Interview with Addie Swartz, Creator of Beacon Street Girls Series
Two weeks ago, I attended the New Jersey Association of School Librarians' (NJASL) Annual Conference in Long Branch, NJ. I presented twice (see handouts, posted below) and attended a variety of excellent workshops. (Side note: I've been attending this conference for 4 years now, and this was the first year I noticed a technology stream in the programming -- 2.0 stuff is really making inroads with this often isolated group!) One of my favorite sessions, Is 12 The New 18?, was presented by Addie Swartz, the creator and publisher of the Beacon Street Girls series. The BSG are aimed at an audience that is, as Addie puts it, between toys & boys -- tweenaged girls who might be the younger siblings of fans of Gossip Girl, The Clique, The A-List, The It Girl, and so on, but who are not developmentally ready to handle the girl-on-girl nastiness and sexually explicit content of those wildly popular series.
I'll admit I was skeptical about the appeal of the BSG at first, and thought that the whole idea of setting out to create an antidote to Gossip Girl was foolish, but Swartz and her creations won me over. Swartz's own 15 year-old daughter is a fan of Gossip Girl & The Clique, and as she told me after her presentation, she couldn't see keeping the books out of her daughter's hands, but she wanted to offer a healthy alternative to those books for younger readers. Based on the series' success, I'd say that that's quite a healthy niche market. The idea is to catch the readers when they're about 9 or 10, and hold onto them until they're 12 or 13. Swartz is realistic about how aspirational tween girls are -- they all want to look and act older than they are (so true -- even I subscribed to Seventeen when I was 12, but by the time I was 17, I'd long since moved on) -- and about the virtual impossibility of appealing to a girl who, at age 11, is already a fan of The Clique.
Addie Swartz was kind enough to submit to an e-mail interview with me. Our exchange, and links to other materials with tween girl appeal follow.
Sophie: How did the Beacon Street Girls series come to be? What was the spark of inspiration that gave you the idea, and how much research did you do before launching the series?
Addie: The Beacon Street Girls were born, in, of all places, the mall. While shopping with my eldest daughter and her friends one Friday night, we were confronted with a huge photo of an almost naked woman just inside the door of Abercrombie’s. The girls looked embarrassed. One of my daughter’s friends said to her, “Why do they have to do that?” Right then, I recognized the “Wake Up Call”. How could girls not feel inadequate and insecure looking at such a public display of sexuality -- just when their own bodies were changing so fast?
I started thinking about what kind of company I could start that could offer girls an antidote. What kind of a company would give girls strategies for navigating through adolescence . . . while helping keep their self-esteem intact -- role models that were more realistic and attainable, that supported who girls really are.
I did a lot of research. I spoke with school librarians, teachers, parents, and of course, lots of girls. By 2002, I had my concept: a character-based brand with a book series as the foundation – a kind of 21st century Nancy Drew. And, in order to reach girls everywhere, the company would also offer gifts and an interactive website with all the bells and whistles to encourage girls to read and explore the positive world I was creating.
Sophie: Each title in the series addresses issues that tween girls may face in school or at home -- the changing terrain of friendships, obesity, alcohol use, bullying -- how do you make sure that these issues are dealt with authentically and not in a preachy way?
Addie: We work with a panel of world-renowned experts to create the story lines for each book, based on current issues and strategies for building self esteem. In addition, a lot of our ideas come right from the girls on our Tween Advisory Board and Club BSG, our free online club for girls under 17. They write to us and to the characters; they respond to surveys and our requests for ideas – they share the issues they struggle with every day, and we embed them into the stories. And while we have a higher goal and mission for the company (e.g. providing girls with positive role models and impacting their behaviors in a positive manner) we remember that reading should be also fun and entertaining.
In addition, our website offers educators, librarians and after school program leaders a wealth of free downloadable educator activities. The activities are designed for school teachers, grades 4 through 7; librarians, guidance counselors, scouting and after-school program leaders to complement and support the Beacon Street Girls book series. The guides are designed as print-ready pages and include discussions, group activities, and art & writing projects. Designed by teachers, the activities fit right into various curricula, and are designed to be both fun and meaningful for girls.
