|While many ‘teen’ publications claim to speak for their readers, this one lets readers speak for themselves.|
I’m a writer who teaches. Over the years, I’ve taught writing to teachers and students at every grade level, and experience has made me a believer in the importance of publishing student work. Several years ago, I helped found Chapbooks.com, an Internet-based way for teachers to print class anthologies in real books. Although the company failed, a victim of the dot-com meltdown, it wasn’t because those books weren’t powerful tools that teachers and students loved.
So when I first heard about Teen Ink, a nationally distributed, general- interest magazine that features writing by teenagers, I was intrigued but also a bit suspicious.
On the one hand, the idea behind Teen Ink was exciting. Although my company had promoted school-based publishing, Teen Ink was doing something different: publishing students’ work for a national audience.
On the other hand, I’d been burned too many times, encouraging my students to submit to publications only to find that the so-called publishers were fraudulent, charging a fee to read submissions or “accepting” pieces and then asking the kids to shell out big bucks for a copy of the book in which they would appear.
So I decided, earlier this year, to pay Teen Ink‘s offices a visit and see what was what, not realizing that I’d discover quite a few surprises.
Because Teen Ink also has published a successful series of books featuring the magazine’s best pieces, I smelled money and expected to find the chief executive set up in a cushy corporate office, mouthing platitudes about education. But when I arrived, in January, at a modest brick building overlooking the commuter railway in Newton, Massachusetts, I wondered if I had the wrong address. Then I saw a small sign indicating that Teen Ink was on the second floor, so I headed up the stairs and knocked on an innocuous door. Immediately, two dogs inside barked ferociously. I heard a voice say, “Eubie, Tyler, back!” and the door opened a crack, revealing a woman hunched over to keep the two small canines at bay. “Don’t worry. They won’t bite,” she told me, and indeed, as soon as the dogs saw I wasn’t a threat, their tails started wagging and they came toward me, eager to be petted.
The woman introduced herself as Stephanie Meyer, who, with her husband, John, had founded the magazine 13 years earlier. She quickly put me at ease, in part because her manner and appearance called to mind Mary Tyler Moore when the actress had her own television show. Even Stephanie’s voice, with its appealing nasal twang, reminded me of Mary, and when she called to her husband, telling him I’d arrived, an Irish version of Mary’s newsroom colleague Murray appeared, a Murray with intelligent, doleful eyes and thinning red hair. Although John Meyer had never been a teacher, in his button-down shirt and khakis, he looked the part.
The Meyers, who are in their 50s, took me on a tour of their empire. It didn’t take long. Teen Ink‘s offices are small, resembling nothing so much as a high school English department—posters on the wall, shelves with supplies, piles of paper, a few computers, a photocopy machine, a sense of barely controlled chaos. As Stephanie and John introduced me to their staff, a handful of friendly young people, they talked like a couple who has lived and worked together for a long time, finishing each other’s sentences and anticipating each other’s thoughts.
The magazine’s ‘in box’ sees 40,000 submissions each year.
The big news that morning was that 400 submissions of essays, poems, and stories had come through the Web site (teenink.com)—four times the usual amount. The staff was thrilled, a reaction I found remarkable. I’m a devoted teacher, but the prospect of reading 400 pieces by teens (not to mention the 40,000 submissions Teen Ink receives on average each year) is my idea of hell.
“You can’t possibly read them all,” I said, but everyone assured me they did. And when I asked, “How can you stand it?” Stephanie laughed and told me it wasn’t as bad as it sounded. Most submissions are poems that can be read quickly, and the bulk of the prose is only two or three paragraphs long. “What keeps me going,” she added, “is knowing that somewhere in the slush, there’s sure to be an amazing piece of writing by some kid who’d never had anything published before, and that getting it into the world is going to make a difference.” That made sense. No one could do this work unless they felt they were on a mission. Not without going insane.
The Meyers’ mission began in 1989, when their own two children, a boy and a girl, were teenagers. They’d been lucky: Both kids were excellent students. As a result, they received lots of attention from their teachers. Most parents would be pleased and leave it at that, but the Meyers worried about their kids’ friends and classmates who weren’t such high achievers, the ordinary, run-of-the-mill kids who didn’t get noticed at school.
