Stephenie Meyer's books are huge. With Breaking Dawn, the fourth and final chapter of the Twilight saga, the series will top off at more than 2,500 pages. More significantly, these novels have become a social phenomenon among teen girls.
If you don't believe me, wait until you hear the collective shriek piercing the air at tonight at midnight, when 3.2-million copies of Breaking Dawn will be unleashed to throngs of girls who will probably stay up all night devouring its 768 pages.
The December release of Twilight, a film based on the first book in the series, will only feed the hunger.
The novels follow teenager Bella Swan and her immortal beloved, Edward Cullen, part of a clan of vampires who follow a people-free diet. There's a good amount of vampire and werewolf lore, and some heart-racing battles between fantastic creatures of good and evil, but mostly, this is teen romance. That classification, however, doesn't come with a tone of condescension.
As a high school English teacher, I've seen the Meyer effect firsthand — how these novels have turned some of my students into readers the way Harry Potter never did.
I work with a limited sample set, but despite the hype surrounding J.K. Rowling's magical ability to get kids to read, I have rarely seen it carry over into the teen set. My students love Harry Potter, but once the books end, so does their reading.
Meyer's saga is a different story. Initially, my ego kept me from grasping the effect the Twilight books were having on my female students. On the first day of school two years ago, while we were covering the basic syllabus for English 9, one girl said she was excited to read Romeo and Juliet. For me, this was thrilling, especially because I mistakenly took it to mean that I did something well with the previous year's class and word had trickled down.
When two of my students asked to borrow the dusty copy of Wuthering Heights sitting on my classroom bookshelf, though, I knew something else was going on. Through my eight years of teaching English to grades 9 through 12, no one had ever asked about Wuthering Heights. Now, suddenly, there's a waiting list?
Meyer was responsible. As Bella struggles with her seemingly impossible love, she finds parallels to Romeo and Juliet and the love triangle of Heathcliff, Cathy and Edgar. My students were following Meyer in new directions, putting in an effort to understand Shakespeare and tackle a book that they might have never otherwise picked up.
Of course, there's more to the Twilight saga than pages filled with allusions only an English teacher could love. Just about every article about the author, a Mormon mother with three children, notes that these books are chaste, but they don't feel deliberately scrubbed clean. Though the pages seethe with sexual tension, thus far, nothing described has gone beyond passionate kisses and neck sniffing.
It's a quality worth noting at a time when manufactured series like The A-List and Gossip Girl, in which sex is casual, glorified and used as a tool to manipulate just about anybody, comprise much of the fiction aimed at teen girls.
Meyer anchors her story in an idea that these Sex and the City rewrites only skim: the knowledge that actions have consequences. The bulk of the drama here isn't based on vampire and werewolf fights, but on how Bella's relationship with Edward can survive. What does she have to give up to be with him? What must he accept in choosing her?
The emotional highs and lows Bella moves through in confronting these questions make it easy to judge her story as melodramatic fluff gilded with conflicts ripped from the classics. But in my students' world, a glance or a smile from the right (or wrong) person can spark six different phone conversations and make a person crest on that emotional high for the rest of the day.
Bella is dating a vampire, but she's also dealing with divorced parents, navigating the social hell of high school and generally facing the trials of an adolescent limited by the rules shaping her life.
If you take out the occult factors, there's still a compelling story, and the simple secret of Meyer's success becomes clear: She understands her readers and their lives.
Vikas Turakhia teaches English in Ohio.