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What Are Teens Reading?

by Steve Crabtree

Summertime is near, and the living will be easy for many U.S. teens who have a break from school. Educators hope they will use some of that time to do a little summer reading, and many teens probably will. When asked in the most recent Gallup Youth Survey* about the books they have read for pleasure in the last six months, 82% indicated that they had read a book. The specific responses form a diverse list of literary choices, from Great Expectations to Gossip Girl.

The adventures of the boy wizard in J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series is once again affirmed as a cultural phenomenon, mentioned by 10% of teens -- almost three times as many as any other book or series.

Still Wild About Harry

Rowling is often credited with motivating kids to read again. Potter-mania was sweeping America's youth even before the film adaptation of the first book hit theaters in 2001. Now, with three movies out and the sixth book, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, already a best seller well before its July 16 release, teens show no signs of tiring of the franchise.

Jennifer, a 17-year-old respondent from Minnesota, says their ability to relate to the characters is the key to Harry Potter's sustained appeal among teens. "Harry's just this down-on-his-luck kid, who also happens to be the superhero of the series," she says. "Also, the fact that it all takes place at a school makes it seem cool."

Tolkien Lives

The Lord of the Rings was wildly popular among American youth in the 1960s, when many young people sported "Gandalf for President" buttons and "Frodo Lives" bumper stickers. Now, J.R.R. Tolkien's classic literary work is enjoying resurgence among U.S. teens, thanks to the blockbuster film versions released in 2001, 2002, and 2003. The novels are challenging reads compared wuth Rowling's more kid-friendly fantasy fare; nonetheless, many teens are drawn into Tolkien's richly detailed world. Four percent of teens say they've read The Lord of the Rings for pleasure in the last six months.

Michael, a 15-year-old also from Minnesota, feels that in addition to the Rings movies, some of Harry Potter's success has rubbed off on the Tolkien saga. "I think a lot of kids like the kind of fantasy world they read about in Harry Potter, but then sometimes they want to move on to books that are a little more grown-up."


There are currently 11 books in the Series of Unfortunate Events collection, penned by Daniel Handler writing as the mysterious Lemony Snicket. Three percent of teens have read books from this series in the last six months. More than 25 million copies have been sold and a movie adaptation of the first three books was released last year. Like the Harry Potter series, the Snicket books are written for kids but in no way condescend to them -- kids seem to love their menacing tone, dark humor, and sophisticated wordplay.

Chloe, a 13-year-old from Ohio, says she likes the Lemony Snicket series for some of the same reasons she enjoys Mary Higgins Clark's novels: "The have a lot of action and good characters. Also, [the Snicket books] take place in the 1800s, so it's interesting to know about how things were back then."

*These results are based on telephone interviews with a randomly selected national sample of 1,028 teenagers in the Gallup Poll Panel of households, aged 13 to 17, conducted Jan. 17 to Feb. 6, 2005. For results based on this sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum error attributable to sampling and other random effects is ±3 percentage points. In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

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