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Crossing color barriers

The Baltimore Sun

It came to Paula Chase-Hyman one Saturday morning: What would happen if, down the line, her daughter's interracial friendship hit a snag along the color line?

She took that musing, poured it into characters who live in an Annapolis suburb like the one where she grew up and three weeks later had the first draft of her debut young adult novel, So Not the Drama, which arrived in bookstores late last month.

Chase-Hyman, who grew up reading the syrupy Sweet Valley High series, Judy Blume's equally white coming-of-age novels and Mildred Taylor's black historical fiction, said she wrote the kind of book she wanted her 12-year-old daughter, Aliyah, to read.

"I wrote this book with an African-American girl in my mind because we just don't see her enough," Chase-Hyman said. "And what has always been missing is contemporary fun, general fiction ... and the suburbs was always missing. As if we didn't live there."

The teen lit title is part of a growing trend in the publishing industry - it features a black lead, a cast of multiracial characters and a setting in the suburbs. Fresh takes on black teen life make sense for publishers, who saw nearly 25 percent growth in young adult titles from 2002 to 2005 (helped in no small part by a certain boy wizard).

Industry figures show that black households spend as much as $350 million a year on books.

Marc Aronson, author of Exploding the Myths: The Truth about Teens and Reading, said such titles will find readership.

"The whole young adult field is expanding, and this trend is just part of the general healthy growth of the genre," he said. "Instead of being one flavor, it's many flavors. The black experience in America is expanding, and the genre is simply catching up to social reality."

The Perry Skyy Jr. series by Stephanie Perry Moore hits bookstores this summer. The main character, who lives in the Atlanta 'burbs, takes Advanced Placement classes and is the star football player who grapples with girls and God.

Last month, Harlequin launched a line of books for black teens, Kimani Tru, which will feature 11 titles this year about everything from racial ambiguity to the rigors of the first year away at college.

Pocket Books also has a new line of black teen titles set in Houston - ReShonda Tate Billingsley's With Friends Like These, comes out in April.

Dafina Books, the Kensington imprint featuring Chase-Hyman's five-novel "Del Rio Bay Clique" series, started its teen line in October. It offers gritty urban titles, Christian and lighter suburban tales such as Chase-Hyman's.

"We are building a young adult line of African-American and multicultural fiction for teen and tweens to give them fiction that represents them and their communities," said executive editor Selena James, who also edits Chase-Hyman.

James said it's filling a gap for black teens, who are often "reading up," or choosing adult titles from the "street lit" genre after making their way through more age- appropriate books.

The targeted audience is the first to grow up in the wake of the black book boom, which had its beginnings in early 1992, when Terry McMillan, Alice Walker and Toni Morrison all had novels on the same New York Times best-seller list.

Until recently, the genre has fallen into two broad types: historical fiction and "the problem novel," or what Chase-Hyman calls "inner-city blues" stories.

For instance, browsing Borders' young adult section for black titles often means picking through all-white fare, and stories about teen pregnancy, alcoholic parents, drive-by shootings and other urban ills.

At Karibu Books, a small, independent chain catering to African-Americans, among the most popular titles are by Walter Dean Myers, who wrote the award-winning Monster and Somewhere in the Darkness - they are rapper Biggie Smalls albums set to the page.

Yet, recent figures show that roughly 40 percent of blacks in large metropolitan areas live in the suburbs. That makes for plenty of plot fodder, even if it is less like The Wire and more like Mean Girls.

Clarence V. Reynolds, managing editor of Black Issues Book Review, said that he recently noticed a change in the young adult titles that come across his desk. Heavy adult themes have been replaced with high school drama, love and friendship - the stuff of chick lit.

"It's not as depressive in the sense of kids dealing with adult issues, where they have to grow up fast," he said. "These books are coming out a lot more frequently, and publishing housing are devoting imprints to them."

Chase-Hyman, a 36-year-old married mother of two who lives in Severna Park and works in city government, drew from her experience as a cheerleading coach and teen mentor to create the angst-ridden world of Del Rio Bay High. Mina, the narrator of So Not the Drama, is a typical suburban girl with boys, clothes and popularity on her brain. What she craves more than anything is the "pop life," her term for being an "it" girl among the Uppers, her school's clique of all cliques.

"Popularity is a drug. You get a taste of it and suddenly the looks you get from people, the way you get treated, the things you get away with ... you need it," she says.

Her drive for popularity turns complicated when a teacher assigns a sociological experiment that calls for Mina and her classmates to explore prejudice. Over the course of the project, which leads to conflict and an expanding clique, her relationship with her best friend, Lizzie, who is white, gets a little rocky.

A Booklist review noted that the book was too didactic in places, but Chase said, as a black writer, she feels a certain duty.

"If it has a little bit of a lesson in it, I didn't intend for it to, I was just portraying one reality of being black in the 'burbs when you have friends of other races," she said. "But there is always that responsibility that you feel to not act a fool too much in your book because there is always going to be that certain segment out there who might say, 'Oh, that's how blacks are when they are in the suburbs.'"

Sun reporter Nina Sears contributed to this article.

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