Are you an Elizabeth or a Jessica Wakefield? Did you long to be in the Baby-Sitter’s Club? Do you remember the Book It! club? In Paperback Crush: The Totally Radical History of ’80s and ’90s Teen Fiction, Gabrielle Moss takes us on a nostalgic and hilarious tour through teen bookshelves and the Golden Age of YA literature. From first crushes and pesky siblings to divorce and stranger danger, these YA books had you covered. But what’s changed in YA literature since then and what can we learn when looking back at the books so many of us loved as tweens? I spoke with Moss about wholesome teenagers, developing an early taste for reading, and the legacy of Sweet Valley High.
It seems as if your interest in these teen books started around the summer of 2016. What was that time like for you, and why did you start this project?
That is 100 percent accurate. My day job is [being] a journalist, and  was kind of a terrible and stressful time to be living in America, as it has continued to be. I was thinking about the election all day, and [was] very, very nervous and stressed out all the time. I kept looking for ways to feel better for a moment, and I was like, What if I started buying some of these old books again? So I just retreated into my room, tried to turn off my brain for a minute, and then came out ready to face the hell-world again.
I bought some Sweet Valley High books off eBay. They gave me a moment of peace, but I also found that I was analyzing them more than I had expected. I thought they would be, honestly, kind of crappy, and that I wouldn’t be able to engage with them in any way. But when I was reading them, I started really thinking about them. I, like a lot of women in our age demographic, grew up reading these. I would read like 10 a week when I was in elementary school, and I started thinking about how they had shaped so many of my ideas, even ideas that I’m pushing back against now as an adult. I started thinking that it would be cool to go back and really look at them, really see how they were made, what they reflected about the times in which they were made, and what we could figure out about how they have affected all of us who were exposing ourselves to them.
You write about how these books turned you into a reader. Why do you think that happened?
I learned to read chapter books from reading Sweet Valley High, which is maybe inappropriate for a second grader, but it’s what I had. Every single Sweet Valley High book ends with a cliff-hanger to get you invested in the next book, and I really think the pure pleasure of the books [kept me engaged] in a way that more serious books might not have at that age. I was always so desperate to find out what was next, and by the time I got out of my Sweet Valley High stage, I was someone who got so much pleasure out of reading.
I think [it was] their easy readability and the fact that they provided so much pleasure in reading. You probably wouldn’t struggle to make your way through them even if you were an inexperienced reader. They didn’t take so much time that you would lose your place or forget what was happening. I think all of that introduced a lot of people to the pleasures of reading.
Out of all of the teen books you looked at, which is the one that people are the most excited to talk about?
If you walk into any room full of people our age, and you’re just like, “Baby-Sitter’s Club!” everyone will drop what they’re doing and be like, “Oh my god, yeah. I’m a Kristy!” I am a little bit more of a Sweet Valley expert than a Baby-Sitter’s Club expert, and I feel bad about that. I feel like I’m betraying the readership.
As you studied these books, themes started emerging: divorce, school troubles, getting a job. It seems really clear that these narratives were intended to be taken as guidance and went a long way in shaping girls’ ideas of the world and the kind of social interactions they should have. What do you make of that instructive role that YA literature seemed to take on?
[When I started this project], I was just like, I’m going to read these. I’m going to poke around. I’m going to see where it goes. And it became clearer and clearer that this was a vast body of literature that’s about teaching young women how to deal with every aspect of the world. On a personal level, I came from a not-so-ideal home situation when I was a kid, and I think these books were so extra meaningful to me because they provided the kind of guidance that I wasn’t necessarily getting at home. Even if it wasn’t good guidance all of the time, I valued getting guidance.
There’s a lot of that in children’s literature. And because the stuff in the ’80s and ’90s was being pumped out so quickly, there was almost no time to cover up the foundational beams. In a more sophisticated children’s story, maybe it would be a narrative that you did not necessarily initially realize was about how to cope with familial changes. Whereas the trend in these cheap, quickly produced books was to call the books, basically, Here’s How to Deal with Familial Changes. Writing a book about divorce? Call it The Divorce Express. I don’t know if this is because there was such raw competition for shelf space in the YA section of bookstores, but it was the trend at the time to be really frank, just lay it all out there at the top, like this is a book about missing your friend when she moves away and not wrapping it in any artifice. Traditionally you’d wrap it in a more artful package.
Most of these YA books features white protagonists. What was it like for authors trying to write about teens of color?
It was difficult to get those books published, number one. I talked to one author, Marie G. Lee, who wrote what I think is the first contemporary YA with an Asian American protagonist. It’s really, really, really well written, and she suffered trying to get it published. Nobody wanted to touch this book even though it’s this great coming-of-age story with a romance. People were like, “We don’t want to publish this. We published a book with an Asian character last year.” Literally, she was told that. So, there was an initial struggle in getting these books made period. And then through my research, I found that I saw so little about these books and had to work so hard to hunt them down and find out about them because they were just not promoted in the way that books about white children were. They were not given the marketing budget; they were not given the shelf space. They just didn’t try.
