The Totally Radical History of '80s and '90s Teen Fiction
Copyright © 2018 Gabrielle MossISBN: 978-1-68369-078-8
All rights reserved.
Are you an adult with a full-time job who still dreams of switching places with your (nonexistent) identical twin? Are you a mature, sensible individual who cares about mature, sensible things like your 401(k) and gum health—but who also cares about those poor dopes who kept moving to Fear Street, even though it had a well-documented murder problem? Are you a loving, responsible parent who is only two cocktails away from shrieking, “Say hello to your friends, say hello to the peeeeeeeople who care”?
If you answered yes to any of these questions: Welcome!
This book is a place of understanding. A place where you can sit down, get comfortable, and talk about Claudia Kishi’s pumpkin earrings or that time Jessica Wakefield accidentally joined a cult while she was at the mall. Here you’re among friends.
We’re here to honor the young adult lit published after Judy Blume but before J. K. Rowling. These books often get a bad rap. People think of it as a time of superficial books about gossip, proms, and amnesia. But the YA novels that we hoarded from school book fairs taught us about female friendships, trusting ourselves, and speaking our minds—while also feeding us questionable lessons about what it means to be a woman and whose stories deserve to be told.
I know the nostalgic power of ’80s and ’90s young-adult lit firsthand. In the spring of 2016, I was in a major rut and decided there was only one way out: buying a crate of Sweet Valley High books on eBay. For the semi-reasonable price of $50, I could lose myself in the neon-tinted pop culture of my youth, with all its pointless catfights and ice-blue prom dresses.
I may have learned to read from educator- approved picture books about poky puppies and purple crayons, but I learned to become a reader from Sweet Valley High. In 1989, I begged my parents to buy me #32, The New Jessica, because I thought the girls on the cover had pretty hair. Little did I know that I’d be injecting the adventures of those pretty-haired Wakefield twins directly into my veins for the next four years.
Before Sweet Valley, I’d been a shy, unpopular dork. But after Sweet Valley, I was something much, much better: a shy, unpopular dork who could retreat into a pastel parallel universe. There, everyone had friends, everyone was pretty, and everyone was special. My peers were stuck engaging with reality like morons, but with a trip to the library, I could become a California beauty queen, or an angsty teen living on a haunted street, or a clever babysitter loved by kids and adults alike.
I stopped reading tween lit in 1994, when I started middle school and became less interested in being elected prom queen and more interested in the prospect of burning down prom with my eerie telekinetic powers. But those books remained stuck in the back of my brain, and the slightest trigger—a geometric-print sweater, an attractive blonde teenager pitching a fit—brought back a rush of memories.
I knew they lingered there for some reason. But I didn’t give myself permission to take a full-on journey into the past until that summer of existential dread. The books were a thirty-fourth birthday present to myself, and locking myself in my bedroom to devour a giant box of paperback novels from 1990 was a form of self-care that I thought would help me get my bearings. As I ripped through those books, I found more than nostalgia—though Jesus H. Wakefield, did I find nostalgia! I also found a record of my adolescent expectations—of the ideas about romance and womanhood and rebellion that had shaped me. I found the attitudes I’d end up embracing, and resisting, my entire life.
After that first box, I picked up more and more tween series until I had so many that I could no longer play off my behavior as a joke. I had contracted a compulsive need to buy books from the pre-Twilight era of teen literature, the days when no adult would be caught dead reading YA on the subway. I realized that I needed to share what I’d learned from rereading them and, more important, that I needed to justify spending so much money on Fear Street books instead of saving for a house.
That’s the short version of how the book you are holding came to be. These are the stories that made us and, as I found out, the stories that can save us, even now. That alone makes them worth another look.
So now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a Jungle Prom to ruin.
GIRL, YOU’LL BE A YOUNG ADULT SOON
So where did the young adult literature boom of the ’80s and ’90s come from? Well, the story starts at the dawn of YA—though experts don’t agree on exactly when it dawned. Books from the original 1930s Nancy Drew stories to Laura Ingalls Wilder’s 1932 book Little House in the Big Woods to the 1936 novel Sue Barton, Student Nurse by Helen Dore Boylston have all been held up as the first-ever YA novel. But a critical mass of people, including YA expert and former Young Adult Library Services Association president Michael Cart, say that it all started with Maureen Daly’s Seventeenth Summer, a tale of summer lovin’ published in 1942 that spoke directly to the hearts and wallets of postwar teen culture. Seventeenth Summer ushered in malt shop books, wholesome novels about teen girls who lived, loved, and never went past first base in an idealized America. Not long after, in 1944, New York Public Library librarian Margaret Scoggins changed the name of her Library Journal column on teen lit to “Books for Young Adults.” In 1957, the Young Adult Library Services Division of the American Library Association was founded. And in 1966,
the American Library Association changed the name of its list of books for a teenage reader to “Best Books for Young Adults.” YA as we know it had been officially christened.
