Big Props to Brazilian Bookworms

The other day I watched easily 400 teenagers screaming like Beatles fans in 1964. Was it pop icon Katy Perry who had them whipped into a frenzy? How about Zac Efron, one the stars of the “High School Musical” phenomenon? Nope and nope. It was Thalita Reboucas, a Brazilian writer of novels for Brazilian teens and tweens. One of the only teen girls in the crowd who wasn’t screaming for the author was silent only because she was sniffing back tears and trying (and failing) not to cry. She was part of a school group that had traveled a long way to meet Reboucas and was afraid that she was going to have to board the bus home without having her picture taken with the writer.

Meanwhile, perhaps 300 yards away sat Meg Cabot, American novelist behind “The Princess Diaries” series of books, patiently smiling, signing books, and handing our plastic tiaras to a line of readers that stretched far into the distance.

This was among my very favorite memories of visiting Rio de Janeiro for the “Bienal do Livro,” the book fair the city hosts every other year for Brazilian readers. Make no mistake, the Ipanema and Copacabana beaches weren’t shabby either, and I have delightful memories of the sand and the ocean, too. Dedicated readers will recall that my wife was photographing the world’s biggest ball of twine in Cawker City, Kan., while I was in Rio. In hindsight, I’m surprised that ball of twine wasn’t in Rio, since most Rio bathing suits aren’t much wider than twine: There are throngs of thongs on the beach. That ball of twine could have been unraveled and used to make a lot of bathing suits.

But the book fair will remain my most impressive memory. It’s absolutely massive and is housed in a convention complex that dwarfs most convention centers in the United States. The fair is among the largest tourist attractions in Rio, with only Carnival and soccer topping it. Every Brazilian publisher is present, and I wouldn’t be surprised if there are almost as many book publishers in Brazil as there are in America.

And speaking as a parent, as a reader, and (yes) as a self-interested writer, what thrilled me more than anything were both the great numbers of teens who were at the fair and their incredible passion for books. Sometimes I think we are writing the obituary for the novel a little prematurely. And it is the young adult, the demographic first to embrace video, YouTube, Xbox and Wii, that gives me this hope.

For example, right here in the United States, the four best-selling books of 2008, according to USA Today, were read largely by teens and tweens. Sure they were all about vampires and written by Stephenie Meyer (What was I thinking titling my 2008 novel, “Skeletons at the Feast” when I could just as easily have called it, “Vampires at the Feast?”). But that’s still a lot of fiction being devoured by a lot of teenagers.

I honestly don’t know what books will look like in another generation. My sense is that novels will come in all shapes and sizes: On cell phones and Kindles and eReaders. On scrolls. In these timeless devices made of pulp and ink and glue we’ve taken for granted for centuries. My sense is there will be room for novels in all of these forms.

In the meantime, I am going to look back fondly on Rio for many reasons. But the big one is going to be that image of all those teens going mad for the books that matter to them and viewing a writer as a rock star. Make no mistake: The kids are all right.

(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on September 27, 2009.)

Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.