Jake Marcionette was never much of a reader.
“My mom always screamed at me to read, but I never really enjoyed it,” says the 13-year-old, lacrosse-playing Maryland resident — whose debut novel just got picked up by Penguin.
"A lot of middle school books are too babyish," he says. "Almost Disney-like. They talk down to the reader and dumb things down. They don't take on enough day-to-day stuff, like bullies."
Marcionette channeled his frustration into "Just Jake," a 160-page middle school story about Jake Ali Matthews, a sixth grader struggling to adjust to a new school and fly under the radar of a bully.
"I feel like I can really capture middle school because I experience it every day," he says. "It's loosely based on my life."
This piece first ran in Printers Row Journal, delivered to Printers Row members with the Sunday Chicago Tribune and by digital edition via email. Click here to learn about joining Printers Row.
"Just Jake," scheduled for a February release, is part of a growing collection of books by teen authors — some published through traditional houses, many of them self-published — that represent, in many ways, what it means to be a contemporary teenager.
"It's no secret that disseminating the written word is so simple these days," says Amy Pelman, Digital Services Manager for the Arlington Heights Memorial Library, who writes for The Hub, the Young Adult Library Services Association's blog. "It's kind of a natural progression for this modern type of writing — blogging, websites — to attempt to be part of the traditional publishing world.
"Published books," Pelman continues, "are perceived as having their own kind of authority and quality, and they also enjoy the possibility of becoming a blockbuster. So just as some teens dream of becoming famous pop stars, some dream of becoming famous authors."
And thanks to a culture in which notions of privacy are ever-loosening, the innermost fantasies, observations and obsessions that used to live in locked and hidden journals are now, for many teens, fair game for audiences to lap up at their leisure.
"Many of them are simply unafraid to put themselves out there," says Pelman. "I believe this is a direct effect of the Internet — that vast and powerful mode of expression in which you can be as anonymous as you choose, or cultivate a whole group of friends and followers."
Katherine Ewell, an 18-year-old freshman at Stanford University, just landed a deal with HarperCollins for an April release of her debut novel, "Dear Killer," the story of fictional, 17-year-old serial killer Kit Ward.
Dystopian fantasies make up a large chunk of the stories teens are churning out, says young adult novelist Stephanie Morrill, who runs a website called Go Teen Writers (goteenwriters.blogspot.com).
"These teens grew up reading Harry Potter," Morrill says. "For a lot of them, writing is an escape from a mundane life. If you're going to escape, why not create a really unique story world you can escape to?"
Such as the world of Ewell's Kit Ward, who chooses her prey through letters and cash that arrive in a secret mailbox.
"I've been writing for a lot of years," Ewell says. "'Dear Killer' is something like my eighth book."
She found the agent who led her to HarperCollins through her previous book, "Bloodline of Queens," a science-fiction tale that became a semifinalist in Amazon's 2011 Breakthrough Novel Award contest.
"A mutual friend, because I had done well in the contest, showed my book to her agent, and she picked me up as a writer," Ewell says. "I wrote another book and sent it to her, and she started sending it out."
Ewell was working a summer job at the John Wayne Cancer Institute in Santa Monica, Calif., when she got the call from her agent that "Dear Killer" had been picked up by a publisher.
"I couldn't actually pick up the phone until I got in the car to go home," she recalls. "I called her back and she told me HarperCollins wanted to publish my book. I kind of freaked out a lot. It was surreal."