This week, Jen and I chatted about YA literature we loved in our youth, mostly late 80s and early 90s. Next week, we’ll discuss contemporary YA lit, with a special focus on HUNGER GAMES!!!!! WHICH JEN HASN’T READ BEFORE!!! OK I’m too excited.
We discovered this fantastic blog that reads/reviews novels and series that we read as kids, so if you’re looking for a bit of nostalgia, check out Nikki’s blog. She has it all broken down by category. Fantastic. This blog is also about awful series from the 80s (featuring one of my faves from youth, The Gymnasts!) and she’s just started back up, so that’s cool.
For snarky fun about the BSC, check this out:
OK, let’s get our nostalgia on!
Lauren: Are you ready to chat?
2:17 PM Jennifer: Yes! Can we talk about The Hunky Dory Dairy, in which a girl tries to marry her mother off to an Amish ghost?
Lauren: WTF. We can talk about that as I add it to my Goodreads “to read” list
2:18 PM Jennifer: I think he was actually from the past, but my tween mind conflated that with the present-day Amish.
Lauren: That sounds really hot.
Sexy Amish ghost is definitely the kind of thing I’d form a crush around.
2:19 PM Jennifer: The girl and her mom were able to travel back in time on a milk truck. It was awesome.
Lauren: That sounds fantastic.
Jennifer: Tweens of today are missing out!
Lauren: It’s all vampires these days, gross.
Jennifer: We had Goosebumps. More ghosts, fewer vampires.
2:20 PM Lauren: Totally: Fear Street and Christopher Pike books were all about serial killers and ghosts, but I don’t remember vampires being a big deal.
Jennifer: The Bunnicula series was about vampire bunnies, right?
2:21 PM I was just reading recaps of those books.
We actually read that book as a class when I was in 3rd grade. But Bunnicula was a vegan-pire. He needed vegetable juice.
2:22 PM Jennifer: Right. I remember the cover being orange, with a picture of a bunny and a white vegetable-maybe a stalk of celery? The juice had been sucked out of it.
Lauren: Yes. I also had one of the sequels, Howliday Inn, which I liked quite a bit.
Jennifer: Right. We had that one too.
2:23 PM Lauren: I don’t know if those qualify as “YA” lit but they were very good.
Jennifer: I think I read those around the same time as the Baby Sitters Club, but before the Sweet Valley Twins.
Lauren: We should maybe do something scandalous and name years here
Jennifer: I was not allowed to read Sweet Valley High, and so I read them on the playground in sixth grade.
2:24 PM Lauren: Because as I was making notes for this, I realized that I read “YA” lit for a fairly limited amount of time before I started taking smartass AP lit classes in HS and didn’t read for fun anymore
And I wonder if our years overlap that much or what ages we considered ourselves reading “YA” lit.
Jennifer: Oh, yikes. I can work backwards from my high school grad to my YA years…
2:25 PM Lauren: I was never forbidden to read books, but I probably should have been because SVH was a) awful and b) full of adult shit that was not appropriate for a 4th grader to read.
Jennifer: I believe I was reading SVH secretly on the playground in approximately 1988.
Lauren: I started reading YA-ish stuff around 4th grade (which for me was ’89) with my biggest reading years being 5th and 6th grade. Tapered off in early HS, around ’95.
2:26 PM Jennifer: I remember a particularly scandalous scene involving one of the Wakefield twins making out with a boy in a pool.
Lauren: I know someone had a boyfriend who wasn’t in HS and there was some shady shit, I think he was on drugs.
Do you remember Enid, Elizabeth’s BFF? WTF kind of name is Enid?
Didn’t she end up paralyzed or something?
2:27 PM Jennifer: I don’t remember Enid. Or drugs. But I had to read quickly and in short increments, so I sometimes had to just read the sections other girls marked off as “good”.
2:28 PM I didn’t get into SVH deeply, I think it was just too beyond me at that age.
It might as well have been based on Mars, it was so unrelated to my quotidian existence in Peoria IL.
BUT, I DO remember hiding the fact that I read the Children in the Attic series. (sic — should be Flowers in the Attic)
2:29 PM Jennifer: Right. Most YA felt like that to me. The BSC was an exception, which may be why I read them so avidly.
Lauren: Because that stuff? Was TWISTED. And I knew my parents would not be cool with that content. I interlibrary loaned those books and seriously thought the librarians would not let me check them out.
Jennifer: Nobody I knew was allowed to read the Children in the Attic books, so nobody had copies to circulate on the playground.
And my mom took me to the library.
Lauren: Wow, draconian censorship in Michigan!!
My Mom took me to the library but paid ZERO attention to what I did or read.
