Teen fiction’s lasting impact
Why the genre has stuck with many women for years
Of all the books teens read during those formative years — required or for fun — some fade from memory like bad fashion choices while others carve a niche that lasts a lifetime.
In her latest book, “Paperback Crush,” Gabrielle Moss, author and lifestyle editor at Bustle, takes readers down pop culture memory lane, exploring the 1980s and ’90s preteen paperback genre. Think “Sweet Valley High” or “The Saddle Club” or the “Wildfire” romance series. She offers a researched and nostalgic look back at what made the genre so successful, from cover art and feminist themes to fan favorite authors and publishers.
The Chicago Tribune talked to Moss about what book still gives her the heebie-jeebies and why so many teen novels from those decades have stuck with her all these years. The following has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: Why write “Paperback Crush” now?
Moss: “I think (the genre) had good and bad impacts, but I was just very fascinated by the idea of digging a little more deeply into the impacts and how it shaped our generation of women. We would consume these books in such massive quantities — and anything you consume in that large a quantity is going to have an impact on you. They helped give us a way to safely think about and deal with issues we were just exploring. I learned a lot about the idea of women having careers from “The Babysitters
Club” because I didn’t get a lot of that at home. I think they also impacted us negatively in a lot of ways — looking back on some of these books is kind of horrific in that everyone is skinny, rich, white and talking about their nice cars.
Q: What book sticks out as having a big impact on women?
Moss: I have heard so much from so many grown women who are like, “I’m still traumatized and constantly thinking about ‘The Girl in the Box’ by Ouida Sebestyen.” (Teenager Jackie McGee is kidnapped and locked an underground bunker with scant food or water. To pass the time, she writes letters to friends, family and the police. We never learn her assailant’s motive or identity.)
It is a messed-up book. I had not seen it as a teenager, but reading it now (I’m 36) it was upsetting. But I think a lot of people were permanently affected by “The Face on the Milk Carton.” It definitely gave me a severe case of the heebie-jeebies. (In the Caroline Cooney novel, a teen girl finds out she was kidnapped as a young child, and the people she thinks of as her parents are not her biological parents.)
I think a lot of teens go through that stage where they’re like, “I’m nothing like my parents. How can they be my parents?” I remember reading that and thinking: “What if they’re not?” They are — we have since proved that they are — but in that moment in the culture there was so much constant talk about kidnappings. I remember having a home fingerprint kit from our local police station so just in case you got kidnapped, your parents would have your fingerprints.
Q: Looking back, were parents letting teens read these books too early?
Moss: Kids can handle a lot. They’re so curious about the world and not just scared of that stuff, but they also have questions. When I was a little kid and realized kidnapping existed, I was terrified, but I was also like, “What is it? Why does it happen?’” I think the really dark “whys” — like “The Girl in the Box” — the kids who are drawn to it are usually the ones that have a curiosity about that subject. They have a lot of questions and maybe their parents aren’t comfortable answering those questions, so I do think those books did provide a service in that way by allowing us to have our feelings and ask our questions.
Were the answers to those questions always correct? Probably not. But I think it was a really worthwhile time to ask these questions. … With the caveat of V.C. Andrews. I don’t think V.C. was answering any important questions. I think most of us read her way too young. I don’t know what’s the right age to read V.C. Andrews — maybe age 30?
1. “The Reckoning: A Novel” by John Grisham
Last week: 1
1. “Medical Medium Liver Rescue: Answers to Eczema, Psoriasis, Diabetes, Strep, Acne, Gout, Bloating, Gallstones, Adrenal Stress, Fatigue, Fatty Liver, Weight Issues, SIBO & Autoimmune Disease” by Anthony William
Last week: —
$34.99) (Doubleday, (Hay House,
2. “Elevation” by Stephen King
2. “Girl, Wash Your Face: Stop Believing the Lies About Who You Are So You Can Become Who You Were Meant to Be” by Rachel Hollis
Last week: 2
3. “Cook Like a Pro: Recipes and Tips for Home Cooks” by Ina Garten
Last week: 1
4. “Beastie Boys Book” by Michael Diamond and Adam Horovitz Last week: —
5. “Killing the SS: The Hunt for the Worst War Criminals in History” by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard Last week: 3
6. “Hindsight: & All the Things I Can’t See in Front of Me” by Justin Timberlake
Last week: —
7. “Ship of Fools: How a Selfish Ruling Class Is Bringing America to the Brink of Revolution” by Tucker Carlson Last week: 5
8. “Dare to Lead: Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts.” by Brene Brown
Last week: 6
9. “The Mamba Mentality: How I Play” by Kobe Bryant Last week: 4
10. “Magnolia Table: A Collection of Recipes for Gathering” by Joanna Gaines
Last week: —
(Nelson, $22.99) $35) Design, $40) (Random House, $28) (MCD, $35) Morrow, $29.99) (Clarkson Potter, (Spiegel & Grau, $50) (Henry Holt, $30) (Harper (Free Press, $28) (William
For the week ended Nov. 3, compiled from data from independent and chain bookstores, book wholesalers and independent distributors nationwide.
— Publishers Weekly