Sophie: What role do the girls who participate in the BSG Club play in the publication of new titles in the series?
Addie: Every day we get emails and letters from BSG fans. They want to talk to the characters, ask them questions, ask for advice. Their thoughts and input are very important to us. Let me give you an example of how this works. Our latest book, Charlotte in Paris, is a direct result of input from the Club BSG members. Since the first book in the series was published, girls have told us that they want to see Charlotte return to Paris, where she lived before she moved back to Brookline. They wanted her to reunite with her best friend Sophie and find her lost cat, Orangina. So we created an “adventure series” profiling each one of the 5 Beacon Street Girls so that girls could get further connected to the characters and the world. (I won’t spoil the ending and tell you how the book ends.)
Sophie: How do you find the experts you've worked with in conjunction with researching & writing the books?
Addie: We do a lot of research to find our experts, reviewing publications and books on a variety of child-related topics. Some of them come to us through other experts we’ve worked with, or, we see a book they wrote or an interview they did. Now that we have 400,000 books in print, in many cases they approach us!
Sophie: What kind of popular culture references (if any) do you include in the books? Current references tend to make books seem dated quickly -- do you avoid them for that reason?
Addie: We include major landmarks (such as Fenway Park, Times Square, etc.) that aren’t likely to change. We rename some institutions (like the school that the girls attend) and some things we make up. We do use email and IM because kids today are accustomed to their use in their own lives. One of the girls has a cell phone.
Sophie: To what extent has popular culture -- both of tween girls and of their parents -- influenced the series?
Addie: The pace of life has accelerated. On the Internet, girls are chatting with friends or “friending” strangers via YouTube and MySpace. Reading has taken a back seat to electronic media. Sex & violence have gone mainstream, with girls being bombarded with provocative messages on billboards, in fashion magazines, in pop music, on the internet. 12 is the new 18 as evidenced by a number of articles, including "Too Sexy, Too Soon", 10/06 Family Circle.
Overall, there seems to be a disappearance of childhood. It’s more difficult than ever for girls to successfully navigate the social scene. Choices are difficult for preteens who are “between toys and boys.” The children’s section in bookstores and libraries is seen as too babyish for kids anxious to grow up, kids who may have been exposed to more mature material in other media. The Independent Reader section is still small but growing, and the YA section, striving to differentiate itself from kids’ material, is often doing so using shock value. (While not commonly found in the school library, the Clique, the A List & Gossip Girl books are often the choice of 10 and 11 year olds who are looking to emulate teens.) Earlier this year, the New York Times carried the story onto its pages – “Young Adult Fiction: Wild Things.”
What girls are lacking are messages that put more emphasis on being smart, taking risks (good risks), feeling good about who you are, the importance of having friends, a world that is cross cultural, giving back to the community… I want to encourage girls to get involved. To find something they’re passionate about. Not to give up. I want them to know that they each have something significant to contribute… That each of us has our closet filled with issues, imperfections, and deficiencies. With hope, confidence and perseverance, anything can be achieved.
I want messages that support and inspire our women of the future, and so the BSG books are designed to do just that.
Sophie: Once the Beacon Street Girls series is complete with Book 10, where do you see B*tween Productions going next? Another series for girls -- perhaps a spinoff of BSG? A series for boys?
Addie: Oh, we’ve just begun building a more positive world for girls via the Beacon Street Girls. While there are currently 10 books – 9 “Classics” and the 1st book of our BSG Adventure series, Charlotte in Paris – we have 6 new books scheduled for next year, making the series 16 strong, with many more to come. We find that once a 4th or 5th grader discovers our books, they’re hooked. Adults can sign up for our e-newsletter and kids can sign up for Club BSG on our website, if you’d like to be “in the know” for all things BSG.
Sophie here again -- here are some more resources for tween girls who are, as Addie puts it, between toys and boys:
New Moon Magazine
American Girl Magazine
Girlstart: Empowering Girls in Math, Science, and Technology
Kay Vandergrift's Empowering Young Women page
And two not-too-sexy magazines for girls 11-13: Girls' Life and Justine.