2:30 PM Jennifer: I did read a lot of sunfire romances, which my mom didn’t approve of but also didn’t forbid.
Lauren: Which is why I could read about incestuous sex and allllll kinds of other things that made me feel funny.
Haha. I went through a romance novel phase in 8th grade.
I can remember the first one I read REALLY clearly, I kind of loved it.
It was a completely typical Harlequin romance but I remember it in detail.
2:31 PM Jennifer: The Sunfire series was actually written for YA readers. Historical romance fiction. I remember one about a Pilgrim girl who came over on the Mayflower.
Lauren: Oooo. I hated historical fiction, but continue.
Jennifer: She fell in love with someone inappropriate, of course. A pastor’s son? A Native American? I don’t remember.
2:32 PM Jennifer: Right? I recognize the romance novel tropes now, but it was all news to me then.
Now that we’re talking, I realize how much of my YA reading activities had to do with finding and then hiding books that would tell me secrets about sex.
The BSC was obviously not in this category.
2:33 PM I remember reading a book about a teen pregnancy and being like !! (Someone to Love Me by Jeanette Eyerly) and one that had a (SHHHH!) gay person (Crazy Vanilla by something something).
Jennifer: But isn’t that how everything about adolescence is? Simultaneously trying to hold on to childhood and fast forward to adulthood?
2:34 PM Jennifer: Oh! I remember my first book with a lesbian character. Annie on my mind?
Lauren: Juxtaposing Ramona Quimby with Sweet Valley and making it work somehow.
2:36 PM Jennifer: YES. I can see the cover clearly in my mind. Weird how the cover art stays with me for so many of these books.
Lauren: I can remember weird flashes of images from the books but not always the covers.
Probably because I sped-read through them so often.
2:37 PM I know I’ve read every Nancy Drew — or at least every one written until about 1991 — even the shitty newer ones.
Jennifer: I read alot of Nancy Drew. Also Trixie Belden.
I got all my friends hooked on Trixie Belden in 4th grade.
Jennifer: And some of the newer Nancy Drew meets the Hardy Boys.
2:38 PM Lauren: Yes. I ended up getting irritated with those books, ultimately.
Mostly because the personalities of all the characters were expressed entirely through their wardrobes, and their wardrobes were absurd.
Jennifer: Wardrobes and cars. What more could you possibly need to know?
2:39 PM Lauren: Yes, the cars.
And Nancy’s weird rel with her Dad, and was she seriously 18 the whole time?
Jennifer: Totally unrelatable for me. Did you ever read a book that made you want to change your name?
I desperately wanted to be Anastasia, like Anastasia Krupnik.
2:40 PM Lauren: Natasha was a name I loved.
A lot of my play at that age — 4th/5th/6th grade — involved using a “fake name”
I think my first fake name was Victoria.
Jennifer: I may have even vowed to name my daughter Anastasia. Sorry, 11 year old self. That promise had to be broken.
2:41 PM Lauren: I remember a fondness for the name Acacia
which is a kind of tree. In 4th grade I actually asked for and received a baby name book for Christmas.
So I got a lot of strange inspiration from that.
Jennifer: I named a tree in my parents yard Algernon, after Flowers for Algernon.
I read that for school in 8th grade.
2:42 PM So, clearly a defining feature of YA fic in the late 80s: WEIRD NAMES.
Jennifer: Also: I felt like a lot of YA characters has intense relationships with their moms that didn’t seem like my real life at all.
2:43 PM Lauren: Interesting.
Jennifer: The Hunky Dory Dairy, The Great Mom Swap, You Shouldn’t Have to Say Goodbye (the mom dies of cancer in that one).
2:44 PM Even the girls in the BSC seemed to have a level of friendship and understanding with their moms.
Lauren: Funny, I keep thinking of books where the Moms are absent or checked out in some way… Ramona Quimby‘s Mom works, several of the Moms in Willo Davis Roberts books (Don’t Hurt Laurie, Megan’s Island, etc) are absent or messed up…
Maybe we were seeking out opposites?
I was pretty chummy with my Mom, at least she was around a lot and I trusted her.
2:45 PM I didn’t confide in her about my crushes or like, get mani-pedis together, though.
Jennifer: Right. My mom was definitely not a confidante.
2:46 PM Lauren: Clearly not with her anti-SVH policies.
Jennifer: And even though she took us to the library and sometimes set limits on books, I don’t remember talking to her very much abotu what I was reading.
My sister, Mom, and I all swapped books together, like mystery series we all liked (Charlotte MacLeod books, Cat Who mysteries)
2:47 PM but we didn’t talk about them a lot.