As they discussed what they could do to help, the idea for a magazine was probably inevitable. John worked in publishing, putting out an insurance- industry magazine, and as an elementary school teacher, Stephanie knew about pigeonholing students—he’s the one who always writes well; she never performs. Wouldn’t it be great, they thought, if students could send their writing to someone who didn’t know anything about them, someone who wasn’t going to mark up their words with a red pen or give them a grade. Someone who would read pieces without preconceptions.
“Besides,” Stephanie told me, “there are so many glossy magazines out there aimed at kids, magazines that tell them how to think and what to feel and what to wear and buy, that we thought there needed to be other voices, teen voices, that would offer kids a different viewpoint, a kid’s viewpoint.”
So the Meyers made the leap. They quit their jobs, took out personal loans, set up a foundation, and turned their basement into an office. The first step was to mail letters to families in the Boston area, asking kids to submit articles. Then they waited, wondering if anyone would respond. To their delight, within weeks they had enough material for a first issue, and the submissions just kept coming. Over the next several years, what they were then calling 21st Century grew from a local magazine to one distributed across the state, then throughout New England. In 1998, the Meyers went national and, two years later, changed the name to Teen Ink.
The failure rate of magazines is staggering, and that Teen Ink has not just survived but grown over the years is a testament to quality as well as a careful marshaling of modest means. Today, about 5,000 teachers in 50 states have classroom subscriptions, receiving 30 copies of the latest issue at the beginning of each month. (There are 10 issues a year.) But half of the subscriptions are either completely free or close to it, with hard-strapped teachers paying whatever they can toward the suggested annual price of $87. Even teachers who pay the full amount are getting a bargain—it costs Teen Ink more than that just to mail the magazines. John told me, “We’ve never wanted teachers not to receive Teen Ink just because of a lack of money.”
‘There are so many glossy magazines out there aimed at kids, magazines that tell them how to think and what to feel and what to wear and buy, that we thought there needed to be ... a kid’s viewpoint.’
Where, then, does the rest of the money come from? Some of it, John explained, is supplied by the proceeds of their successful book series (four so far, with more than 180,000 sold) and some from foundation grants. But most of it is ad revenue. This surprised me because the advertising in Teen Ink is minimal and understated, about as prominent as the ads in a high school newspaper. An issue might have three or four full-page ads for, say, Pepsi, a Britney Spears record, and a zit cream, but most are for colleges, summer writing programs, and various contests and awards. Ads a teacher would want a student to see.
For years, the Meyers did everything on their own, working from home. “If I hadn’t known the business end of publishing a magazine, and if Stephanie hadn’t loved reading the material, we never could have done it,” John recalled. As anyone who has ever advised a school paper, literary journal, or yearbook knows, publishing is a lot of work, and the Meyers were putting in long hours, six and seven days a week. As submissions poured in, the work spread from the basement to the kitchen to the living room to the bedside table. Finally, they were able to hire a staff and rent their modest offices.
Teen Ink is printed on newsprint and in design resembles many school- based papers. Each issue runs about 50 pages. Most pieces are several hundred words long, but some are less than 100, and the longest top 2,500. The writers come from every region of the country, rural and urban, and there’s something for every interest—opinion pieces, reviews, stories, poems, and articles on science, sports, politics, family, relationships, and more.
Here’s what I found in a randomly chosen issue, November 2001. At the front of the magazine is “Feedback,” Teen Ink‘s letters-to-the-editor section. In this issue, kids respond briefly to past articles, and some thank Teen Ink for existing. In the main body of the magazine, there’s lots of nonfiction. Hannan Chaudhry from Sacramento, California, writes an essay in favor of cloning. Sarah Porter of Balch Springs, Texas, weighs in with a piece on sleep deprivation. Jonathan Legan, a resident of Fairbanks, Alaska, describes his family’s 60-mile trek on a snowmobile to have Thanksgiving dinner with friends (“we came across some obstacles, including a moose and broken ice on the river, but we managed to bypass these”). Chris Pettey of Sloansville, New York, contributes a cautionary essay about a friend who took a tab of Ecstasy and wound up in the hospital, and Chris Mercer from Lincolnwood, Illinois, writes about the world’s water crisis.
