Jason Olson, Deseret News
Stephenie Meyer talks about her best-selling books at Provo Library last year.

It's the yearning.

In an American culture drenched in sexually charged ads, movies, music and books, the Twilight series of romance novels by Stephenie Meyer are surprise hits, subverting expectations and hearkening to a more innocent time.

Yes, the ingredients seem ripe for steaminess a la "Gossip Girl" — Bella, the central character, a typical high school prom-going girl; Edward, the gorgeous hunk who turns out to be a vampire; and Bella's close friend, Jacob, a strikingly handsome werewolf in cutoffs.

But Meyer, 35, is a devout Mormon. So there's no smoking and no drinking in the books. And no sex either.

That, however, doesn't mean the characters — or their readers — aren't thinking about it.

"Twilight," published in 2005 and the first novel in the series, "is the sexiest book that I've ever read," says Iris Yipp, co-owner of The Magic Tree Book Store in Oak Park, Ill. "It's all this young love, this yearning. Yearning can be so ... ah!"

Becky Anderson, the co-owner of the Anderson's Bookshops in Naperville and Downers Grove, Ill., says, "Stephenie just knows how to combine the right amount of danger and passion, and not go over the top. She teases you — the passion and all that stepping-to-the-edge-of-the-cliff-but-not-flying-off."

In an echo of the marketing campaign for author J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter novels, the fourth and final book in Meyer's series, "Breaking Dawn," went on sale at 12:01 a.m. last Saturday throughout the nation. Many booksellers, including Barnes & Noble, Borders and the two Anderson's shops, hosted presale parties.

Published over an 11-year period, the Potter series became an international sensation, and many fans literally grew up with Rowling's characters as they aged from 11 years to 18. Meyer's vampire series offers a natural crossover point for fantasy fiction readers in their high school years, and the Twilight books are among the latest to be dubbed "the next Harry Potter." But, as with all the other challengers so far, the comparison to Potter falls woefully short in terms of sales.

Little, Brown is printing 3.5 million copies of "Breaking Dawn," raising the number of Twilight books in print to 10.7 million.

By contrast, the first two books in the "Inheritance Cycle" by Christopher Paolini have 12.5 million copies in print. The third, "Brisingr," is to be released on Sept. 20 (and, yes, Anderson's will have a midnight release party for that volume). A fourth is also planned.

Neither series, though, can hold a candle to the more than 400 million copies of Harry Potter books in print worldwide. "It reminds us how special Harry Potter was — and still is," says Andrew Medlar, youth materials specialist for the Chicago Public Library.

Most readers of the Twilight series are female, but not all are in high school. Anderson reports that some book groups of adult women who buy their books through her stores have been reading the series. "There's a huge age range of readers — from 11 to 60," she says.

While Little, Brown has modeled its marketing campaign on the Harry Potter juggernaut, the success of Meyer's series, as with J.K. Rowling's books, has been rooted in word-of-mouth excitement, spreading like flames in a forest from reader to reader.

"Twilight" can expect another rush of popularity when a movie version of the first novel reaches theaters.

Medlar says the Twilight books work because they're well-written, suspenseful and note-perfect in dealing with issues that American teenage girls must handle every day.

"The decisions that the characters are faced with are metaphors for teen decisions about sex and the sexual pressure that they're facing," he says. "Teenagers are trying to find their way in life. They're trying to decide who they are."

And whom they want to hang around with. And hook up with.

Echoing such literary forebears as Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" and the 1967 Sidney Poitier movie "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," the Twilight books, Medlar says, are about central questions faced by all teens: "How do you deal with people who are different from you? How do you deal with people who your family and friends do not accept?"

That's the suspense in Meyer's books — and in her readers' lives.