My sis and I did, but not with Mom for whatever reason, even though we were all burning through the same series.
Jennifer: Huh. My mom and I swap books as adults, but that didn’t start till I was in college. Maybe even grad school.
2:48 PM Lauren: We still get each other books. A few years ago, my sis and I read the same mystery series by Louise Penny
and got all huffy when my Mom said she didn’t like them. We were like WTF you are nuts.
But it isn’t all book clubby. Although now my sis and I buy each other books so we have someone to talk to about them like, ahem, Hunger Games.
2:49 PM Jennifer: I LOVE to talk about books now (it’s why I became a professor!). But as a kid and a teen, I thought of reading as a really solitary space. Books were a buffer between me and a world that DIDN’T UNDERSTAND.
2:50 PM My heaviest reading years were my most miserable: 5th and 6th grade.
I read all the time: on the bus to and from school, under my desk DURING school, at the dinner table, when I woke up, when I went to bed, etc etc.
Jennifer: Yes. I read constantly. Every available second. And I read some books over and over.
2:51 PM Lauren: Definitely.
I would check out stacks of books, like 20, and get through all of them.
Jennifer: I was limited to 10 a week from the library.
Lauren: Did you like fantasy lit?
Jennifer: I read Madeline L’Engle’s books over and over.
2:52 PM A Wrinkle in Time, of course, but also the series about the Austin family.
Lauren: I got through the first 3 but when Meg grows up, I get disinterested.
2:53 PM I actually reread those last summer and experienced the same loss of focus in Swiftly Tilting Planet, so I moved on.
2:54 PM Jennifer: It’s funny how my memories of them are so hazy, (dolphins? starfish? wasn’t one of them a marine biologist? did they travel to other planets? a couple of them were psychic?), but I vividly remember how intense the experience of reading them was.
Lauren: Yes to everything you just said.
My sister loved those books.
Jennifer: I think I loved them for the same reason I loved Dirty Dancing: smart girl AND love AND sex.
Lauren: She always finished series that I never got through, like every Anne McCaffrey book ever written, the Austin stories, Chronicles of Narnia.
Jennifer: Although Dirty Dancing didn’t have the dolphin angle.
2:55 PM Lauren: YES I remember the sex stuff too and loving how adult she treated her readers about it.
Jennifer: Oh, I loved Chronicle of Narnia too.
Lauren: I only got through book 3.
Apparently I have a short attention span! 😉
Lauren: I also fizzed out on Anne of Green Gables books after book 4.
Jennifer: I wanted to be Anne of Green Gables.
2:56 PM Lauren: After she married Gilbert I was like, borrring! And I knew one of her kids died and that made me too sad so I just avoided it.
Jennifer: Actually, I wanted to be most of the characters I read about. And I actively sought out books about death, even though I would cry uncontrollably while reading them.
Lauren: Awww!! ❤
I identified really strongly with characters, too.
2:57 PM In fact, I think that’s one of the reasons I had to STOP reading fantasy novels.
I went through this really intense phase in 8th grade
Where I was obsessed with The Three Musketeers.
I mean, I wrote fanfic novels based on it, and only listened to classical music (?) and convinced myself I’d been born in the wrong century.
2:58 PM Jennifer: Did you know there is BSC fanfic? It’s disturbing.
Lauren: And it just got so depressing to think about how none of that stuff would ever happen to me — I couldn’t go back in time, and I couldn’t become a wizard or talk to dragons. My life would never be that cool. So I just had to quit.
BSC fanfic?? The books themselves are practically fanfic, how is that even possible?
Please tell me it isn’t slash fanfic.
Jennifer: Yes. It is slash fanfic. * see clarification at bottom of post
2:59 PM I.
Lauren: THAT IS NOT OK.
Jennifer: That was my feeling as well.
Lauren: NOW I HAVE TO GOOGLE IT. DO NOT MAKE ME GOOGLE IT
Jennifer: I can’t stop you. But you’ll regret it.
* * *EDITOR’S NOTE: DO NOT LOOK UP SEXUALLY EXPLICIT BSC FANFIC. YOU CAN’T UNREAD IT. SAVE YOURSELF. * * *
3:00 PM Lauren: Noooooo
Jennifer: I remember reading books like The Egypt Game and wishing desperately I had some special secret power that nobody around me knew about. But yeah, on some level I knew it wasn’t true.
Are you reading BSC fanfic right now?
Because I warned you.
Lauren: “stacey comes back to stoneybrook, but charlotte johannsen doesn’t need a babysitter anymore.”
3:01 PM Lauren: Ugh, at some point all fanfic just becomes a Penthouse story with recognizable names.
