As I remember them, the 90s were a barren wasteland for the discerning young reader. Having fought for the right to brandish an adult ticket at my local library, providing me with unfettered access to the hallowed ‘Young Adult’ section, I was confronted with the following: eighteen thousand ‘Sweet Valley High’ books, eighteen thousand ‘Sweet Valley University’ books and a tired-looking copy of ‘The Diary of Anne Frank.’ As a teenager, I was forced to develop an unhealthy obsession with John Grisham novels and ‘Sleepers’ by Lorenzo Carcaterra, which traumatised me on several levels. Young adults today are LIVING THE LIFE; they will not be forced to care about whether Jessica Wakefield and Bruce Patman ever overcome their obvious sexual tension. No: today’s teens get to read nuanced, beautiful and tragic masterpieces like ‘All the Bright Places;’ supreme tracts of feminist dynamism like ‘The Hunger Games,’ and witty reflections on mortality like ‘Denton Little’s Death Date.’ In 1997, we might even have thought ‘Twilight’ was good; that’s how desperate we were for literary kicks.
Let me paint a picture for the spoilt youth of today. We had ‘The Babysitters’ Club.’ I think I am suffering from series fatigue from trying to finish ‘The Maze Runner’ trilogy; there are 131 books in the original series of ‘The Babysitters’ Club. 131! For the uninitiated, allow me to add a little context. Here are some examples of titles in this series: ‘Claudia Makes Up her Mind;’ ‘Don’t Give Up, Mallory;’ ‘Kristy and the Dirty Diapers,’ and, perhaps my favourite, ‘Dawn Saves the Planet’ (this is misleading; Dawn had no superpowers. As I remember, she just had blonde hair and came from California). In case you’re thinking, ‘perhaps these very obvious-sounding titles were red herrings and, in fact, these babysitters of whom you speak concerned themselves with acts of international espionage and building amazing things with Lego,’ wonder no more: they literally just babysat. For anyone under the age of 25 reading this, they arranged all their appointments using a landline (ask your parents), because mobile phones weren’t invented. They didn’t have Cbeebies or iPads or even Julia Donaldson books. They carried something called a ‘Kid Kit,’ because clearly none of their clients had any toys or crayons or anything. ‘The Babysitters’ Club’ somehow sold 176 million copies. This is what I am talking about.
But what about ‘Sweet Valley High?’ I hear you ask. ‘That sounds enriching and also educational.’ No. ‘Sweet Valley High’ concerned itself with a pair of twins; one beautiful but vacuous and annoying, the other beautiful (because they were identical, obviously) and intelligent, but also really annoying. Jessica and Elizabeth went through literally every possible teen dilemma, apart from the ones their friends endured instead. They drove a Fiat Spider. I don’t know why I remember this. Like ‘The Babysitters’ Club,’ these books existed in about a million different guises, from ‘Sweet Valley Kids’ to ‘Sweet Valley Desperate Housewives’ (I may have made one of these up). My point is that this was grim. If you don’t believe me, or want to relive the drama of ‘Don’t Go Home With John,’ check out this Buzzfeed post to see how awful cover art was 20 years ago: http://www.buzzfeed.com/tahliapritchard/elizabeth-stop-checking-out-your-dad-tho#.eq5VYYxJZ.
Who remembers the ubiquitous Point books? Everyone my age, judging from my Facebook appeal for suggestions beyond the two monstrosities discussed above. Point Romance books were basically evil – the only one I can actually remember was called ‘Summer Dreams, Winter Love’ and it was about 800 pages long or something ridiculous. The descriptions of kisses went on for pages at a time and it was all really awkward. There was Point Horror too; I was particularly scarred by a book called ‘The Snowman.’ Two decades later, I cannot understand what was so horrifying about it, but this I do know: I still don’t like snow. I have vivid recollections of an anthology of Point Horror stories called ‘Thirteen,’ one of which concerned a university graduate forced to return to live with her parents (how very prescient) who wired their house to burn down on the same night that they gave her a nut-contaminated chocolate bar in order to trigger a fatal allergic reaction. And my parents wonder why I never moved home after my degree…
It wasn’t all bad, of course. We had Judy Blume, although the only one of her books I can remember in any detail is ‘Forever,’ which scared my adolescent self more than any freaky snowman or nut allergy ever could. ‘Surely this isn’t what actually happens,’ thought the world’s most innocent teenager. Just look at this horrifying cover. Look at his hair! Look at the proprietorial way he is touching her neck while she gazes lovingly at his weird sailor t-shirt. Observe the coquettish way in which the female protagonist has crossed her ankles. It is all too horrible for me to cope with.
My saving grace was Paula Danziger. Not only did she have an amazing arsenal of mind-blowing titles (a case in point: ‘This Place has no Atmosphere,’ which was set on the moon. Which presumably has no atmosphere. Seriously, who wants to get in a time machine and buy up all the copies of this book from 1996?), her books were all really short so you could realistically read every single one of them in a day. It is thanks to Paula Danziger that I discovered my favourite word, ‘serendipitous,’ in the amazing masterpiece that is ‘Remember Me to Harold Square.’ I am fairly sure nobody ever did anything in a Paula Danziger book which traumatised me, with the possible exception of that girl in ‘Earth to Matthew’ who changed the spelling of her name to ‘Jil!’ which is obviously a monstrous abomination against punctuation.
I think I’ve made my point. Teenagers today are ruined by the wealth of literature available to them. They will not have to start reading Victorian novels at the age of 15 just because everything else in the library is crap. They will never have to endure ‘The Saddle Club’ (I have never ridden a horse in my life; why did I read ‘The Saddle Club?’) or ‘Aloha, Babysitters!’ They will not be forced to read anything which was adapted for the screen with Tom Cruise in the lead role. It is possible, however, that they have read ‘Twilight’ though, so I suppose every generation had its cross to bear.