Friday, May 9, 2014

There's no young adult fiction like having no young adult fiction in the 90s

When I was kid, back in the1990s, the Young Adult section of our local library comprised exactly two shelves.  By the summer I was thirteen, I had read most of the hundred or so titles available and switched (much to my mother’s horror) to romance novels.  Mom especially disliked the Zebra historical romances, with the extravagant, bodice-ripping covers.  Wincing, but not wanting to forbid me to read, she asked me why I was couldn’t read more books meant for teenagers.  The answer was simple:  There weren’t any more.  This was before Twilight and Hunger Games and Harry Potter created an industry.  Before Amazon and blogs.  This was before anyone I knew even had access to the internet.  I was a veracious reader and my world of Young Adult fiction was only two shelves wide.
Mom eventually came around to my romance reading.  Probably, she was just relieved that my one teenage rebellion involved a library.  Still, I’m glad that thirteen year old readers today have so many more options available to them than I did.  I loved Young Adult books and the ones I did read stayed with me.  l especially liked romantic suspense and supernatural/horror genres that seemed to populate YA shelves back in the 90s.  Twenty years later, I still remember my favorites and I thought I’d talk about them here.
BEWARE: I’m about to spoil plot points.
The Hart and Soul series by Jahnna N. Malcolm   If you could travel back to 1992 and sit next to me in the lunchroom, I would be dressed in stirrup-pants, with a scrunchie in my hair, and a Heart and Soul book in my hand.  This was THE SERIES, my friends.  The pinnacle of literature.  Ace high school reporter Amanda Hart bust drug dealers, breaks up shoplifting rings, and stop a presidential assassination, all while looking fabulous.  Her (kinda/sorts/maybe) boyfriend and partner in crime-solving is street smart Mickey Soul, who runs a bicycle delivery service and keeps getting dragged into Mandy’s cases.  No matter where their (oddly dangerous for a high school paper) investigations take them, he seamlessly fits in undercover, often leaving practical Mandy incredulous at his antics.  Think: Remington Steele goes YA.
At its heart, this series is eight simple teen mysteries.  But, the characters made it so much more for me.  As a kid, the books were the perfect mix of Mandy’s empowered assertiveness and Mick’s effortless cool.  They had romance and action and --if they’re maybe a little cheesy now-- that’s okay!  These were the books I begged my mom to order from the bookstore and which I still have copies of on my shelves.  FYI:  My favorite book of the series is Too Hot to Handle, where Mick and Mandy have to investigate arson at teen clubs.  Mick goes undercover as a DJ and then screws up the music, so Mandy can’t dance with the Cute-Possible-Bad-Guy.  I’ll admit it.  Even rereading it now, I get swoony.
Fatal Secrets- Richie Tankersley Cusick-  I like everything by this author.  Most of the time, her books have a plucky teenage heroine embroiled in some mystery and a couple of cute, yet enigmatic, guys helping her solve it.  Of course, one of them was ALWAYS the vampire/killer/villain.  And, of course, he was almost ALWAYS the guy I liked best, so I ended each story with a sad sigh and the growing knowledge that I had terrible taste in boys.  But, not so with Fatal Secrets.  On the surface, it revolves around a girl named Ryan, who is trying to solve her sister’s murder.  The mystery is good and has a surprise ending, but it’s not the real plot.
Seen through my sixth grade eyes (and adult eyes, because I reread it and haven’t changed my opinion) Fatal Secrets is REALLY about Jinx, the brother of Ryan’s best friend.  Jinx is a year younger than Ryan and is completely awesome.  He’s adorably smartass-y, and handsome, and grumbles every time Ryan needs a favor in her sleuthing, but he still always helps her.  When he’s not on the page, I’m flipping ahead to see when he comes back.  He’s so in love with her.  I KNOW he’s in love with her.  WHY CAN’T HE JUST SAY HE’S IN LOVE WITH HER?!? 
Then it happens.  Kind of.  Two-thirds of the way through the book, he gets into a fight with his sister and his sister reveals his crush to Ryan.  She reads lines from a love letter that he’s secretly written to Ryan, telling her how he feels.  Ryan is shocked.  Jinx is denying everything, except everyone knows he’s lying.  (Awww!)  Embarrassed, Jinx spends a couple chapters trying to avoid her.  (No!)  Ryan gets kidnapped and Jinx has to save her.  (Yay!)  At the end, the bad guys get caught (Whatever) and Ryan asks Jinx to the dance, because she’s finally noticing his complete awesomeness.   (FREAKING OUT with joy!).  For real, I’ve read countlessly adult romances where I wasn’t half as invested in the relationship.