There are five short stories and 25 poems, one of which, by Mairead Case of Bellevue, Washington, particularly caught my eye:
i just fell in love with language,
says the poet, pausing
between sips of perrier-and-lime,
as if he and language
had shared a table, red wine,
and an orange sunset.
i imagine him falling for words like
peridot, hydrangea, cacao.
at night, turning the tv on mute so
he can read the closed-captioning.
at the zoo, mumbling
latin in the primate house
“leontopithecus rosalia rosalia”
(golden-haired lion tamarind)
and mornings, laughing
over the box of froot loops:
“marshmallow-blasted lemon, lime,
Books reviewed include Snow Falling on Cedars (“haunting”), Anne of Avonlea (“a must-read”), and The Three Musketeers (“if there is one negative, it would be the romance”). An ‘N Sync concert is reviewed, and the band “surprised many fans with heavy drums and bass, reflecting their urban, more mature sound.” Another critic gives a thumbs up to Bob Dylan’s Love and Theft. Among the movies reviewed are The African Queen (“ancient” but a break from “modern movies with their hackneyed plots”) and Bandits (“the film is immensely entertaining, but as far as morals go, you have to stop and wonder”).
Each month, the magazine features several college essays, and another regular section is devoted to reports by juniors on colleges they’ve toured. November’s issue includes Bates (“it surprised me that Bates does not require any standardized tests for admission, and so SATs are not required”) and the U.S. Naval Academy (“I was stunned by the splendor of the Academy”).
There’s more, lots more—140 pieces in all—and I haven’t even mentioned all the teen photography and artwork or the outraged essay, titled “I Am Arabic, I Have Nothing to Hide,” by Jamie Adomunes of Milton, Massachusetts, which concludes:
Two months ago I was an average teenager worried about what I was going to wear Friday night. . . . Although many do not see the Arab in me, I can feel it every time I hear someone who is angry say, “Send all the Arabs back where they came from.” Well, I am one of those Arabs, and the United States of America is where I come from—and where I belong.
‘We want every student who reads Teen Ink to understand that they, too, have a chance to be published, that they can read an article and say, ‘Hey, I could’ve done that!’’
In evaluating the magazine, I was of several minds. As a teacher, I immediately saw Teen Ink‘s value. Here was an organization that listens to what teenagers have to say, gives them a much-needed place to publish, offers models for kids in many genres, and provides a real-life application for the writing skills I try to teach. Teen Ink also gives kids a reason to write for someone other than a teacher.
As a writer, I found most of the pieces good, some merely OK, and a few excellent, worthy of publication anywhere. But because Teen Ink is distributed nationally, it’s fair to ask if mostly good is good enough. Shouldn’t the magazine be held to the highest standards, publishing only the finest writing by teenagers today?
I put this question to John Meyer, who said: “There’s a wide variety of students in the middle, who are not special-needs or disadvantaged, they’re not gifted-and-talented, and they are struggling to reach their potential, too. They also need some recognition, some attention, some encouragement. So when gifted writers flood us with material that’s clearly better than anything else we have, we try not to publish them every month. Our goal is to give as many students a chance to be published for the first time and, at the same time, balance that with the need to have Teen Ink be as good a publication as it can be.
“We want every student who reads Teen Ink to understand that they, too, have a chance to be published, that they can read an article and say, ‘Hey, I could’ve done that!’ There are many students from the lowest academic levels who have some of the most insightful and creative and moving stories to tell, and if their punctuation and grammar is really off, we’ll clean it up. We won’t change their words, we won’t change their style, but we certainly want to give them a chance to be heard.”
In one important sense, I’m not fit to judge the magazine: At 48, I’m too old. And Teen Ink is obviously aimed at teenagers. So, in order to discover what kids think of the publication, I went to New City, New York, and visited Clarkstown North High School, where Teen Ink is used by teachers as part of an impressive program.
Clarkstown North’s writing workshop is an elective course available seven periods a day. Students attend every other day, working in a large writing lab filled with computers. The program is so popular that a third of the school’s students take it in any given year. No grades are handed out, but publishing is a major emphasis; having a piece accepted by a legitimate publication automatically puts a student in the English Honor Society. It also earns an invitation to a literary festival held at year’s end—a fun event featuring food, live music, and a forum for students to read their work in public.
