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How Teenreads Began: Carol Fitzgerald Reflects on the Stories Behind the Site

Teenreads.com 20th Anniversary

How Teenreads Began: Carol Fitzgerald Reflects on the Stories Behind the Site

I am often asked how Teenreads got started. Twenty years later, I still love the story of how it began --- and how it has grown.

In 1996, when The Book Report Network launched, we had one site on AOL called The Book Report (now Bookreporter.com). We published features and reviews...for adults. We also hosted 24/7 chat rooms and message boards...for adults. We had the only book site online; I know, imagine that!

Teens looking for a place to talk about the books they loved soon discovered the site and jammed the chat rooms. Many of the books they enjoyed were unknown to adult chatters. And, more importantly, many of the adults didn’t want to talk about them.

As these conversations got heated, we reached out to the Teen Channel on AOL (yes, there was such a thing) and proposed the idea of giving teens their own site, as well as their own chat rooms and message boards.

We launched "The Book Bag” --- it became Teenreads when we migrated the sites onto the web in 1999 --- in the summer of 1997 with the novelization of Men in Black. Why that? Because it was the hottest movie of the summer, and we were going for the biggest audience possible...and maybe we wanted that highly coveted AOL front screen promotion. MEN IN BLACK got us that; the teen chat rooms and message boards filled up fast. We knew exactly when school got out in the East as the rooms suddenly filled up. We had these rooms and message boards staffed long into the night on weekdays and all day on weekends, and it was all talk about books, authors, books, authors.

It was a very sad day in October 1998 when the COPPA law went into effect. Now we weren’t allowed to talk to kids under 13 without parental permission, and AOL was reluctant to try to vet participation --- we had to close our chat rooms and message boards. It was a loss for all of us: we learned a lot from teens as they were freely talking about books they loved, thus we were hands on at knowing what they liked --- and we know that for many of them, it was a chance to blossom as they talked to their book friends across the country.

In 1997, YA books were very different from what we are seeing today. The topics were softer, and diversity was on no one’s radar. There was The Baby-Sitters Club series;  J.K. Rowling was just publishing the first of her Harry Potter series. I can remember speaking to a group of publishing professionals the day after the Columbine massacre in April 1999. I asked them: Why are there so few “issue” books in YA? I was told that “gatekeepers” --- teachers and librarians --- weren’t interested in these topics for teens. I was skeptical; I had a feeling teens wanted more.

As I attend previews and look at catalogs today, I can see that I was right --- so much for sheltering youth! YA has become one of the hottest categories in publishing, with no topic off-limits. Teens are talking about books all over the internet and reaching out to authors on social media as both heroes and friends. YA books are read by 20somethings, 30somethings and even those way beyond those ages. The writing is sharp, brisk and, yes, often issue-driven.

Content on the site came from other inspirations as well. Early in September, the year that we launched “The Book Bag,” I stopped by my local library and overheard a high school student ask where the summer reading books were. “I’ll take them all," he said. The librarian’s response: “School starts tomorrow.” His glib reply: “It’s going to be a long night.” Right then, I got the kernel of the idea for Teenreads.com's “Ultimate Reading List” --- I was hooked on the idea of getting teens reading by suggesting books that we felt would make them enjoy reading. It worked out so well that schools tell us they look at our “Ultimate Reading List” when they are selecting books for Summer Reading. We used to update this list annually, but starting in August, we began adding titles monthly, much the same way as we do on Bookreporter.com with our Bets On titles.

Five years ago, I noticed that a lot of YA chatter was coming from those who were not teens. We wanted to be sure that the teen voices were the ones we heard the loudest, so in 2012 we made a decision to form a Teen Board to give teens a chance to be heard --- unfiltered. We had hundreds of applicants for 24 slots. With the new board that we are putting on starting in September (now for an annual term, not the six months we did when we started), we will have 55 members. This time around we’re focusing on teens who are experts on social media; our new board includes at least four BookTubers. Now there is a term that we did not think about 20 years ago; back then we barely had broadband!

We’ve also ramped up our event coverage. As there are teen festivals across the nation, we are asking Teen Board members and readers to be correspondents writing about these events. As a result, we are sharing what is happening in small pockets with a larger community of readers.

On social media, we again are featuring teens. We’ve been posting on our social accounts daily, spotlighting reviews and features, asking Teen Board members to submit “real life” reading posts, and allowing interns/Teen Board Members to submit photos from events to keep our social coverage broad and up-to-date. Our followers have grown exponentially as a result, as again we are building the same kind of community that we started with back in the early days.

In April 2016, a mom wrote that she was not seeing enough “boy books” on Teenreads. We were surprised, as we thought we had this covered. (As I have two sons, I was very interested in ensuring that we had books for them on the site.) But clearly we needed to give them a bigger shout-out: a “Books to Add to Your Guy-brary” feature. We update it monthly with great books for guys featuring male characters and protagonists across a wide variety of genres.

What else happened along the way? Teenreads gave a home to a lot of would-be writers. Through the years I have heard from YA authors who fondly remember Teenreads being their “go to” resource when they were teens. I am so happy to share that as we celebrate our 20-year milestone, we have commentaries from 15 YA authors who shared their reminiscences of reading Teenreads when they were teens. Yes, this is very special!  

What’s next? I can’t begin to guess. But I do know we’ll be listening --- and ready to act on it --- just as we were back in 1997!

--- Carol Fitzgerald (Carol@bookreporter.com)