April 17, 2014

“Clean teen” is a dirty word


Teenagers laughing at a "Clean Teen" book -- I hope via Shutterstock

Teenage life rarely looks like this
via Shutterstock

Yesterday Bloomsbury Children’s Books, one of the leading publishers of children’s fiction (whose authors include JK Rowling, Neil Gaiman and Benjamin Zephaniah), announced a new global strand of publishing: clean teen. The books will fall under the series title “If Only.”

As it’s not a series designed  to encourage teenagers to shower more frequently or tidy their rooms more often, the exact definition of “clean teen” is hard to fathom. The Bookseller describes the series, as “romance novels” while the publisher offers a longer explanation: that the novels centre “on teens who fall for someone they shouldn’t”.

But if these books are teenage romps through dangerous crushes, surely there’s nothing “clean” about them?

Ellen Holgate, the UK editorial director for children’s fiction at Bloomsbury suggests they’re cleaner and more fluffy than New Adult, commenting, “After a glut of new adult fiction, these ‘clean teen’ romances are perfect holiday reading for those looking for a bit of real-life escapism.” Cindy Loh, publishing director in the US preferred to distinguish them from the ever-popular sci-fi genre:

With all the dreary, end-of-the-world fiction out there, it’s refreshing to offer a series about new love, the tantalizing thrill of should-I-or-shouldn’t-I, and the exciting roller coaster ride of real life to our teen readers.

Both of these descriptions seem very much like repackaging chick-lit for younger women. Chick-lit has in recent times lost the popularity it once enjoyed among older female readers, and that is only a good thing. Although part of the market has been replaced by Fifty Shades and subsequently the New Adult strain, readers have also seen a refreshing change of direction in novels for and by young women. We recently covered the phenomenon of the “rise of the literary anti-heroine”, which could be seen in “a bevy of recent books feature female main characters who avoid falling into the role of caregiver or even quirky love interest”, as our own Sadie Mason-Smith noted at the time.

As for the “dreary, end-of-the-world fiction” that Loh is so against, some recent teenage science fiction has been very good for young women. Both the Hunger Games and Divergent franchises feature female leads who are given more to do than just break hearts and go on escapades to European beaches. Far from being “clean”, the young women in these novels fight, harm people and get hurt; they take risks, make mistakes and encounter moral questions. Contrast this with the blurb for one” If Only” title, Wish You Were Italian:

The summer before senior year of high school. It’s supposed to be one of the biggest summers of her life, but Pippa is headed to an art program she has no interest in. The one saving grace is it’s in Italy. And when the opportunity strikes, she decides to ditch the program and travel Italy accomplishing her own list of goals. Things like swimming in the Mediterranean Sea, eating a whole pizza in one sitting… and falling in love with an Italian boy!

Take that dreary sci-fi! A whole pizza in one sitting!

Cleanliness is an interesting word to bring into a discussion about young women and the culture and media they are exposed to. It is paradoxical to call these books “clean” when they are so titillating, suggesting a sex-on-the-beach lifestyle that is at odds with the boring realities of high school, however hard the publishers insist that the books represent “the exciting roller coaster ride of real life”. Spoiler alert girls: real life will never feel like a rollercoaster.

But it’s also perverse to expect young women to enjoy the fantasies of these books as long as they understand they are forbidden to approach such sexual experience in their real lives, as though doing so would render them “unclean”. In One Tree Hill, a TV show many of these teens will be too young to remember, the Clean Teens was the name of the abstinence club at the local school and young women who self-identified with the club wore t-shirts displaying the slogans to show everyone at school that they would stay virgins until marriage. Now young women don’t even need the t-shirts; they just need to show up to school with one of these books.

Of course there is no suggestion that the Clean Teen genre might also offer something for teenage boys, who are allowed to remain dirty and proud. “Clean” in this context is resolutely gendered, neatly continuing the ideals of purity, modesty and domesticity that have plagued young women for so long.


Zeljka Marosevic is the former managing director of Melville House UK.