A number of publications qualify, including the local newspaper and several regional magazines and journals. But according to Mary Tavolacci, a Clarkstown North English teacher with a wry, unflappable manner, Teen Ink is the gold standard. Her students have been submitting work to the magazine almost since its inception. Just about every month, Teen Ink publishes at least one and sometimes several pieces by the school’s students—an impressive record, to be sure, but not so surprising when you consider that Clarkstown North’s workshops submit several hundred pieces to Teen Ink every week, significantly improving their odds. (Teen Ink publishes a little less than 10 percent of the submissions it receives from across the country, so teachers usually encourage their kids to send many.)
Over the years, Tavolacci and her students have become Teen Ink savvy. They’ve figured out, for example, that the magazine receives more poetry and fiction than anything else, so students desperate to get published are encouraged to submit other kinds of writing. In the past, Tavolacci sent only work she thought was the best, but now she lets Teen Ink be the judge, mailing out pretty much whatever she’s asked to send. “The truth is,” she explained, “you never know what’s going to catch an editor’s eye.” (Students also can, and do, submit on their own.)
Tavolacci told me: “There’s a lot of schlocky stuff in Teen Ink among the good stuff, but the beauty of the magazine is it publishes the whole gamut of teenagers’ talents. My freshmen have the same chance of being published as my seniors.”
‘There’s a lot of schlocky stuff in Teen Ink among the good stuff, but the beauty of the magazine is it publishes the whole gamut of teenagers’ talents.’
She was particularly pleased that Teen Ink often publishes writing by average or below-average students whose names would never appear elsewhere, students who don’t make the honor roll. “Obviously, that’s great for those kids,” she said, “and it’s good for community relations. Our parents absolutely love our writing program because so many kids get recognition, kids that ordinarily wouldn’t.”
She was quick to point out that Teen Ink also gives a boost to kids who want to become writers. One Clarkstown North graduate, Alix Sobler, is now a free-lance writer living in Providence, Rhode Island. When she was in high school several years ago, she submitted poem after poem to Teen Ink and remembers how excited she was after one finally was accepted. “When you’re a writer, you’re just pouring your heart out onto a piece of paper,” she explained, “and sending it out often feels like you’re sending it into a void. It meant a lot to me that someone was hearing my voice and felt that what I had to say might be of interest to other people my age.”
I met one teacher at Clarkstown North who swam against the tide. Helaine Hirshfeld, an elegant, quietly intense woman, had her doubts about the value of publication. She started the school’s writing workshop years ago—before there was a lab, computers, or a Teen Ink—and believes that the best work is personal. “When publishing is an end in itself, it’s a bad motivation,” she told me. “A real writer writes to make sense of the world that he lives in and to make meaning of his own life. So in my writing workshop, I try to provide my students with catalysts that help them discover what they want to write about, what is important to them—not to give them topics just so they’ll be published.”
Which isn’t to say that Hirshfeld doesn’t make a fuss when one of her students does get published or that other Clarkstown North teachers don’t encourage personal exploration. Still, she has a point. Does an emphasis on publication limit a writer’s growth? Does getting published encourage kids to think they have nothing else to learn? And does a focus on publishing make teachers competitive, proudly keeping score, counting the number of times their students earn bylines?
Tavolacci admitted that, yes, there’s a bit of all that going on, but she clearly felt the positives of the program far outweigh the negatives. And several kids acknowledged that though originally they’d taken the writing workshop as a way to get into the honor society, they’d grown to enjoy writing.
As students filtered into Tavolacci’s workshop, I asked them what they thought of Teen Ink. By and large, they told me they loved it, though some criticized the magazine for publishing writing they believed was not good enough, especially when pieces they felt were better had not been accepted. Fair enough, but that’s a criticism leveled at every magazine. Because Teen Ink‘s design isn’t the least bit sexy, I wondered what the kids thought of its look, and I was impressed to learn they couldn’t have cared less. I got the sense that Teen Ink‘s appeal is that it publishes writing they didn’t and couldn’t find anywhere else: serious writing by young people on topics that relate to kids’ lives—topics such as depression, love, parents, school, pressure, drugs, and the problem of fitting in.
Aditi Gupta, one of Clarkstown North’s best writers, a girl who’d won a $1,500 writing award from the National Foundation for Advancement in the Arts, said: “Teen Ink is definitely interesting. Of course, not all the writing is going to be excellent, but what amazes me is that so many different people from all over the country have so many of the same feelings. It’s kind of a connection with peers that you wouldn’t see otherwise.”
