Paperback Crush: The Totally Radical History of ’80s and ’90s Teen Fiction by Gabrielle Moss

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.

Pages 26-27 of Paperback Crush. The whole book is set up like this.

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!).

39 comments

  1. My daughters were teenagers in the 1990s. I don’t remember them pestering me for books like this, and of course I was much more likely to give them classics. If I get the chance I’ll ask them what I’ve forgotten. My own teenage years, the 60s, boys were more like to read books about WWII, though I also read old fashioned authors like PC Wren (Beau Geste and a dozen more).

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    • Plus, Australian titles don’t always make it to the States (I’m finding this problem when I read your reviews and try to get my hands on a copy of a book you recommend). I’m not sure what were popular boys books in the 1960s, but many people read The Boxcar Children, The Adventures of TinTin, and The Hardy Boys.

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    • Laura, I think you would love it, as we are about the same age. I read the article you linked. I don’t know that I’ve read Annie on My Mind, and it made me feel guilty that the author noted they’ve never met a straight person who did read it! When I was doing my Master’s degree, I took a children’s lit class and was surprised by how much diversity was out there if you knew where to find it. That’s not to say anything about the state of publishing being open and inclusive pre-2000s (it wasn’t), but some books did creep in! I’d love to own a copy of Paperback Crush.

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  2. This sounds like such a fun–yet informative–read! I’m familiar with Babysitters Club and Sweet Valley High, but not sure I could name much else written in the 80s and 90s! I think it could be interesting, however, to see how those books laid the foundation for today’s YA.

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    • There are also little “in the spotlight” articles in which the author interviews a writer or publisher to get their take on what was going on with teen fiction in the ’80s and ’90s. It was a great book, and I’d be delighted to own a copy. What’s interesting is so many of the covers looked familiar, meaning I possibly read the book or just encountered it in my good ol’ Scholastic Book Fair catalog and remembered it. I also wasn’t aware that the personality types from BSC (artist, sporty, bookish, the one from New York) were VERY common across girls’ series.

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  3. Interesting, I haven’t read any Babysitters club but I did try a few Sweet Valley High, although I preferred Nancy Drew. Are you saying that this kind of series dominated US teen literature in the 80s and 90s? If so it sounds very different from the teen literature I remember, but most of the authors I read were Europeans.

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    • Both Baby-sitters Club and Sweet Valley Twins had hundreds of books written by ghostwriters, and American girls were so crazy about these two series that we HAD TO OWN THEM ALL. I mean, it was like the Beetlesmania of series. What series did you like from your country? Girls did like Nancy Drew in the States, but she came several decades before (and keeps getting a makeover and fresh up ever few decades!).

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      • The series I read was mostly imported, like the Sweet Valley twins and Nancy Drew. The only Swedish YA series I can remember was older. From what I remember of my reading during the 90s Swedish YA literature was rarely serialised and definitely not afraid of hard topics. Of the ones I remember a surprising number seem to deal with death and grief. On the other hand one of our most beloved works of MG fiction is The Brothers Lionheart, which deals quite heavily with death, so it is perhaps not surprising that YA authors dared too. I also remember a few with uplifting topics such as bullying, parents with dementia, life of street kids in Copenhagen… I think much of it was really good though, and usually with some sort of happy ending, so not too bleak.

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  4. I MUST read this book. I loved SVH and the Sweet Dreams series (and I’m not ashamed to say, I have most of the books).

    My own daughter is 12 and recently I thought that perhaps she’d like to read them – I used to get so caught up in the whole narrative, and wait eagerly for the next instalment, and thought she might like a similar reading experience So I picked up the first SVH to have a quick re-read before giving it to my daughter… and no. I was surprised (shocked??) by the amount of content about the girls’ physical appearance. So, here’s the dilemma – that stuff didn’t ‘hurt’ me as a 12yo reader (I don’t think!), however, I wasn’t also dealing with commentary from social media, advertising, music videos etc etc This is a topic I could go on and on about, but will read Paperback Crush first!

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    • Kate, Paperback Crush was AWESOME! Super memory lane stuff. When I was growing up and reading SVH, I noticed that there was loads about the girls’ appearances, and I do think it affected me. Knowing I was never a size six made me feel terrible, and I spent all of my public school years feeling like a fat poo. Granted, there was so much about the series that had me hooked: would Todd and Elizabeth live happily ever after, would Jessica ever realize what a horrible person she was and actual grow, why were Lila and Bruce so mean all the time, would Enid every get a non-drippy personality? I would still recommend Baby-sitters Club to a twelve-year-old, though.

