As anyone who has met one—or, worse, been one—knows, a teenage girl is the most terrifying creature on earth. At once deeply sensitive and absurdly jaded, she is the world’s most perfect bullshit detector, a Geiger counter for hypocrisy. Equipped only with her own charisma and wicked tongue, an adolescent girl at the height of her powers is more dangerous than “Page Six,” more undercutting than Gawker, and twice as mean as Drudge. Double that estimate if she’s a rich girl.
Cecily von Ziegesar was just such a teenager. If she wasn’t precisely Paris Hilton, Von Ziegesar was an unusually astute observer among her glittering set, mapping out the invisible hierarchies and jealous undertows within her female friendships. A budding equestrienne, Von Ziegesar was too busy to party much herself: She’d wake up at 6 A.M. to commute by train from Connecticut—where her parents’ relationship was falling apart—to Grand Central, then catch a cab to the institution she considered her refuge on the Upper East Side, the elite private school Nightingale-Bamford. There she learned, at least vicariously, how to negotiate city life from that exceedingly privileged demographic: kids with money, a sense of entitlement, and all of Manhattan in which to exercise it.
It’s little wonder that Von Ziegesar grew up to be a bard of teenage nastiness, documenting it all in a series called Gossip Girl. Perhaps you’ve heard of it—or possibly not. Unlike other young-adult literary blockbusters like Harry Potter, or Hollywood productions like The O.C. and Mean Girls, Gossip Girl has exerted little PR pull, providing Von Ziegesar herself with the neat distinction of being at once an immensely famous author and a complete unknown. With little marketing, her books have sold 1.6 million copies, and the last edition (Gossip Girl No. 7: Nobody Does It Better) debuted at No. 1 on the New York Times’ children’s best-seller list on May 8. There’s a movie in the works. A spinoff launches in November. Yet unlike J. K. Rowling, Von Ziegesar has no personal Website, and her photo appears nowhere on the books’ covers. Still, if her profile is low, teenage girls across the country are her acolytes, finding within Gossip Girl’s pages a stirring fantasy of freedom and an equally stirring fantasy of conspicuous consumption.
“Welcome to New York’s Upper East Side,” begins the first book’s first entry. “Where my friends and I live and go to work and play and sleep, sometimes with each other. We all live in huge apartments with our own bedrooms and bathrooms and phone lines. We have unlimited access to money and booze and whatever else we want, and our parents are rarely home, so we have tons of privacy. We’re smart, we’ve inherited classic good looks, we wear fantastic clothes, and we know how to party. Our shit still stinks, but you can’t smell it because the bathroom is sprayed hourly by the maid with a refreshing scent made exclusively for us by French perfumers.”
Crass, yes. And like other girlie series—Sex and the City is its closest analogue—Gossip Girl would be easy to dismiss as brittle junk. But beneath its stylized surfaces the series is surprisingly sophisticated. Von Ziegesar takes seriously the inner lives of characters who in any other teen narrative would be stock villains, like a judgmental queen bee and her cheating boyfriend. Most notably, the books have a been-there-done-that honesty about Manhattan social mores, and a (take your pick) refreshing or alarming lack of moralism about teen sex and drugs. In Von Ziegesar’s universe, kids have sex without pregnancy scares; they get high in the Sheep Meadow and still make decent grades. Anti-heroine Blair’s bulimia is more of an icky weakness than a full-fledged pathology. At worst, Von Ziegesar’s characters end up embarrassed on the Internet or during an Ivy League interview.
“I always resented books that tried to teach a lesson, where the characters are too good: They don’t swear, they tell their mothers everything,” explains Von Ziegesar, herself a mother of two. “I mean, of course I want to be the responsible mother who says, ‘Oh, there are terrible repercussions if you have sex, do drugs, and have an eating disorder!’ But the truth is, my friends and I dabbled in all of those things. And we all went to good colleges and grew up fine. And that’s the honest thing to say.”
Young-adult literature has always had a split personality. On the front shelf are books that adults hope girls will read: dramas with spunky heroines and melodramas with a moral. But push open the secret compartment, and you find the books girls read on the sly (even girls who don’t usually read): Forever Amber and Judy Blume’s Forever (especially the “Ralph” scene). Back in high school, Von Ziegesar herself read Austen and Tolstoy by day, but under the covers, the 15-year-old Cecily favored V. C. Andrews’s gothic Flowers in the Attic, featuring brother-sister incest and doughnuts poisoned with arsenic. “They were so bizarre and twisted and sick,” she marvels. “I read them all more than once. My mother was like, ‘Why do you buy those books?’ I don’t think she really wanted to know.”