Real effects of fiction studied: Lake Rescue

“Healthful Messages Wrapped in Fiction” by Tara Parker-Post at NYT:

Some of the most popular books for teenage girls are littered with troubling messages. Novels like “Clique,” “Gossip Girl” and “A-List” feature high school girls who obsess about fashion, status and casual sex.

But a new series of books intended for 9- to 13-year-old girls goes beyond those spoiled stereotypes. The series, Beacon Street Girls, written under the pseudonym Annie Bryant, focuses on real-life issues like popularity, weight problems, alcohol and divorce.

The stories, which revolve around five middle-school girls in Brookline, Mass., are shaped by leading experts in adolescent development, with the goal of helping girls build self-esteem and coping skills. But can expert health advice wrapped up as fiction really make a difference for the books’ young readers? A surprising new study suggests that for some girls, it can.

At the annual scientific conference of the Obesity Society this month in Phoenix, researchers from the Duke medical school presented some remarkable findings on “Lake Rescue” (B*tween Productions, 2005), a Beacon Street book that focuses on the struggles of an overweight girl named Chelsea Briggs.

Chelsea is teased at school and is so self-conscious about her weight that she skips gym class. On a camping trip, she connects with an athletic camp counselor who was also overweight as a child. She gains confidence in her skills as a photographer, and when a group of campers get lost on a hike she helps lead them to safety. And in the course of all this, she gains a renewed appreciation for fitness and healthful eating.

The Duke researchers studied 81 girls enrolled in the university’s six-month childhood obesity program, called Healthy Lifestyles. Thirty-one girls were given a copy of “Lake Rescue”; 33 others got a 2006 Beacon Street book, “Charlotte in Paris,” that carries a positive message of self-esteem but doesn’t focus on weight or healthful eating. And 17 girls received the regular program counseling, but no book.

After six months, the girls who got “Lake Rescue” posted a decline in average body mass index scores of 0.71; those who didn’t read the book had an average increase of 0.05. That seemingly minor difference means the girls who read “Lake Rescue” will achieve a healthy weight in a few years if they maintain their regular growth rate and do not gain any more weight.

“The results of the study are not striking in how big they were but that it worked at all,” said Dr. Sarah C. Armstrong, a pediatrician who directs the Healthy Lifestyles program. “It’s such a positive, easy intervention. The next step is to follow these girls long term.”

The researchers were also struck that the girls who read “Charlotte in Paris” also did better than the girls who didn’t receive any book at all. The reasons are not clear, but one theory is that though reading is a sedentary activity, it does take time away from less healthful activities, like snacking in front of the TV.

Delaney Rosen, an 11-year-old sixth grader in Cary, N.C., read “Lake Rescue” as part of the study. She says the book, combined with what she learned at Healthy Lifestyles, has made her more aware of her eating patterns. “I used to eat when I was bored all the time,” she said, “but now I walk into the kitchen and actually think about it.”

The book “had a lot of real-life situations, like weird guys and cliques of girls,” she added.

Unlike Chelsea, the book’s heroine, Delaney, is a sports lover (she plays softball), but she said she still connected with the character’s feelings. “Chelsea’s mom didn’t really agree with Chelsea in a lot of ways,” she said. “I felt that way with my mom, so I could connect with that, too. Sometimes moms and dads don’t really get it.”

The Beacon Street Series was created by Addie Swartz, founder of B*tween Productions, as an antidote to the diet of sex and consumerism served up in so much young-adult literature these days. So far, about 700,000 Beacon Street books have been sold — a respectable performance, but still far from blockbuster territory. (The combined sales of “Clique,” “Gossip Girl” and “A-List” total nearly 14 million books.) But Beacon Street got a lift in May, when Simon & Schuster’s children’s publishing division agreed to license, market and distribute the books worldwide.

Ms. Swartz says that for books in the series, a basic story line is created and sent to childhood health experts, who suggest changes during the writing process. “We’ve gotten lots of feedback from girls and parents anecdotally,” said Ms. Swartz, who suggested that the Duke researchers study the real effects of the book. “Parents would say, ‘Your books have helped my daughter deal with this issue.’ ”

Although B*tween Productions provided copies of the books for the study, the firm was not involved in the financing or any other part of the research.

Alexandra Russell, the fourth-year medical student who led the study, said it was exciting to learn that reading might make a difference to girls’ health.

“There’s no risk to giving a girl a book,” she said. “If she doesn’t lose weight as a consequence, at least it’s promoting literacy. It’s risk free and easy to implement.”

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