Horses. Boys. Ballet. Friendship. Pranks. Breakups. Clubs. Gymnastics. Drama — always some serious drama. Young adult fiction wasn’t always as controversial, progressive, and “woke” as it is now. In fact, it was the domain of straight white girls with nice parents who had great jobs, and American tween girls ate it up. Gabrielle Moss explores the time of girl-centric young adult fiction in Paperback Crush. The two powerhouses you may recognize are Sweet Valley High and The Baby-Sitters Club, both of which spawned monster series that girls couldn’t get enough of. But Moss covers more than Jessica and Elizabeth Wakefield and that band of babysitting entrepreneurs — though be aware that any familiarity with these two giant series is beneficial, as comparisons to SVH and BSC are often made to other books and series.
The first thing you’ll notice is how fantastic this nonfiction work is to hold in your hands. Every page is that quality glossy stuff typically saved for those several pages of photos in the middle of a biography. And it’s necessary. Moss includes loads of images of book covers so readers can see how they changed (and also to make fun of some of them). Paperback Crush is a quality-made, eye-pleasing book.
Thanks to the author’s love of ’80s and ’90s teen fiction, she can poke fun at it, too. Her tone is often jokey and chatty, much like the books she’s discussion. It’s like hanging out with your girlfriend, reminiscing about the light-hearted days of girl stories. I definitely giggled when I read the following:
. . . but the mid-’80s popularity of the Baby-Sitters Club sent publishers scrambling for quick ways to cash in on tween crews. The result was a flood of books that implied you couldn’t put two 12-year-old girls alone in a room together without one appointing the other one treasurer.
Notice that quote says “12-year-old girls.” During the ’80s and ’90s, many tween girls were reading young adult novels. The same thing happened with magazines back then, too. Seventeen Magazine wasn’t read by 17-year-old girls. So some of the books mentioned seem for younger readers, but they all fit neatly together in my head. The market was flooded with certain types of books and authors, and they were all must have, regardless of age distinctions.
Wisely, Moss acknowledges that lack of books for girls who aren’t white, affluent, straight, and from perfect families. She looks at books that had girls of color and some who were lesbian or bi, but these were few and far between. Author Marie Myung-Ok Lee (who published as Marie G. Lee) wrote about Korean girls. Nancy Garden wrote one of the most “celebrated LGBT romances.” There’s a spotlight on Just Us Books, a publisher of works by black authors about black children and teens. Though there isn’t much she can do about the lack of inclusion at the time, Moss does talk about it honestly and highlight who was out there making waves.
As someone who was lost in (almost exclusively) 1980s teen girl fiction in the ’90s, I knew I was the perfect reader for Paperback Crush. But that doesn’t mean it was simply time travel to my youth. I learned that Lurlene McDaniel, author of a pivotal book of my young called Don’t Die, My Love was prolific and known as the “cryin’ and dyin’ lady.” I hadn’t realized that Christopher Pike and R.L. Stein were part of the teen girl fiction craze (though I read both). And I definitely wasn’t exposed to the teen books about abortion, drug use, divorce, suicide, chronic illness, and losing one’s virginity.
Moss gives context and perspective on how all these books fit in together by breaking her research into categories: Love, Friends, Family, School, Jobs, Danger, and Terror. Most importantly, Moss reminds readers that the ’80s and ’90s were not a time of frivolous reading. ’80s and ’90s young adult books “validated girls’ stories by putting them to paper — simple as that.” My only gripe is that after the Terror chapter, the book ends abruptly! No conclusion, no comments about YA for girls today. Not even an LYLC sign-off. Weird.
Highly recommended, and would make a marvelous addition to your personal collection (especially if you have some of those Sweet Valley High or Fear Street books still lingering on your shelves!).