The ’60s saw YA get serious. In 1967, S. E. Hinton’s The Outsiders, a novel about young gangsters in Oklahoma who are into emotional introspection and stabbing each other, set off what some have called the “first golden age of YA.” Post-Outsiders YA channeled more of the zeitgeist of late ’60s and ’70s America, with authors like Judy Blume and Paul Zindel dramatizing previously forbidden topics like sexuality, drug use, and divorce.
But it wasn’t until 1985 that a YA series landed on the New York Times best-seller list for the first time, thanks to Jessica and Elizabeth Wakefield, those foxy blonde sociopaths first introduced by Francine Pascal in 1983 (see page 104). They represented this new wave of YA, one that skipped narratives about teen trauma in favor of innocent romances that harkened back to the malt shop days, when girls were virgins, families were nuclear, and really bad stuff only happened to other people. These chaste romances created a brand-new revenue stream for publishers by getting the cash directly from the source: new marketing efforts allowed teens to bypass school or the library in favor of the mall bookstore.
Innovations in both sales technique and subject matter spread beyond teen romance, expanding, refreshing, and remarketing the YA worlds of suspense, drama, light comedy, and horror. Series like Baby-Sitters Club (page 141) or Saddle Club (page 73) were aimed at an audience a bit too young to envy the Wakefield sisters their Fiat, and legacy series like Nancy Drew and the Boxcar Children marched on with ’80s and ’90s makeovers. “Good” books for younger readers—the kind that teachers believed had literary value—were still being published, but this period was the first time the market was flooded with quickly churnedout paperbacks for young women, with plots that felt more like sitcoms or soap operas than earnest after-school specials. These books generally stepped away from the socially aware vibe of ’70s YA, presenting stories of white, straight, thin, middle-to-upper-class heroines with few real problems. And like the ’50s teen novels they harkened back to, these books posited that following society’s rules was the path to popularity and joy.
The book packages also looked different from those that came before and after. Though ’70s YA covers often featured subdued colors, ’80s and ’90s YA utilized perky pastels and neons. And though post–Harry Potter YA was dominated by trilogies and thick, sleekly designed hardcovers, ’80s and ’90s YA publishers specialized in paperback series with roughly one billion flimsy volumes, following the heroines’ every move. Some YA series, like Gossip Girl, do carry the Wakefield torch—but they’re rare.
Yet no matter how fluffy, overmarketed, heteronormative, and vapid the books of the ’80s and ’90s may have been, they did more than fuel the key transition from the realist YA fiction of the ’70s to the sparkly YA fiction of the 2000s. (Though, I have to say, if you think Twilight invented sexy teen vampires, buckle up.). They helped turn us readers into the women we are today. Not because we embraced all the values the books implicitly endorsed, but because they gave us space to explore our identities, dream of the future, and, when the time came, engage in growth and rebellion by turning our backs on them. They validated girls’ stories by putting them to paper—simple as that.
Does that make up for the fact that a lot of these books centered the stories of white rich thin heterosexual women with naturally straight hair? Of course not. These books were a mixed blessing, and for readers who didn’t fit into the prescribed mold of the heroines, they were as alienating as they could be empowering. But their impact, and the way they shaped us into the protagonists of our own lives, is undeniable. They taught us that girls and girls’ experiences mattered, that things our parents or teachers thought were frivolous were in fact important enough to spend a book or ten teasing the meaning out of. They taught us that we should say hello to our friends, because there’s nothing better than them. They taught us that there was light at the end of most tunnels, and, if nothing else worked out, you could start over in California.
All those hours spent signing up for library wait lists, or scouring the shelves at Waldenbooks, or reading when you were supposed to be learning long division, really did matter. These are the books that taught us, implicitly, that reading could be fun—hell, that it should be fun! And the good lessons we learned from them are (mostly) worth remembering.
So come on in, friend. We’ve got a Scholastic Book Fair circular with all the best ones circled just for you.