Instead of heading straight for the computers, Tavolacci’s students gathered around a large table and began the monthly ritual of leafing through the latest issue of Teen Ink. The first order of business, of course, was to see if they or anyone they knew had been published. (Teen Ink doesn’t notify students prior to publication; nor does it send rejection letters.)
“They didn’t publish my Shabbat piece!” cried a girl.
“Don’t worry,” said Tavolacci. “Maybe they’ll publish it in another issue. Teen Ink can’t get enough of that Shabbat stuff. Keep sending things. You’ll get one in.”
‘When publishing is an end in itself, it’s a bad motivation.’
Another student noticed something from Clarkstown North that had been published anonymously. Everyone quickly turned to the article in question, a nonfiction piece by a girl whose brother is gay and whose parents aren’t happy about it. This brought out the detective in everyone, but they couldn’t figure out who the student was, and Tavolacci, who knew, wasn’t telling. After the class discussed the piece—good lead, memorable details, how would you feel if your brother was gay?—another student, Mariel Boyarski, arrived and was told her essay on hot chocolate had made it into the magazine.
The blood drained from Mariel’s face. She dropped into a chair, opened the issue, and, after finding the piece, stared at the page. As Mariel’s classmates and teacher offered congratulations, she blushed and tried not to smile, but the corners of her mouth were inching upward. Then she said, “I think Teen Ink is horrible!”
Tavolacci looked to the heavens in exasperation. “You only say that because you got published in it,” she said.
“If anyone can get published, what’s the point?” Mariel responded.
“But not everyone can get published.”
“No one cares about Teen Ink,” Mariel continued. “It’s just horrible. It’s bad. It’s not something that a person would buy and say, ‘Hmm, this stuff is great.’ Because it’s horrible. It’s just a teen magazine, and generally teenagers aren’t great writers. Sometimes they’ll print short, nothing poems because they have a little space and need to fill it, and that’s bad. That is bad. That is the worst reason to publish something, besides for the money.”
Mariel’s classmates jumped all over her, saying she was being ridiculous and unfair, and Tavolacci pointed out that the kid whose “nothing” poem was published must have been thrilled.
Eventually, the fuss died down, and Tavolacci said the time had come to do some writing: “All right, class, I know you all are desperately interested in getting published, right?”
“Right,” they replied.
“Good answer,” she said, giving me a wink. “Then what you can do is write a reaction to one of the pieces for the Teen Ink “Feedback” section, saying how excited you were to see a classmate in print and how inspired you were, or something along those lines.”
“But if we all respond to the same piece,” said one girl, “our chances of being published won’t be so good.”
“Ah, a practical girl,” Tavolacci said. “Excellent point. What else could you write about? You could do a community service piece. Teen Ink can’t get enough of that community service stuff.”
“I’ve done every possible thing,” said one kid. “But they never publish me!”
“You have not done every possible thing,” Tavolacci replied. “What about an ‘Educator of the Year’ essay? How many of you have done that? Just two? Three? Four? Teen Ink is desperate for those. Who wants to write one today? No one? What about a movie review? Music? OK. Watch me assign you! Want to take the fun out of creative writing, is that what you want?”
“I did an Educator of the Year essay already that didn’t get in, so I’ll do one again.”
“Sure, Carly, go for it!”
Teen Ink offers a lot of interesting writing ideas, and the Educator of the Year contest is one of my favorites. When kids write essays nominating a teacher, coach, guidance counselor, librarian, or principal, their subjects have a shot at being one of 200 educators who win either a $250 or a $100 award. (Several years back, Tavolacci won one, and she told me it meant a lot to her.)
My other favorite Teen Ink writing idea is the interview. In order to encourage kids to find out about the lives and histories of grandparents, parents, neighbors, businesspeople, teachers, and friends—anybody who interests them—Teen Ink not only publishes interviews, but those kids who do a bang-up job have a shot at sitting down with a celebrity. So far, lucky teenagers have conducted interviews with then-first lady Hillary Clinton, Sen. John Glenn, Jesse Jackson, George Lucas, and R.L. Stine, among others. During a recent session with Whoopi Goldberg, who’d agreed to spend 40 minutes with the kids, the comedienne was so impressed she stayed for an hour and a half.
