Literary sensation: The Notebook Girls

New York's latest publishing sensation is the real-life diary of these four teenagers, which has outraged parents with its frank sexual content

By Lucie Greene

Published: 04 June 2006

Sex, drugs, drink, obsessing over body image, kissing girls, kissing boys, kissing both: just an average week for four teenage girls whose handwritten diary has become a New York literary sensation.

The Notebook Girls, published by Warner Books, has shocked parents with a frank portrayal of life as a teenager at high school, and simultaneously wangled itself on to The New York Times bestseller list for three weeks.

The young female authors are just the latest in a growing group of teen literaries in what is quickly becoming America's most lucrative publishing target, the burgeoning Young Adult demographic.

The Notebook Girls itself sounds innocent enough. It's a condensed version of a diary that was passed around four teenage girls, Sophie Pollitt-Cohen, Courtney Toombs, Julia Baskin and Lindsey Newman, during four years at Stuyvesant, New York City's most prestigious public high school. All the entries have been scanned, complete with doodles, ink stains and photo collages, making the insight into everyday life as an urban teen all the more realistic.

But for some, casual references to oral sex, smoking drugs and drinking have proven all too real. Some parents have banned their children from reading the diaries, and even some in the literary world have voiced misgivings about the dynamic new teen market.

"I used to handle young adult fiction but decided I didn't want to be part of it, however lucrative it was," said leading literary agent Adam Chromy. "I wasn't comfortable with the trend where the books were becoming more sexual and the authors were becoming younger or more scandalous to compete."

The Notebook Girls has also incurred the wrath of the popular press, with the New York Daily News screaming the warning "Sex, Drugs, and Your Teen" from its cover. But co-author Courtney Toombs defended the publication last week. "Most of the book is about our friendship. It's a real portrayal of what being a teen is like. Lots of kids we knew were drinking and doing drugs. We weren't unusual, or the worst."

"It's not like The Notebook Girls invented smoking pot," added Ms Pollitt-Cohen. "Only one person has sex in the book. That was me. But it's not like I stood on the street and asked anyone! I think the controversy is silly."

The book was started, according to the authors, with no intention to seek publication. But Ms Pollitt-Cohen's parents, Randy Cohen (columnist at The New York Times Magazine) and Katha Pollitt (of The Nation magazine), spotted potential and encouraged them to show it to a literary agent. "When we were writing we had no idea to make it into a book until my dad first suggested that other people might be interested. I didn't take it seriously, but then we showed it to a family friend in the industry who agreed."

Neither are they the only ones being taken seriously by publishers. Teen authors are rapidly building a significant presence in the US book market. "Teens are becoming more literary," said Ned Vizzini, who shot to fame for writing Teen Angst? ... Naah aged 19 in 2000. "It's a function of the internet. We're the MySpace generation. It's very powerful for young people to connect and interact and makes them more interested in reading."

Clearly, much of the reason for the popularity of books such as The Notebook Girls is the controversy. The book has undoubtedly caused a stir, but it is just one part of an ongoing debate about risqué material in this genre. The Gossip Girl series, from the same publishers, has been criticised publicly for its graphic sexual content.

"All these girls are buying into that 'We seem way older than we are' mentality," explained one angry parent. "It's kind of 13 going on 30. They want to skip everything that's awkward about being teenagers and go straight to being hot.

"There are young adult books that tackle a range of important issues, but these are far outnumbered by those with sexual content that glorify and titillate."


On Drugs

"We did so much STUPID shit - smoking weed bought from random guys that was actually laced with crack"

On Sex

"He asked if I was nervous and I realised I wasn't... After, we just lay in bed listening to Simon and Garfunkel"

On Body Image

"Do guys know what it's like to be 5'2" and 93lbs and be told you're fat?"

On Parents

"Don't they realise the more they restrict me the more I want to rebel?"

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