+ Beacon Street Girls: Fiction With A Healthy Message

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A new series of books intended for 9- to 13-year-old girls goes beyond stereotypes (gossip girls, cliques, shopping) and focuses on real-life issues like popularity, weight problems, alcohol and divorce.  In a recent article in the NY Times, Tara Parker-Pope reports that they can also promote healthier habits.

The stories, written under the pseudonym Annie Bryant, revolve around five middle-school girls in Brookline, Massachusetts. They are shaped by leading experts in adolescent development, with the goal of helping girls build self-esteem and coping skills.

The series was created by Addie Swartz, founder of B*tween Productions, as an antidote to the diet of sex and consumerism found in so much young adult literature these days.  They are not outselling those books, but they got a lift when Simon and Schuster children’s publishing division agreed to license, market and distribute the books worldwide. 

A study suggests that Beacon Street Girls books can make some difference for their young readers.  Researchers from the Duke medical school presented some remarkable findings on the book “Lake Rescue” at the annual scientific conference of the Obesity Society in October.

“Lake Rescue” is a Beacon Street book that focuses on the struggles of an overweight girl named Chelsea Briggs.  She is teased at school and is so self-conscious about her weight that she skips gym classes.  On a camping trip, she connects with an athletic camp counselor who was also overweight as a child.

Gaining confidence in her skills as a photographer, she is also able to help a group of lost campers and lead them to safety.  In the course of all this, she gains a renewed appreciation for fitness and eating wisely.

The 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.”  Thirty-three others got a 2006 Beacon Street book “Charlotte in Paris” that carries a positive message about self-esteem but doesn’t focus on weight or eating habits.  And seventeen received no book in the course of their Healthy Lifestyles experience.

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 increased  BMI by 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 it all,” says 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.”

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 who was part of the study, read the book and feels that it and all the other things she learned at Healthy Lifestyles have made her more conscious of her eating patterns.

“I used to eat when I was bored all the time, but now I walk into the kitchen and actually think about it.”

Delaney says the book had “a lot of real-life situations, like weird guys and cliques of girls.”   

But unlike Chelsea, the heroine of the book, Delaney is a sports lover who plays softball.  She says she still connected with Chelsea’s feelings, however.  “Chelsea’s mom didn’t really agree with Chelsea in a lot of ways,” she says.  “I felt that way with my mom, so I could connect with that, too.  Sometimes moms and dads don’t really get it.”

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,” she says.  “Parents would say, ‘Your books have helped my daughter deal with this issue.”  She suggested that the Duke researchers study the real effects of the book.

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

Alexandra Russell, a fourth-year medical student who led the study, says 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 says.  “If she doesn’t lose weight as a consequence, at least it’s promoting literacy.  It’s risk free and easy to implement.”

sole source: NY Times article by Tara Parker-Pope on 10/14/08.   www.nytimes.com

tutoring in Columbus OH:   Adrienne Edwards   614-579-6021   or email   aedwardstutor@columbus.rr.com

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