John Meyer told me: “In most cases, these interviews are pretty darn thoughtful. We’re not just talking about their celebrity status and the kind of thing you see in a glossy magazine. The kids are asking substantive questions that relate to teenagers and getting through the teen years and asking advice from these celebrities who relate it to their own experiences.”
Some experiences, however, are trickier to publish than others. One student in Tavolacci’s workshop, a mild-mannered sophomore named Jamie Midulla, writes a great deal at home as well as at school, but she has yet to see her byline in Teen Ink. I asked her what her work is about. “I write depressing stories, stories about rape, running away from home, and when I wrote one about suicide, Ms. Tavolacci was like, ‘No, it’s not gonna get published ‘cause it’s too depressing.’”
|Teen Ink is not for everyone. Not all students are going to read it. But some, and perhaps many, will. And who knows where that will lead?|
Jamie told me that though her fiction isn’t based on her own experiences, she does know kids who’ve suffered through similar crises. She wasn’t deterred by the knowledge that Teen Ink isn’t likely to publish her stories, and Tavolacci hadn’t discouraged her from writing whatever she pleases. There was, however, a general sense at Clarkstown North that Teen Ink shies away from hard-hitting topics. I, myself, had noticed that the magazine has a certain uplifting quality to it, that it doesn’t contain swear words, and that whenever “depressing” topics are addressed, students learn a lesson. Negativity is always put in its place. John Meyer, however, pointed out that Teen Ink does indeed publish articles on difficult subjects and made no apologies for the positive bias. “Teen Ink doesn’t indulge in shock journalism,” he said. “We wouldn’t publish a poem that fantasized about suicide, for example, unless the writer had worked through those longings and got to some place positive. And we wouldn’t publish a piece that spewed anger or hate unless it also conveyed a productive opinion, which would be basically something along the lines of ‘Why can’t we all live together?’”
Tavolacci was grateful for this approach, saying: “I think teenagers have enough dark things in their lives and enough depressing things in their heads, that for them to start reading about, ‘I want a knife, and I want to slit myself'—I think troubled kids would gravitate toward that, the way they gravitate toward some heavy metal music, and we don’t need to add to it.”
But Hirshfeld disagreed. “I have a great 9th grader,” she told me, “and one piece she wrote really made me think about this. Because apparently her parents hate the music she listens to, hate the way she dresses, hate her makeup, hate everything and think it’s all negative and down. And that girl wrote that the music allowed her to release all the anger and everything else, and that that’s a better alternative.”
“So writing about the anger keeps her from acting on it?” I asked.
“I just think it’s good not to sweep it under the table. I like to bring it all out.”
Teen Ink, however, doesn’t have that option. If the magazine’s publishers did “bring it all out,” they’d most likely lose the trust of teachers, who must answer to principals and parents. And without that trust, Teen Ink wouldn’t be able to touch the lives of the 25,000 kids they’ve published to date, not to mention hundreds of thousands of readers. John and Stephanie Meyer hope to reach many more kids, and when I asked them if they’d mind if the number of submissions doubled, or if, say, 10,000 new teachers suddenly requested free subscriptions, John said, “We’d love it if that was our biggest problem.”
In the end, I can’t think of a single reason why a teacher shouldn’t subscribe: Teen Ink is one of the most valuable educational publications in America today. Although it has an obvious home in the classroom, Teen Ink should be seen elsewhere—in libraries, guidance offices, even cafeterias. And if teachers don’t have room for it in their curriculum, they could hand out copies to kids as they walk in or out the door, and let the magazine find its natural audience. In at least one school, students pay for Teen Ink themselves, and Kathy Thames, a language arts teacher at Alexander Junior High in Brookhaven, Mississippi, told me, “I would not, could not teach without it, and I continue to pay for it each year out of my own pocketbook.”
Teen Ink is not for everyone. Not all students are going to read it. But some, and perhaps many, will. And who knows where that will lead? I heard a number of stories, large and small, about how the magazine has made a difference in kids’ lives, but my favorite was one Stephanie Meyer told me. After Teen Ink had published a piece by a boy, a girl from another state wrote a response. That response was published, and the boy responded to the response. Soon, the kids became pen pals, writing to each other directly. Their correspondence lasted a year, and finally, they decided to meet. In the end—cue the violins—they wound up engaged.