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Step Aside Mommy Porn, Amish Women in Bonnets Make for Instant Best-Sellers

Amish romance novels--christened "bonnet books" by the Christian publishers who sell them--sell hundreds of thousands of copies a year.

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“My friends have told me, ‘Look, we’re not perfect. You don’t have to write like we’re perfect, but please also don’t tell too much about how wild our young people get. Don’t write about the wild beer parties, the premarital sex, that kind of stuff,’” Lewis said.

So instead, she wrote The Shunning. Loosely based on Lewis’ maternal grandmother’s heart-wrenching ex-communication from her Mennonite community, the romance was Lewis’ first novel for adults. It tells the story of Katie Lapp, a beautiful, restless young Amish woman who, unlike her brothers and friends, can’t seem to tamp down her love of pretty clothes and English music. It isn’t until she discovers that she was not actually born Amish but rather adopted by the Lapp family from a poor little rich English girl that Katie begins to understand why she longs to trade her plain life for something fancier.

Prior to The Shunning’s publication in 1997, Lewis had written fiction only for children and young adults, her most popular being What Is God Like? and its companion, What Is Heaven Like?, both distributed by Bethany House. She’d also put out a number of books in the popular Christian series The Cul-de-sac Kids.

Steve Oates said that while the people at Bethany House believed in Lewis and had benefited from her proven ability to pump out popular fiction (she writes two books a year and has more than 14 million copies in print), he and the rest of the staff were a little anxious when she pitched them an idea for a novel targeted at adults.

“But we thought it was a good, sweet story and that there was potential for it to sell maybe 25,000 in the first year,” he said.

They were way off. The Shunning sold more than 125,000 copies in its first year and has since been made into both a stage musical and a Hallmark Movie Channel feature film with Michael Landon Jr. as its director. It also launched a new genre, and there are at least 39 women and men (Eicher now has two or three compatriots) now regularly writing Amish fiction.

There might be a larger playing field, but Lewis is still the queen of the bonnet book. Her popularity both gratifies and embarrasses her, particularly when she hears stories like Eicher’s.

“Sometimes I read a post on Facebook and it will say something like, ‘Of all the Amish fiction writers, I like you the best’ or ‘You’re the only one I’ll read.’ A lot of bookstore owners tell me the same thing. Customers come in and all they want is the newest Beverly Lewis. They say don’t care about the other 38 writers in the genre. I don’t know how to take that. I believe my readers are very loyal and, my goodness, my heart, I appreciate that, but I think they should read whatever they want to, whatever’s intriguing to them.”

Things that make you go ‘jah’

The Amish fiction market is not limited to books for adults. Young adult writers are also slowly getting into the game. Case in point, Melody Carlson’s Doubletake, which is Freaky Friday orThe Parent Trap meets Pennsylvania Dutch country and tells the story of one fateful spring break when Anna Fisher, discontented Amish girl, changes places with Madison Van Buren, angst-ridden gossip girl, with heartwarming results. Both girls learn valuable life lessons, and Madison even finds God, thanks in part to the glorious canopy of stars over Anna’s aunt’s backyard. Madison also discovers that she very much enjoys looking at the Fabio-like form of neighbor boy Malachi Stoltzfus: “[She] gaped at his perfect abs and ripped muscles as he shoved the bale into place. His torso was tan and glistening in the sun, and with his shaggy blond hair, chiseled profile, perfect nose, full lips … seriously, this guy could model for the front of a romance novel.”

 
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