- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 10, 2002

AUSTIN, Texas ''One of my favorite books is called 'E-mail from God,'" says Gina, referring to a book written specifically for teens by Claire and Curt Cloninger. "Every page has a different letter dealing with everyday life. This book has helped me through a tough time in my life."

An 18-year-old from New Jersey, Gina is the force behind Teen Christian Resources (www.angelfire.com/ me2/bubbles/TCR .html), a site with all manner of links and recommendations for Christian teens. Her top picks for books include "E-mail from God For Teens" (Honor Books), "Prayers on My Pillow: Inspiration for Girls on the Threshold of Change" (Ballantine) and "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Spirituality for Teens" (Alpha Books).

Although she probably doesn't realize it, Gina is a target.

An increasing number of book publishers are starting to put out sophisticated teen-centric religion titles, hoping to sell God to the same 23 million young people who have snapped up $120 billion worth of soft drinks and skateboards in the last year.

"There are plenty of books for teens that are sold to the parents of the teens, but they aren't written for the actual market of teens," says Kate Etue, acquisitions editor for Extreme For Jesus, an imprint of Nashville-based Thomas Nelson Publishing. The division was created to sell the "Extreme Teen Bible," originally bound in orange or purple (now in an edgier silver hue) and available in mass-market outlets like Sam's Club and Barnes & Noble in addition to Christian-themed bookstores.

"What we did with the 'Extreme Bible' was we said things like, 'cool,' and used the lingo that [teens] use," Miss Etue said. "It doesn't have to be academically and grammatically correct." The reaction from teens was "just phenomenal" and reinforced the company's decision to move away from what Miss Etue called "Christianese."

Two years later, Extreme For Jesus has grown to about 30 titles. It releases between six and 10 new books a season under the aegis of brand manager Hayley Morgan, who has decamped from Nike's marketing department. "New," mind you, just might mean slightly tweaked content repackaged with a different cover to catch the eyes of the MTV set. In fact, a pop-up window on the Extreme For Jesus Web site (www.extreme4jesus.com) directs teens to vote on a cover for the title "David" the two choices include a guitar-toting hipster who wouldn't look out of place in an Abercrombie & Fitch catalog. The company also is developing a more compact Bible encased in a metal cover to make it look like a hand-held digital assistant.

It's simple high school math, industry watchers say. "If [publishers] don't cultivate all those readers now, they won't have them later," says Lynn Garrett, religion editor of the trade publication Publishers' Weekly. "And from a mission point of view, they just believe that this is a group that needs to be ministered to The feeling is that teens are at a place in their life when they're open to a lot of ideas and trying to define themselves."

That openness has led many teens to explore religions outside of mainstream Christianity, publishers and booksellers note. At Austin's Whole Life Bookstore, co-owner Sharon Lanier says she has seen an increased interest in Buddhism and Taoism from her teen-age customers, with the biggest seller being "The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying."

Wicca and other pagan religions are also big draws for teen-age girls, Miss Lanier says, particularly a young-adult fiction series from Silver RavenWolf that centers on a teen coven. RavenWolf also has written the nonfiction "Teen Witch: Wicca for a New Generation," and has answered questions from Teen People's readers in online chats.

"I think Wicca is something they're looking at because it has been so taboo in the United States," Miss Lanier says. "I think the teen-agers of today really want to find out the answers behind the myths and the answers behind the legends."

Helping teens in that search for answers is part of the drive behind Bindu Books, a new teen-spirituality imprint of Vermont-based Inner Traditions.

"We were really noticing that there hasn't been anything out there on body-mind-spirit for teens," says Rob Meadows, Inner Traditions' vice president of sales and marketing. "They're getting a lot of the Christian stuff, or what we think of as more mainstream books, like the Chicken Soup books." Indeed, Health Communications Inc.'s "Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul" is the second-best-selling title in the entire Chicken Soup series, HCI spokeswoman Kim Weiss reports.

So Bindu's six-title catalog includes "Teen Astrology: The Ultimate Guide to Making Your Life Your Own," by Nacogdoches writer M.J. Abadie, and "The Thundering Years: Rituals and Sacred Wisdom for the Journey Into Adulthood," by Wisconsin's Julie Tallard Johnson. The latter brings together information on the ways American Indian and other religions mark adolescence, from meditations to drum circles.

Mrs. Johnson has also penned "I Ching for Teens," subtitled "Take Charge of Your Destiny with the Ancient Chinese Oracle." The 224-page book encourages teens to "push the limits."

"All human beings, as well as teens, are hungering for ways to include appropriate rituals in their lives," Mr. Meadows says. "We tend to be technology-oriented; we get materialistic and acquisitive I think we've introduced something that modern teen-agers can adapt to their lives." The books have sold so well that they have gone back for multiple printings.

Which brings up the issue of market longevity especially given that the target audience for these new titles has a legendarily short attention span. Extreme For Jesus' Miss Etue says the key is constant contact with teens. Keeping abreast of their changing tastes ensures that new titles and repackaging stay fresh.

Mr. Meadows isn't so sure. When the subject itself has stood the test of time, it is less likely to be tossed out like last season's low-rise jeans, he says.

"Our business is wisdom sitting on shelves," he said. "We think what we're choosing is timeless information. It's not platitudes it's much more complex than that, much more rich."

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