Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Becoming a Woman

When I was a teenager, the books all came with pensive looking girls on the front cover, holding a book or a flower right up near their heads. There were a few happy girls sprinkled in here and there, (and one memorably scarring time, a girl shooting out of a swimming pool, all open mouth, horse teeth, and short wet hair. You know the book. She was a champion swimmer, but could she win at love?!?), but for the most part Y.A. book covers looked like feminine hygiene pamphlets and the contents were not nearly as intriguing.*

The plotting was lazy and shallow and characters were perfect morality plays in action. Nice girls always won the boy, even if he was momentarily diverted by the only girl in town with actual hips to sway. I loved all these books, but I hated to buy them even when they only cost a $1.25. You read them once, then they dissolved and you never thought about them again. ** And our parents wondered why we devoured Flowers in the Attic – it wasn’t any less realistic than Bitsy’s Summer of Too Many Boys.

Young adult books hit the apex of stupid with the Fear Street series and its kin. Hundreds of books with less plot than the maze on the back of the Happy Meal box. But then, instead of wallowing in the stupid, Y.A. books took a sharp upward turn into pure magic. Books written for teens over the last 20 years are arguably the purest form of American literature, with finely developed characters and nuanced plots. In a market where it pays to reflect the experience of every teenager, authors are managing to pull it off. In the last few weeks, I’ve read about every variety of home life imaginable – orphans, fosters, two-parent, one-parent, divorced, gay, living in the mall***, everything.

I’d make an argument that Chick Lit had become the Sweet Valley High of literature, but I have to make a lot of distinctions in that one, so I’ll save it for another day.

*A disclaimer that of course there were great young adult books in the 1980’s. We had Judy Blume, Ellen Conford, and Julian F. Thompson and…I’m sure there are more. I'll wake up in the middle of the night, shouting out author names.

**Except for the swimmer girl and a book called P.S. I Love You, but the P.S. stood for Palm Springs and for Paul (Something-or-Another). Clever, huh?

***Did you know that Night of the Comet is streaming on Netflix. WIN!


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