If you walk into any room full of people our age, and you’re just like, “Baby-Sitter’s Club!” everyone will drop what they’re doing and be like, “Oh my god, yeah. I’m a Kristy!”
In your book, you point out that nowadays most readers of YA are adults. What do you think has changed so much since the YA period you wrote about, and do you feel like there something is lost because writers and publishing houses know their audience is actually primarily adults?
What has changed is that the pendulum has swung; the trend now is books [with] more art and artifice to them. I think that probably started with Harry Potter, which does take on a lot of classic YA themes. You know, [he’s] alone experiencing changes in family, changes in friends, changes in school, but [the books are] great works of literature. I think that reset the trend. We don’t want these kind of Sweet Valley High type books [now]. That’s certainly a part of the reason that they have become more appealing to adults. I think if you’re an adult and you didn’t grow up with, say, the Sleepover Friends and you picked it up now, you wouldn’t get that much out of it because it is just so stripped down, bare bones, and so little about people’s inner life.
I’ve never been inside the room at a YA publisher, so I don’t know what their meetings are like, but I assume that the adult consumer and their taste is taken into account to some degree. I do think a little something is lost there. One of the things that was most exciting for me as a reader when I was young was that these books seemed aimed totally and exclusively at my concerns, not whatever a parent thought I should be concerned about and certainly not what an adult was concerned about. School, friendship, power struggles, feeling excluded, and other very close-to-the-bone young adulthood and childhood issues. I think when you start trying to make sure that something can also appeal to a 35 year-old, a little something is lost.
YA being written right now is so good, and I enjoy it, and I think a lot of actual teenagers enjoy it too. I just think it’s a different animal than it was in the past when it was constructed so deeply and so specifically around the needs of children.
You referenced the YA pendulum, which you talk about in your book, historically swinging from conservative, wholesome depictions of teenagers to racy ones. I wonder what you make of shows like Riverdale that come of out of this same wholesome, malt-shop environment, but are being reinterpreted in a more edgy, sexy way for teens now?
I love Riverdale, but I do think there is certainly something interesting in the compulsion to take something sort of old-fashioned and update it in such a way that it’s unrecognizable. I feel like that’s the most interesting thing about Riverdale. Like what the hell does that have to do with Archie? That has nothing to do with Archie.
I do feel like Riverdale comes from the same, maybe extreme version of the discussion happening in a YA–publishing boardroom about how adults are going to feel about teen books. Or [the aim of the show is] kind of like, We are only considering the feelings of adults while making this teen show. I’m 36, and when I watch Riverdale, it seems like it’s about people in their mid- to late 20s, for sure.
And murder. There’s a lot of murder.
Yeah! That’s a good example of the things that are lost when you’re entertaining people in their 20s and 30s. “My life is kind of settled, and I’d like to see some murders” versus a show that’s just for teenagers negotiating this life phase that’s full of constant changes. You have no idea what’s going on, and Riverdale certainly doesn’t speak to that. It speaks to an adult’s idea of a teenager.
Going back and rereading some of these YA classics, I’m sure that many surprised you with how regressive they were. Were there any that surprised you with how progressive they were?
In addition to revisiting ones I had actually read as a kid, I also ended up doing a lot of research reading books that I had missed when I was a kid. And many of those were the ones that were more progressive.
I encountered a few novels when I was going through the very early romance novels of the ’80s that were striking in their take on feminism or the feminist content of their work. There was a series called Windswept that was a supernatural mysteries but also romance. A lot of their stories were about a young woman realizing that she would be better off living her life more independently than relying on the men who were interested in her, and it would be made in a semi-bizarre way because it would be a supernatural mystery romance.
I’m thinking of one book in particular where this group of teenagers go into a haunted house, and this girl develops a relationship with the ghost there. The ghost is from 200 years ago and still really worked up about this situation with her boyfriend and her sister from 200 years ago. Although the meat of the book is the heroine trying to solve the mystery of the situation with the ghost, in the background, there’s a thing going on where being around this ghost who’s so obsessed with her boyfriend leads the heroine to realize that there is more to life than just being with your boyfriend. In the whole book, she’s trying to figure out if she should get married out of high school or go to college. At the end, she decides to go to college—she doesn’t want to be like that ghost!
Having done this survey of ’80s and ’90s teen fiction, which is so different from the YA fiction being published now, do you have insight into the future of the genre?
Oh, man. Not necessarily any great ones. I feel like the number one thing I learned from this is that the nature of YA literature trends, like the nature of probably any kind of trend, is circular. The pendulum goes back and forth. In the ’50s, things were very wholesome, and then starting in the mid-60s, the ’70s, things were more gritty and about real life. And in the ’80s and early to mid-90s, things are wholesome all over again. The pendulum has swung back into more darker, gritty stuff now. Just based on that, I wonder if we’re due for a wave of enforced wholesomeness, but I can only guess.
Members of The Rage get exclusive content, including Bitch magazine in print. Membership starts at just $5 a month and helps support Bitch’s critical feminist analysis.