Sept. 16, 2008 -- Welcome to "The Clique."
If you are a teenage or tween girl in America, you may already belong.
They are eager, focused –- and all dressed up.
Lisi Harrison is the leader of this clique. She created it with her best-selling book series that has taken young American women by storm.
At a recent bookstore signing for "The Clique" series in Laguna Beach, Calif., Harrison was energized by the girls' enthusiasm.
"I love these books," one girl gushed. "They're the best books since Harry Potter."
Not Your Mom's Childhood Books
"The Clique" books, though, are very different from Harry Potter.
They're chick-lit for tweens, really. Just check out the titles: "The Pretty Committee Strikes Back," "Dial L for Loser," "Bratfest at Tiffany's."
And they're all about a group -- a clique -- of middle-school girls: Spoiled (mostly), rich (mostly), and obsessed with fashion, brand names, makeup, being thin and trashing one another.
Status means everything in the books. And the mean girls rule.
"Anne of Green Gables" this ain't.
The girls -- Lisi Harrison's girls -- they just eat her books up.
"They're really addicting. They're so interesting. There is always something new," Minali, a series fan, said. "What's going to happen to her?"
Another fan, Riley, concurred.
"I like the books because I can pretend to be the people and not just like, of how they act and how bratty they are sometimes, but of how they stay friends, no matter what," she said.
"It's really riveting and you really like to read them because you just get captured in them and all the things they say and the things they do," Zoey, another reader, said. "They're wrong, but it's just fun to read about them."
Not Everyone's a Fan
"The Clique" books have plenty of critics -- feminists who say they send the wrong messages about appearance and body image, conservatives who find the characters' scheming behavior appalling, liberals who can't stand the avalanche of brand name dropping on every page.
But the books sell -- 6 million copies so far. And a Hollywood movie is in the works.
We visited Harrison in her office near her home in Laguna Beach to talk to her about this phenomenon -- and what it means for kids.
"It's fantasy. It's aspirational. I, being the person that never got to wear designer clothes growing up, as most girls in the country can't," Harrison said. "It's 'Oh, my God. What would it feel like to do that?' Dare to dream. It's like, you know, saying 'Harry Potter is not real, but wouldn't we all love to be magic and be able to do magic?' It's that same thing."
Harrison said all the references to designer clothing and materialism was intended to be completely satirical.
"I am pointing out something in our culture that I think is actually very unhealthy," she said. "To the point of it being funny. I mean, I truly think that the obsession with this stuff is so over the top and so crazy, that, to me, it's funny, and I think the readers get it. I mean, I drop 50 brand names in a couple of chapters and it's the point of insanity."
Real Girls, Real Worries
Whatever her intention, Harrison's books touch a nerve -- a raw nerve -- for middle-school girls.
With worries about clothes, weight, boys, money and school, to name a few, these children are under a lot of pressure.
"It's out there. I don't like it, but it's a fact," Harrison said. "It'd be great if one of them could go, 'Yeah, that is really terrible about our society and I don't want to go down that road.' This is the age when they're all so impressionable, but they are also so aware. I think, by 12, it's already too late. So, I'm not going to write a gosh, golly book just to pretend that this stuff doesn't exist."
It exists - - those toxic pressures to conform, to run with the in crowd -- not just in kids' lives, but in Harrison's too.
She says she gets her material from her world -- the adult world.
What those girls are feeling, their emotions, are no different from what an adult feels, she said.
"I've just taken those feelings and that longing to fit in, that need to be accepted and loved, that need to be seen as smart and attractive, and viable and important, and just dressed them up in smaller, more expensive clothes," Harrison said with a laugh.
Getting the Message
But is it a good thing to drill so much of the adult world's obsessions so deeply into children's literature?
Harrison says her books actually help her readers by showing how the apparently glamorous lives of her mean girl characters can be hollow.
"I don't mean to brag -- but I get literally thousands and thousands of letters, thousands and thousands of e-mails from these girls, and I do read them and not one of them has accused me of perpetuating poison into their world and their society," she said. "Every one of them says, 'I suddenly realize that it's not so important to be popular anymore. I used to be like this with our friends, but we've all changed. Truly. I really, really mean it.' They all get it."
During her reading at the bookstore, Harrison demonstrated her point.
"Do you guys get ... that I'm not saying that wearing labels on clothes," she asked the girls. "I'm not saying this is the way we should live our lives right? Do you guys understand the point of this? Would someone like to tell me what it is? I just need to hear it because I'm alone all the time."
Their answer? Yes.
"I would lip kiss you right now if I wasn't so far away," she continued. "And what do you think about girls that obsess over clothing labels. Do you think that's a good thing? Do you guys want to be like that?"
The answer? No.
"Say it again, sisters! Say it again!" Harrison instructed them.
Later, at least some girls -- and their moms -- said "The Clique" books help.
One mother, Robin, said she didn't have any concerns when her daughter Hannah started reading the books.
"I didn't. Only because Hannah had gone through some stuff with some mean girl. And so, I thought it was a really good thing for her to see some other characters and how they dealt with the circumstances that she might have experienced," she said. "We come from an area where there are a lot of cliques, especially in middle school."
Robin said Hannah's experiences with her girlfriends brought them closer as mother and daughter as they looked for answers together. And one place Hannah looked for answers was in Harrison's books.
"I can talk to her about everything," Hannah said of her mom. "I actually talk to her about the books and stuff. It's cool."
So, the girls get it, this new kind of writing for children -- where the old certainties are left far behind.
"The moral of the story is," Harrison said, "accept yourself for you who are."
Accept yourself. For so many girls, that may just be the hardest task of all.