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She writes of teens, jeans, and we’re riveted

Special to The Times

Remember that old pair of favorite jeans? Maybe they were Levi’s 501s. Button-fly, no doubt. In them, you felt strong, capable and a little raffish. You swaggered when you wore them. They were the pants that made the pressure-cooker high school years tolerable, along with the stalwart friends who stood by you.

Ann Brashares, in her series of “Sisterhood” books, delves into that teen world of secret crushes and broken hearts, best friends forever and family tensions using a pair of jeans imbued with powers beyond mere confidence building.

These enchanted jeans tie together four disparate young women as they navigate the years leading to college. They fit all the girls perfectly, though each has a different body type, and envelop each wearer in the love and support of the other three friends.

“I love the idea of these pants being unconditionally loving and soothing, which, obviously, is one of the things they represent,” Brashares says on a recent stop in Los Angeles for signings of the newly released “Girls in Pants: The Third Summer of the Sisterhood.” She’s tall and willowy with big brown eyes. Naturally, she’s wearing a pair of well-loved jeans.

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“Jeans are very judgmental garments in terms of how they usually fit,” she says. A denim jacket, say, can be worn in many moods and by many different people. “But a pair of jeans that fits more than one person seems to have a magical quality,” says the New York-based writer and mother of three.

There’s a charmed quality to the books that has earned Brashares a surprisingly diverse fan base -- well beyond the teen market she was writing for -- made clear by the more than 2 million copies of her books in print. A movie based on the first title in the series, “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants,” is scheduled for release in June.

The stories feature Bridget, the blond soccer star; Tibby, the aspiring filmmaker whose parents are former hippies; Carmen, the Puerto Rican hothead with divorced parents and a half-sibling on the way; and Lena, a stunning Greek beauty and artist. Throughout the novels, the girls take turns wearing the jeans and having fabulous adventures in them -- coaching soccer camp in Baja, making films, visiting the Greek Isles and falling in love.

Growing pains

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They also stumble through some not-so-fabulous exploits -- experiencing the pain of unrequited love, dealing with a parent’s death, losing a friend to leukemia and creating a stepfamily after the pain of divorce. The girls send the jeans back and forth to one another, updating the others on what they accomplished with the help of the pants.

In many ways, Brashares’ work sets out to break stereotypes.

“There’s so much in the media with the portrayal of teenage girls being really mean to each other -- the complicated social food chain and the back stabbing. ‘I’m on top and you’re not,’ ” she says. “It makes for good entertainment to some extent, but I liked the idea of putting forth another side.”

Yes, Brashares knows, girls can be cruel to one another. The teen years can be incredibly tough. But, probably, even more of the time, she says, girls provide each other with incredible solace, comfort and support. “I don’t want to paint that experience simply or blithely, but I want to dramatize the positive aspect too -- it deserves to have a place.”

The four girls each have different aspirations and are looking forward to starting college, all in different locations.

“I remember being a girl -- a little younger than these characters -- and everyone had to go to the bathroom together,” Brashares says. “It’s taken me a long time to go and sit in a restaurant and order a meal by myself.” Brashares’ characters, on the other hand, take on the stigma associated with doing your own thing; they don’t just follow what the group does. This independent spirit counts for a large part of the books’ appeal to older readers.

“Sometimes, someone will turn up at one of my readings,” says Brashares, who is in her late 30s. “It’ll be a woman who’s maybe my age or older, and she’ll say, ‘I didn’t bring my daughter. I don’t even have a daughter. I’m not a librarian and I’m not a teacher. I’m just here because I really love your books and I want to meet you.’ ”

Mothers of teen girls, especially, have become fans. A number of them have told Brashares that once their daughters get to be about 14, they no longer share much common ground with them. The books serve as a starting point for deeper conversations. “It’s hard to talk about issues directly,” Brashares says. “But if you read a book like this together and you both like it and feel interested in the characters, there are a lot of issues you can talk about in a safer, neutral way.” Brashares says she has been told of countless mother-daughter book groups that have adopted the narratives.

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Varied interpretations

What’s been interesting for Brashares is how some of the plot details are read differently by girls of different ages. In the first book, for example, Bridget makes a play for the coach at her soccer camp -- a young man significantly older than she is. In an early draft of the novel, Brashares wrote a fairly graphic sex scene. At her publisher’s request, she toned it down and made the events ambiguous.

Younger readers, she’s discovered, think that Bridget made out with the young man but can’t conceive of anything heavier. Older girls assume that Bridget had sex with him. “Readers seem to read to their level of sophistication.” Either way, the message is clear: Move into sexual territory when you’re young and unprepared for what’s happening and you may do yourself some harm.

“In my heart, I really do believe that having sex before you’re ready is a deeply destructive thing,” Brashares says. “So often, the people who do it want something from it that they’re just not going to get. That’s the case with Bridget: She’s just voracious. She needs some big, big, big things. And she’s so misguided on how she’s going to fill herself up.”

Though Brashares never set out to write “issue” books, strands of heavy subject matter are woven into her narratives. Besides sex, there’s dealing with mental illness, holding a first job, going off to college without your friends and the prospect of moving away from your family.

Brashares is pleased that the film version of her book depicts her characters’ lives with the gravity she believes they deserve. “The thing that I loved most” about the film, which she saw in an early screening, “was that it’s emotionally raw. It’s really sad, it’s happy too, it’s funny in parts.”

The director and producer didn’t shy away from the emotional heart of her story, she says. When you’re a teen, she says, you feel things deeply and you don’t contextualize them or rationalize them in a way you do when you’re older.

Still, the books are not heavy reads. There is difficult subject matter, to be sure, but the narratives also evoke the exuberance and laughter, frustration and pain of the riotous adolescent years.

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Brashares is planning a fourth and final book in the series, though she’s hesitant to get it started. “I don’t want it to be over,” she explains. She’s enjoyed watching her characters grow up. “I’m growing up too,” she reminds a visitor. “A lot more slowly than these characters. You change a lot quicker between the ages of 16 and 20.”


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