You probably grew up reading Goosebumps, or Baby-Sitter's Club, or Sweet Valley High, or maybe all three. You probably even grew up reading some of the (now) lesser-discussed teen fics of the '80s and '90s, like the Wildfire series, or the Sweet Dreams series, or the books of Christopher Pike. But did you know that behind those flimsy, pastel covers, there was more than just first crushes, and teenage angst, and girls running for treasurer of their vaguely useful clubs? A new book
examines those books in all their weird, wondrous, sort of woke glory, and it's an absolute must-read if you already have an answer prepared for the question "Are you a Jessica or an Elizabeth?" Paperback Crush: The Totally Radical History Of '80s and '90s Teen Fiction
In this hilarious, snarky, and affectionate history of the teen fiction of the '80s and '90s,
Bustle's features editor Gabrielle Moss dives deep in to the world of teen fiction: who wrote it, who published it, who read it, even who appeared on the covers. It's a fascinating examination of the trends (clubs, twins, horses) and the issues (teenage pregnancy, drug use, abortion) that defined the era. Paperback Crush: The Totally Radical History of '80s and '90s Teen Fiction by Gabrielle Moss, $14.99, Amazon or Indiebound
Here are five things I learned about the history of teen fiction from
Paperback Crush: 1 The YA Romances Of The '80s & '90s Were More Progressive Than You Realize
In the '80s and '90s, teen romances were big business. Like, seriously big. In 1979, Scholastic published the first book in the series that arguably started the trend — Wildfire — and by 1982, it had sold two million copies. In 1981, Random House, inspired by their competitor's success, launched their own teen romance series called Sweet Dreams. It had a first run of 150,000 copies, the same as the first run for John Green's
The Fault In Our Stars in 2012.
But what's perhaps most surprising about the teen romance trend wasn't that it happened (yeah, duh, teenagers fall in love – Romeo & Juliet, heard of 'em?) but that it was actually kind of progressive.
"Despite being romances, a vast number of these books explore the pitfalls of relationships as much as the highlights, suggesting that dating for status is a soul-killing endeavor, that the popular jock you lust over might actually be a total buzzkill once you get to know him, and that romance is about respect and compatibility, not the buzz of smooching the captain of the football team," Moss writes, adding: "These weren't just naive books that prevented that teen sexuality stopped at French kissing; they were also fresh formulas infused with the lessons of second-wave feminism."
2 Not Every Teen Series Was Pure Fluff
OK, you probably remember when every YA series was about a "club" and you probably remember that a lot of them were... pretty dumb. And in terms of diversity... well, a few them had twins? But as is normally the case, the whole "clubs trend" actually provided space for the inclusion of characters who weren't white girls from the suburbs.
"Finally, lest you write off all club book series as frivolous, there were in fact, a handful that addressed topics more substantial than French-braiding," Moss writes. "The NEATE series, put out by African American publisher Just Us Books between 1992 and 1994, had its mixed-gender group of members — that'd be Naimah, Elizabeth, Anthony, Tayesha, and Eddie, aka NEATE — join forces to deal with pressing social issues, like helping Naimah's mother win a city council race against an unrepentant racist, raising awareness about gerrymandering, or saving a refugee shelter from closure. The magic of NEATE is that the books didn't save this stuff for a Very Special Edition; they mixed social concerns in with more traditional middle grade stories about talent shows and demanding parents."
3 There Was A Book Series That Was Basically Goosebumps Meet The Baby-Sitter's Club
There were a few obvious trends in the teen fic of '80s and '90s teen lit: horror, friendship, twins, clubs, and, of course, babysitting. Moss writes about each of these in-depth, but in one especially hilarious snippet of the book she describes a book series that combined the horror of R.L. Stine's Goosebumps with the feel-good vibes of Ann Martin's Baby-Sitter's Club: The Samantha Slade series.
"Aspiring tween babysitter Samantha earns the princely sum of $6 an hour to watch her supernatural charges, including a werewolf, a telekinetic, and the world's widdlest mad scientist," Moss writes. "Despite all this, her adventures are relatively low-key; Samantha gets accidentally turned into a frog for a while, then starts a band with a vampire, but no one gets torn limb from limb by a pack of blood-lusting were-babies."
I feel like this could definitely get a reboot as a CW series, but with sexy vampire older brothers.
4 Lois Duncan Wrote A True Crime Book About Her Own Daughter's Murder
An entire chapter of
Paperback Crush is dedicated to teen books that tackled serious issues: sexual assault, drug abuse, chronic illness, etc. It's no laughing matter — and one section, in particular, is intensely horrifying: The story behind Lois Duncan's nonfiction book, Who Killed My Daughter?
You probably recognize Duncan as the acclaimed teen horror novelist who wrote
I Know What You Did Last Summer. But in 1989, she lived through her own horror story when her 18-year-old daughter, Kaitlyn Arquette, was found dead in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Law enforcement called it an accident (she was killed in a drive-by shooting) but Duncan didn't believe it. She continued to investigate her daughter's killing until her own death in 2016, and only published one YA novel after the tragedy. Kaitlyn's murder is still an open investigation. 5 There Were Authors Besides Judy Blume Really Pushing Feminist Messages Through Teen Fic
Described by Moss as the "Xtina to Judy Blume's Britney," author Norma Klein dealt with just as many tough issues as Judy Blume, including teenage pregnancy and abortion. The history of abortion in teen fic is fraught, but writers like Klein pushed the pro-choice movement forward in revolutionary ways. "Blume gets the glory, but Klein, who passed away in 1989, did as much to push YA to its limits, and her more complicated messages might be why she's less widely hailed," Moss writes. "Judy's girls found pleasure in their bodies. Norma's girls learned that bodies were sites of both pleasure and pain, but also that they were absolutely their own."
If you still have a box of Girl Talk books sitting in a box in your parents' basement,
might just be the book you need to pick up this fall. If you're still not convinced, you can Paperback Crush read an excerpt at Bustle.