The Heartbreak Café series by Janet Quin-Harkin.  This six book series was one of my favorites as a kid.  In fact, I liked them so much that they inspired me to start write my own stories, so I owe the author a big “Thank You.”  (Thanks, Janet!)  The Heartbreak Cafe series revolves a formerly wealthy teenager named Debbie.  After her parents’ divorce, she’s forced to get a job at a hamburger stand in order to make her BMW payments.  Day-to-day, the restaurant is run by Joe, grandson of the owner, who rides a motorcycle and is typically bad boy gorgeous.  The cast of characters are the regulars at the café, Debbie’s country club boyfriend, Grant, her often-immature parents, and her best friend, Pam.  The plot is simple:  Debbie and Joe can’t stand each other, fight all the time, and fall in love.  Then they fight some more and break up.  Joe saves Debbie from Grant’s attempted rape.  Debbie saves Joe from a hurricane.  Then, they’re back together.  The end.
Seems kind of vanilla, right?  So why did twelve year old me like it so much, when I rolled my eyes at most teen romances?  Joe, of the leather jacket and smoldering eyes, is the obvious guess.  (I am an unapologetic disciple of Johnny Castle.)  Rereading the series, I think it was Debbie that kept me interested, though.  The girl is a screw-up and a kind of a snob… But, unlike a lot of teen (and, in retrospect, adult) romances of the time, she wasn’t a wimp.  She wants to help people and prove herself.  As the books progress, she becomes more sure of who she is and less willing to accept crap from the men in her life.  I like that she snarks at Joe, and dumps Grant, and wants to earn her own living.  Considering these books were written in the 1980s, Debbie has a surprisingly modern character arc.  Even as a preteen, I needed the female characters to have an equal role in the romance and these books seemed far more balanced than most.
Remember Me- Christopher Pike-  Let me set the stage for you:  Shari, the heroine, of this book dies early on and spends the rest of the story as a ghost, trying to figure out who killed her.  Mind of eleven year old me?  Officially BLOWN.  Shari has to invisibly investigate her friends and family, learning more about them than she maybe wants to know.  Being a girl who liked my teen boy characters to ride motorcycles, I recall being especially fond of Shari’s friend Peter.  He’s dead, too, and shows up at her funeral to help her adjust to being a ghost.  More than any specific aspect of the plot, the part of the book that sticks with me is his conversation with Shari about his death.  He killed himself and now he’s stuck as a ghost because he’s afraid to move on.  He’s sure he won’t be welcomed in heaven.  Shari has to reassure him, which adds some reciprocity to their relationship, as they help each other.
Christopher Pike’s books remind me of Twilight Zone episodes:  Horror/supernatural morality tales, but they don’t beat you over the head with the “morality” part.  Yeah, he did the 90s YA standard “drunk teens secretly rundown a guy and now they’re being targeted one-by-one” books.  (Chain Letter, which wasn’t bad, either.)   But he usually delivers his message is a more subtle way.  For that reason, his books always seemed a little more “adult” to me, with discussions on suicide and abortion and sex, but always delivered within in some horror plot.  Oh and in his books, characters actually died.  A lot of teen horror books, pulled a “Surprise, it was all a hoax!” Scooby-do thing, but not him.  I liked that part as a kid, because I was equal parts romantic and morbid.
I could go on with this list with authors like Lois Duncan and RL Stein.  I enjoyed them, too.  These were just the stories that stuck with me the longest.  My sister Elizabeth just bought me the Heartbreak Café series as a birthday gift, so I’m in a nostalgic mood and on the lookout for more books of my childhood.  (Next, I plan to reread Duncan’s Stranger With my Face, which I haven’t read since I was in fifth grade.  What I most remember about it?  Her love interest with the antisocial personality and scarred face from a motorcycle accident.  I was a girl of predictable tastes.) If you have any favorites to suggest, feel free to discuss them in the comments.  I’m always on the lookout for new books to devour.
- Cassandra Gannon


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