AILSA CHANG, HOST:
OK. If you were a preteen girl in the '80s or early '90s, chances are you spent endless hours like I did, devouring pastel-colored novels with picture-perfect girls on the covers and plots that mostly played out like this.
GABRIELLE MOSS: Heterosexual, white, middle-class girl experiences small problem that seems very big to her but is solved in about a hundred pages.
CHANG: That is Gabrielle Moss. For her new book, "Paperback Crush," Moss went deep into the world of '80s and '90s teen fiction.
MOSS: There was a little, micro, subgenre in '80s and '90s YA that I would describe as sensitive girl meets a ghost who helps her solve personal problems.
CHANG: (Laughter) Totally relatable.
MOSS: I mean, who hasn't been there?
CHANG: Moss eventually moved on to more grown-up reading. But when she turned 34, on impulse, she decided to buy a giant box of "Sweet Valley High" paperbacks off of eBay.
MOSS: About 50 volumes, which I got for $25 - amazing deal.
CHANG: Not bad.
MOSS: I started reading them and, you know, it was nostalgic stress relief. But I also started kind of noticing their themes, their messages. I started remembering stuff from reading them in my own childhood. And I started wondering, you know, what was the impact of reading all these books? You know, I used to read probably two of these novels a week.
CHANG: So I want to give listeners a sample of what you and I were reading back in the '80s and '90s. This literary selection is from "Sweet Valley High." It's No. 32, "The New Jessica."
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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Reading) Jessica's eyes narrowed as they strayed from the mirror to the peach-colored knit dress hanging in her sister's closet. Liz, can I borrow the dress Grandma Wakefield sent you, she asked imploringly, her hand reaching out to stroke the soft fabric. I'm so sick of all my clothes. Sighing, Elizabeth pushed her journal away. I don't know, she said, steeling herself. I've only worn it twice.
CHANG: Of course, scored by the perfect after school special music. That was the drama. Will Elizabeth loan Jessica the dress?
MOSS: Treated with utter seriousness.
CHANG: I mean, what do you think it was about the '80s and '90s that made girls like us turn to these kinds of stories?
MOSS: Well, within teen fiction, I found in my research trends are kind of cyclical. So in the '40s and '50s and early '60s, you had very wholesome books for girls called malt shop novels that were, you know, Jenny has a crush on Tommy. They kissed with closed mouths. The end.
In the late '60s, you had the rise of something called the problem novel. The most famous example of that would be probably S.E. Hinton's "The Outsiders."
MOSS: And these books were grittier, more realistic. You had sex and drugs and family trouble. And then in the late '70s, the cycle just turned over again. A series called "Wildfire" was first released in 1979. And these were very wholesome romance novels. And they were such enormous hits that it was like the malt shop books were back.
CHANG: It felt like every girl defined herself by her relationship to some boy.
MOSS: That was often true in the romance novel. One interesting thing I noticed is that when they started, in the mid-'80s, publishing more books for younger girls - books like "Baby-Sitters Club" - those girls were too young to be obsessed with boyfriends. And so instead, they had these girls define themselves by their friendship relationships with other girls.
And I think that was one of the biggest impacts these books had on our generation and kind of planting the seed of the idea that your friendships with other women were as important in your life as a romantic relationship might be down the line.
CHANG: These girls were their own bosses. They were business-savvy, capable, balancing school with jobs. That's cool. That's affirming. You would think that that would still resonate with teenage girls today.
MOSS: And I think that would. And "Baby-Sitters Club" books are still, you know - they get repackaged and rereleased, or there are comic book versions. So that's one series from that era that has really held on for a new generation of readers.
CHANG: So earlier, you were saying you bought this huge crate of "Sweet Valley High" books off of eBay. You read through all of them again, and it gave you a chance to sort of reconnect with why these books you read so voraciously as a teenager impacted you so deeply. What do you think the answer is now?
MOSS: Even in a very fluffy book like "Sweet Valley High," there's an emphasis on making yourself happy, even though the girls of "Sweet Valley High" often make themselves happy in ways that make everyone else miserable.
But in books like "Baby-Sitters Club" or "Sleepover Friends," there's an emphasis on thriving and, you know, doing things that bring you joy, helping others, creating a community, seeing your ideas through.
Those weren't really ideas that I was getting at home, just because my parents were from a different generation. But I really got it from those books. I feel like they raised me, in a way.
CHANG: Yeah, maybe fluffy, but meaningful fluff.
MOSS: There's fluffy moments. There's meaningful moments. There's a lot of moments where they're arguing about sweater dresses. It all comes together into a beautiful hole.
CHANG: That's Gabrielle Moss. She's the author of "Paperback Crush." Thank you so much for joining us.
MOSS: Thank you for having me.
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