was sparked by Elaine Wagner, a New York City parent who recounts her objections to the magazine:
''We all read romances when we were growing up in the 1950s and early 1960s, didn't we? Yet, even before women's roles were at issue, our parents and teachers referred to such romances as trash, and they were not written for us, but rather for glamorous 'older women' in their 20s. And they were certainly not distributed at school! We sneaked to the corner drugstore and bought them, and we read them sans approval and sans the notion that those characters were desirable role models. But 'Wildfire's' protagonists were near my child's age; I gave her money to buy the magazine; her teacher took the order; and the magazine was delivered to her classroom at school. These romances were being presented as an educational experience.''
Her protests, which were joined by the CIBC and numerous other educational groups, eventually brought a phone call from the president of Scholastic, M. Richard Robinson, in which she says he admitted that publishing the magazine was a mistake.
Although no further issues of the magazine are planned, leftover copies of the first one are being offered as a ''large format paperback.''
Marilyn Kaye equates the pressure on Scholastic over the magazine with the pressure coming from right-wing groups over materials they consider ''immoral.''
''How can either of these actions be perceived as anything other than an assualt on intellectual freedom, on the right of access to reading material?'' she writes in the American Library Association's journal, Top of the News.
Bradford Chambers, editor of the CIBC Bulletin, draws a careful distinction between the two:
''The kind of criticism the council offers is to push for more inclusion of different perspectives, to get feminist and third-world perspectives, a broadening, an opening up,'' he says. ''The Moral Majority is seeking to exclude information from books, restricting information.''