3:02 PM Lauren: Weird, I can’t imagine liking BSC enough to Go There.
Jennifer: And the tween/teen emotional stuff I connect to those books is already intense.
I don’t want to add adult layers to that.
Lauren: Yeah. That just feels wrong.
3:03 PM Jennifer: Although maybe that’s the appeal, reworking those emotional experiences?
Lauren: I suppose so…
It’s weird because I should have been a fanfic-er.
I was completely wired for that.
But I ended up, once the internet happened, getting really annoyed with the ways people changed characters and narratives.
3:04 PM I felt like it violated the author’s intention and that was Not Right to me. Maybe I’d been brainwashed too much by AP lit courses or something.
Jennifer: Maybe you’re a memoir-ist at heart?
Lauren: I got into a really heated argument on a Labyrinth fan list about some fanfic and was like fuck all y’all!
Lauren: Maybe that’s where I started seeing myself more as an interpreter of texts than a creator of them.
3:05 PM Jennifer: I didn’t have a computer or internet access till college. I’m that old.
Lauren: That’s awesome,
We got the internet during my senior year in HS.
3:06 PM That’s when I connected all these weird worlds of people who liked the same stuff as me, including Labyrinth, and ya know, bands :).
3:07 PM Huh. It seems like YA lit should have less importance in the Internet Age or whatever we call the present.
But that doesn’t seem to be true: YA books have gotten more intense.
I read a lot of YA lit and since most of my students, for now anyway, are just out of HS I see a lot if it.
3:08 PM I guess part of it is that YA lit has to be more “realistic” and inclusive and diverse and incorporate harder realities.
So that’s cool, writers like Chris Crutcher and Walter Dean Myers do good things.
3:09 PM Jennifer: I’ve taught Sherman Alexie’s YA book (you have too, I think). And I used a YA book about the Triangle fire in my gender studies class this semester.
It’s hard for me to imagine teaching the YA stuff from my youth, though I guess some of those books were hard hitting too.
Lauren: Oh my god, this BSC fanfic has them becoming basically a babysitter/prostitute club.
“Great idea” Kristy exclaimed.
Jennifer: STOP READING.
3:10 PM Lauren: OK, OK!
YES I absolutely love Absolutely True Diary!
But some of the books I love seem really tame.
At the same time
I really enjoyed YA books of the 50s, even though they were really tame, when I was a kid.
So maybe our books will seem dated but still have an appeal.
3:11 PM I liked Beanie Malone books and I remember a series called Sue Barton Student Nurse or something.
Jennifer: I guess Judy Blume is timeless.
Are You there God It’s Me Margaret and all.
Lauren: For sure.
3:12 PM Jennifer: Bridge to Terabithia stands the test of time.
Lauren: I never read that
because I knew it was sad!!
Jennifer: But The Against Taffy Sinclair Club? Probably not.
Again: I sought out books about death.
Lauren: That’s so awesome. I avoided death books like, ya know, the plague.
I don’t think the BSC will thrive in the future.
Mostly because no cell phones?
3:13 PM Jennifer: Also, the bad fashion choices.
Also, Stacy’s diabetes.
The BSC attempts to be hard hitting = diabetes.
Lauren: I loved books about diabetes!
3:14 PM There was a great book called Sugar Isn’t Everything that was all about diabetes
I based my 6th grade science fair presentation on it and got honorable mention.
Jennifer: Not intense enough for today’s youth. Now it’s all eating disorders and self harm.
3:15 PM Lauren: Right
Jennifer: Which is maybe a good connection to next week’s chat!
Lauren: A whole book about asthma would be boring.
Are you excited about Hunger GameS?
Lauren: I have to admit I am jealous because I know you are going to be hooked. I have lost my copy and don’t know what to do!
Jennifer: I have it on my iPad. I better not lose that.
3:16 PM Lauren: haha
Jennifer: I have to go teach my class now. But I am excited for next week’s chat!
Lauren: OK! Me too!
What were your fave books as a kid? What series did you love? What themes or issues did you explore or work out through your reading choices? We’d love to hear your comments below (and get book recommendations!).
* In this conversation, I use the term “slash fanfic” incorrectly: “slash fanfic” is specific to fanfic that creates a romantic situation between two characters of the same sex, and I was using it in a more general way to indicate fanfic that was sexually explicit. That was inaccurate. I certainly have no problem with same-sex romances in fanfic or in real life, but DO have misgivings about “mature” fanfic featuring characters I loved in my pre-adolescent time, especially really, really bad fanfic that is less erotic than it is pornographic. I’ll never see Mr. Prezioso the same way.