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  5. Excellent review, this sounds so interesting! I was born in 94 so my YA days came right around the time of Twilight and the Great YA Awakening. Lol. But I do remember reading a lot of the authors you mention here, including quite a few Baby Sitter’s Club books, R. L. Stein, Lurlene McDaniel, etc. I never did read Sweet Valley High, though I knew of it! (My library was small, they probably had to choose between that and BSC.) It’s interesting to me the way you talk about the YA age range then vs now, since I did read a lot of these books at about 11-14 and then progressed to all the shiny new dystopians and fantasies that were starting to trend, so I do think of BSC as “12 year-old books” just because of when I read them, I suppose. Anyway, even though I don’t think I was quite immersed enough in the YA content that this book covers to really appreciate everything about it, I think it’s really interesting to look at book trends like this, and it sounds like Moss does a great job of covering things like diversity and the importance of girls’ stories being published at all.

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    • The interesting thing about “teen girls” back in the ’80s and ’90s is that whatever audience the publication said they wanted to read, everyone knew the real readership was about 3-5 years younger. Seventeen magazine was read by thirteen-year-old girls. Sweet Valley HIGH was read by girls in 6th grade. That sort of thing. These days, YA seems to mean high-school age or adult. It’s bumped up.

      One thing I never noticed that Paperback Crush covered is the fact that the BSC title is so jacked up. It’s always, always written as Baby-sitters Club (with the hyphen that isn’t needed and no apostrophe). I can’t believe I hadn’t noticed that before! Maybe some day there will be a book that covers all the 2000 YA. It would definitely be a huge text.

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      • That is definitely interesting. I had heard that about Seventeen magazine, and can relate- I liked that magazine as a teen, but stopped enjoying it around the time I actually was 17, lol. I think there might be an interesting trend there- maybe girls in the 90s liked using their reading to fantasize about what being an older teen would be like, whereas now it seems like people are more content to read about characters their own age (with the skewing toward adult content in YA accounting for the surge in adults reading that age range ever since Twilight became a hit). And really, it’s even more interesting to think that those girls reading above their age range in the 90s could be the women who as adults are now reading below their age range by sticking with YA. Book trends are just fascinating, aren’t they?

        That’s a good point, the BSC title is spelled very oddly! I can see how it might have been harder to change once they gained popularity, but why spell it that way to begin with? So strange.

        I would love a book about 2000s YA! It would be cool if Paperback Crush was the first in a sort of overarching series about YA trends, that’s exactly the kind of book nerd content I’m here for!

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  6. This sounds really fantastic, although other than BSC and Nancy Drew/Hardy Boys, I don’t think I read that much US teen fiction – and I had largely stopped reading those by the time I was actually a teenager. I’ll be really interested to see what the differences are between what was being published there in this time period and what was being published over here.

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    • What was called young adult fiction in the ’80s and ’90s was definitely being read by middle school girls. 6th grade (around age 11-12) even. It was a weird thing back then; we all wanted to grow up so badly that we read Seventeen Magazine when we were thirteen.

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  7. This sounds like a great book. I was 8-18 in 1980-1990 and I was aware of SVH as they had them in our libraries, but never read any. In my teens I was still into collecting series of books – so all of Georgette Heyer, Agatha Christie, some sci fi and fantasy, I also started reading Iris Murdoch and also quite a lot of other literary fiction. Our village library had one bookcase of YA (Teens) or maybe even two shelves – there was a terribly upsetting novel about Denmark in WW2 and Go Well, Stay Well by Toecky Jones which was about apartheid – Judy Blume was around too but I somehow missed her, but basically it was big long series or books about Issues. I also read a lot of classics in my teens, something we were encouraged to do. I do like YA fiction now but it’s very different to what we have now.

    Oh, I was still reading pony books, too, of course. So many of those – but there’s a book about them, too, Heroines on Horseback by Jane Badger. Love these books about books!

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    • Pony books! I don’t know why that makes me giggle, but it does. I giggled when Moss brought up horse books, too. It’s just SO girly as to make me titter. I remember my library having these spinning racks with JUST Sweet Valley High books on them. The library was trying to keep up with them all because they were in such high demand. Plus, you could get SO. MANY. from garage sales, too.

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    • I still remember the plots of many SVH books distinctly. Like, where did my knowledge of Ancient Greek Lit go after I paid for a whole semester of it? But of course I remember the time Jessica booked two dates in one night with boys she really liked, so Elizabeth had to pretend to be her at one of them. And the time Lizzie decided to be less anal, so she rode on Todd’s motorcycle, crashed, and went in to a coma? Or when they got lost in the desert and dumped all their food on the ground so they could carry back bars of gold. I could go on.

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