Novelists take aim at growing young adult market
By LORRAINE ASH | The DAILY RECORD | Sunday, April 8, 2007
With her new novel, "The Girlfriend Project," novelist Robin Friedman makes a splash in the growing world of young adult fiction.
The plot of the story, suitable for readers 12 and up, revolves around 17-year-old Reed Walton, who starts his senior year tall and without braces or glasses. Suddenly, girls like him. Reed needs help with dating. Fast. At first his best friends, Ronnie and Lonnie White — twins — give him tip sheets.
But things soon escalate when Ronnie, a girl, creates www.thegirlfriendproject.com, complete with survey questions and interactive chats, to find Reed just the right woman. Soon all of Marlborough Regional seems involved and The Girlfriend Project has everybody talking about how important appearance is. One survey question:
Should girls ask out guys?
sk8erboy: guys would lk that
HotStud: hello feminism? hello 21st century? hello equality? hello double standard? hello guys doin all the work?
allstar: I guess its ok
floweringgarlic: i don't but I'm not goin to tell other girls they can't
BabeHunter: babes ask me out. If they're hot I go out w/them if not don't. kapeesh?
The 38-year-old Friedman, who lives in [New Jersey] and was inspired to write the novel by the teenage children of friends, got involved with making up the survey questions.
"I wanted to know the answers,"she said, "and I answered them through the posts."
Posts are by made-up names she created with the help of her brother, Jonathan Ben-Joseph, now 21 and attending college in Florida. Friedman learned lingo at teen and slang sites.
Throughout Reed's dating education — his academic one is stellar — there are exploratory kisses and first dates. Finally, he tells Ronnie she is the one for him, though their courtship is short-lived and the plot takes Reed to someone else who has been there all along.
"We're exciting to be publishing Robin's work," said Deb Shapiro, publicity director for Walker Books for Young Readers. "She is a wonderful writer. Also, she is young and vivacious, which is an asset in reaching kids. She is someone they can connect with."
Friedman, special projects editor for the New Jersey Jewish News by day, has two other children's books under her belt — "The Silent Witness" for young readers and "How I Survived My Summer Vacation ... And Lived to Write the Story" for the tween audience (ages 8 to 12). "The Girlfriend Project" is her first YA, or Young Adult, book.
"Choosing teens was deliberate,"she said. "That demographic is so large, it's second only to the baby boomers. That's where I figured I'd have the most success."
Lots of debut novelists are attracted to the field, which has exploded in the last three years, according to Joy Bean, associate children's book editor for Publishers Weekly, which reviewed "The Girlfriend Project."
"There were a lot of 8-to-12 books, and then readers went straight to the adult market," Bean said. "There was a gap."
The diversity in the YA field is vast, and some authors, according to Bean, are not afraid to tackle difficult subjects like drug use and rape. Friedman is not among them, but such wholesome tales as that she has written are a niche in themselves.
"Not everyone is dealing with sex in high school or a dysfunctional family," Bean explained.
YA titles also are ethnically diverse. Two new ones are "Does My Head Look Big in This?" and "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian." The first deals with a Muslim girl who wants to wear her hijab, or head scarf, to school, the second with an Indian leaving the reservation for an education.
Friedman is going on to write more teen books, having found she enjoys writing in an adolescent voice. She also liked writing from the male point of view. One of her main messages in the book, she said, is that boys are as sensitive as girls about life, sexuality and intimacy.
In the story, Reed has a sweet relationship with his expert baker Grandma, who lives with him and his psychologist/parents in a suburb near the Jersey Shore. The two constantly kid each other by suggesting potential entries into the New Jersey Motto Contest. In one scene, they swap ideas as they set the dinner table:
"New Jersey," Grandma says. "More than Just the Turnpike."
"New Jersey," I reply on cue, "At least We're Not Delaware."
"New Jersey," Grandma retorts, "We Have Farms Too."
"New Jersey," I finish up, "Turn Signals Are for Wimps."
After a time, Reed's identity crisis becomes merged with that of New Jersey and the motto contest becomes a way for grandmother and grandson to talk:
"New Jersey," Grandma says, "We May Look Tough on the Outside but We're Soft as Salt Water Taffy on the Inside."
Many places in which the story is set are inspired by the Jersey Shore, making the book especially fun for those who know the Garden State. (Friedman went to school in Marlboro, after which the fictional Marlborough is fashioned.)
Next, Friedman said, comes marketing. The Web site www.thegirlfriendproject.com actually exists; Friedman is running a JerseyGoodies Gift Basket trivia contest for her readers there.
She also is in touch with libraries that have strong YA sections or even teen advisory groups, such as the Princeton Public Library and the Washington Township Public Library in Long Valley, respectively. She hopes to create gatherings at which teens can discuss dating for fun.
In the meantime, she is writing her next teen novel, "Purge," about a young man with an eating disorder. Someone she knows suffered with such a disorder when they were both in college. But Friedman did not find out until years later. That's all this novelist needed to start again.