August 23, 2006—Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys would be proud—but a little confused. In Chapter Two of Alex Sanchez’s award-winning novel Rainbow High, 17-year-old Kyle can’t decide whether he should get tested for HIV. “It depends,” his best friend, Nelson, counsels him. “What did you and Jason do together?”

Plots twists in young-adult fiction lately run more toward teen sex and the definition of “bodily fluids” than backyard mysteries and slumber parties. “There’s a much larger market now for books with sophisticated themes,” says Clarissa Hutton, senior editor at Harper Collins Children’s Books, a major seller in the teen category. “We won’t pass on books that maybe we would’ve passed on ten years ago.”

HIV has made an appearance in all six teen novels that Sanchez, 49, has published since 2001. Why does it come up so much? “To remind young people that it’s part of reality,” he told Indeed, Americans between 13 and 24 account for about 13% of the epidemic here, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

This is not a purely educational mission. Sales for young-adult fiction are up 23% since 1999, with grittier subject matter doing the best. “I really like reading about regular people with real problems,” says teen fiction reader Danny Roza, 13, from Hagerstown, Maryland. "Fantasy is OK sometimes, but it's just so out there.”

But experts say teen lit can definitely have an impact on the way kids make decisions about sex and drugs and how they handle the stress of being positive.

High school gives HIV stigma extra sting, according to Donna Futterman, MD, director of the Adolescent AIDS Program (AAP), for HIV-impacted teens in the Bronx. “Adolescence is a time when you want to be just like everyone else, and HIV certainly makes you stand out,” she says. For negative kids, “Hearing the living example is really important, and unfortunately [teens] can’t always get that from someone with HIV because so few teens are willing to disclose.”

The argument is that fiction humanizes the disease in a way that ad campaigns cannot—in the privacy of your own imagination—and can even transcend HIV prejudice.

Those were Allan Stratton’s twin objectives when he wrote 2004’s Chanda’s Secrets, a grim tale of HIV stigma among diamond miners and cattle farmers in Botswana, seen through the eyes of 16-year-old Chanda. “We make bonds with characters in the books that we read,” says Stratton, who traveled to Africa to research the book.

Mya Stein, a 14-year-old from Ottawa, Canada, read Chanda’s Secrets a couple of months ago. “There were a lot of things that were sorta unexpected,” she told POZ,com, “like Chanda’s best friend becoming a prostitute.” Not even reality TV could be so authentic without being predictable—a fate worse than death with this crowd.