I can’t remember the book that made me into a reader. (God, how much better would this story be if I could!) All I remember is that first I wasn’t a reader, and then, suddenly, I was. (A Taste of Blackberries? The Witch of Blackbird Pond? The novelization of The Karate Kid?) I had been a fretful classroom reciter, following along in a desultory manner while my mother read my brother and me Lad: A Dog and The Hobbit at bedtime….
The early 60s to the late 80s was a funny time in YA literature. Before, books for young girls were just that—a marvelous work like The Secret Garden, say—or simply wholesome and entertaining works centering around a spunky female character, like Nancy Drew, whose mysteries didn’t deal with adolescence for girls so much as star a young adolescent girl. (In this vein, I seem to have some memory of a work called Candy Striper, one of a workplace-based series—Ski Instructor?—which had a lot of tightly pulled bed corners, water pitchers and stiff starched caps.) In short—we were in the story, but you’d be hard-pressed to say it was our story, any more than Love Boat was a moving depiction of life at sea.
But, starting with books like Beverly Cleary’s Fifteen or Lois Duncan’s When the Bough Breaks, we started to see an entirely new animal—books that dealt with the lives and dramas of adolescent girls on their own terms, in their own worlds. There was, of course, Judy Blume’s whole oeuvre, which took us from getting our periods to losing our virginity, and also Lois Duncan’s, which put a supernatural twist on the family dynamic. Writers like Katherine Paterson or Robert Cormier had novels with an adult’s level of complexity in the inner worlds of the protagonists, and Paul Zindel’s mordant, funny books about the lives of the teens of Bayonne and Staten Island were a window into an unusual world, to say the least. (Well, not that unusual for ME. I was raised in Jersey.) There were Scott O’Dell’s historical novels of brave girls left alone on islands, Paula Danziger’s laser-like dissection of high schools and camps, Norma Klein’s blase, sexually active NY sophisticates, Madeline L’Engle’s three stunning heroines—Meg, Vicky, and Polly (you could write an entire book just on L’Engle’s heroines!)—girls in the center of their own adventures.
But it wasn’t only that the books were about teens living, quote unquote, today. It was that these books treated us as adults, capable of understanding complex issues, of appreciating complicated plots, of getting sophisticated jokes—of being funny and smart, ourselves. These weren’t classics tailor-made for Cliffs Notes, and they weren’t the adult books deemed mild and metaphorical enough to still be safe for children. (Seriously, though—when will administrators start noticing that gay sex scene in The Great Gatsby?) Whatever complex strains of melancholy, whatever deep reservoirs of mordant humor, whatever sophisticated irony I had found in the books I plucked off my parents’ shelves—here they were in books for teens too, in guises both serious and shallow.
When I first started doing reviews of classic young adult literature for Jezebel’s Fine Lines column, I was amused and surprised by the odd, visceral details that returned to me with every work: Pa bringing the girls real white sugar wrapped in brown paper in Little House in the Big Woods, Sally J. Freeman having a Man’ O War wrapped around her foot (who even knew what a Man O’ War was?), Claudia choosing macaroni at the Automat in From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. These strong, charged images that never leave me—they’re often even stronger than memories I have of my own life. You simply see the cover, and they come back—like fragments of a dream you can’t quite remember, or Proust’s madeleine, but even stranger, since you’ve never even tasted one.
Some of the lives I read about were very similar to mine (I could see a lot of my own camp life in There’s a Bat in Bunk Five, minus the cute boyfriend, natch), and some couldn’t be more different (despite my best efforts, I have yet to achieve psychic synergy with a dolphin). But it wasn’t about finding yourself—or not finding yourself—in the circumstances of a girl’s life, as much as you might be fascinated by it. It was about seeing yourself—and your friends, and your enemies—in the actual girl.
It might have begun with the covers. Most were either snapshots or looked like soft paintings of snapshots (whither, whither the painted cover?), with girls who were neither good-looking nor not-good-looking, girls in glasses, with braces, standing in front of the mirror or smiling happily in the arms of a boy, glowering in front of a locker, standing with bonnet and hoop skirt on lonely plane, girls with head, feet and body miraculously intact. There they were, waiting like very large dolls for the tug on the string that would start them moving and speaking.
In them I found a window, a scrying glass, into a complex consciousness, a life like my own, but writ large in all of its messy ambiguity. Nothing, as of yet, had happened to me. But there was the world, and everything happening in it, right in the bright row of spines, waiting for me to pull out its next chapter, to turn the book over, to open the first page and read.