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June 6, 2011

The YA fiction of my youth: bulldozing coarseness, misery and a whole lot of sex

I haven’t read much YA fiction since coming of age, and though I do raise eyebrows at adults who read it exclusively (what? I’m just passing judgment…), I’ve got no case to make against the genre itself. Because YA made me into the reader I am, one that reads voraciously, and I am sure that’s because my YA books were packed with subject matter that was no less than fascinating: namely the “kidnapping and pederasty and incest and brutal beatings” for which this bizarre piece maligns modern YA–not to mention a whole lot of sex. Here, I highlight the best of the sordid:

Forever by Judy Blume: This book is infamous, it has teenage sex (on a rug!) and a penis with a name. Also, a grandmother who disseminates Planned Parenthood paraphernalia. Is probably the main reason any teenager ever got pregnant. Or used birth control and didn’t.

Sunshine by Norma Klein: Norma’s books were always a bit sexy, but this one in particular. Also, it was based on a true story, but what YA novel wasn’t? The story of Jill who is a divorced, teenage single mother who is not only having an affair with a hippie on a mountain top, but is dying of cancer.

Looking On by Betty Miles: This book sat on our toilet cistern, so everyone in my family has read it a lot. It’s the story of Rosalie, who becomes infatuated with a young couple from the community college who rent a trailer in her backyard. No blatant sex, but Rosalie is totally miserable, and spends a lot of time fantasizing about the young man’s thighs beneath his cut-offs.

Daughters of Eve by Lois Duncan: A militant feminist manifesto about a group of female students bent on vengeance for the inequality in their everyday lives. Incredibly violent. There is also, naturally, sex. (Do see all of Lois Duncan’s other books if you think that modern YA fiction is disturbing).

Hey, Dollface by Deborah Hautzig: This book is about two miserable teenage girls who explore lesbian relations together. I read it over and over, in particularly the part about breast fondling.

Tiger Eyes by Judy Blume: Misery galore: Murdered dad, broken dreams, the atomic bomb, and an annoying aunt called Bitsy. Though I was mostly drawn to the part where she gets it on with her boyfriend under the boardwalk.

Flowers in the Attic by VC Andrews: The sex was incestuous, but that was all right with me!

Then Again, Maybe I Won’t by Judy Blume: And boys can be miserable too! Here, we’re dealing with a brother dead in Vietnam, class struggles, and a boy who uses his binoculars for “bird watching” if you know what I’m saying. Because the teenage girl next store never closes her drapes.

Sweet Valley High by Francine Pascal: Don’t hate me, but I didn’t love these books. Mostly because there wasn’t enough explicit sex. But there were enough boyfriends, misery, backseats and post-game parties that I could read what was going on between the lines.

Face on a Milk Carton by Caroline B. Cooney: Just wanted to point out that my generation liked to read about kidnappings too, and that we turned out all right!

21 thoughts on “The YA fiction of my youth: bulldozing coarseness, misery and a whole lot of sex”

  1. Jessica says:

    We must be from the same generation, because these are some of my favourites, especially Face on a Milk Carton and Tiger Eyes! Lois Duncan had one called Stranger with my Face that I adored. Great list!

  2. Awesome!

    I read Are You there God and Then Again Maybe I Wont, and I turned out pretty okay.

    I also read Christoper Pike,which was kind of like Goosebumps for teens,and would legitimately get scared.

    The best young adult book I ever read was MT Anderson’s FEED. It was a speculative dystopic novel that anticipated the commercialization of the web and our dependency on social media. I think about it all the time. ALL OF THE TIME.

  3. Beth-Anne says:

    Kerry – what an excellent trip down memory lane. I haven’t thought about these books in ages. I remember the copies in the library had spins so worn that they would flop open to the sex scenes. I guess this generation will be saying the same thing about the Twilight series.

  4. Rebecca says:

    This is a subject on which I am passionate!

    I reread *The Face on the Milk Carton* a few months ago and it was still absolutely riveting. I was scared to death of *The Daughters of Eve* and actually had to put it in the hallway in order to fall asleep–but went on to read all the rest of LD’s oevre, and be terrified of them all. Emily’s right, Christopher Pike was also brilliantly terrifying.

    Other random notes: I know I have read TIger Eyes but remember *nothing* about it. And *Flowers in the Attic* is actually not categorized as YA (at least not at the bookstores I’ve worked at); it’s just universally adored by young adults everywhere.

    Finally, the best YA novel ever is about a boy whose brother is in a car that gets blown up, and then the boy gets drawn into his brother’s hippy-dippy world and goes to a commune where he gets his aura read and has really graphic sex with a girl and then…he finds out his brother’s terrible secret. If anyone can tell me the name of that book so I can go re-buy it, I will love that person forever.

  5. Kerry says:

    And in case it’s news to you, may I point to a fine book that celebrates these great titles and their ilk? http://www.lizzieskurnick.com/books/shelf-discovery/

  6. Panic says:

    Norma Klein was my absolute favourite. And another vote for Christopher Pike here.

    I also read a bunch of YA by authors not so famous, whom I can’t remember. Stuff about cocaine (hey, it was the 80s!), being the fat girl, unpopularity. I liked that authors were willing to broach really adult topics with me, despite my age, given that my parents were far too uneasy to do it. YA is pretty important stuff!

  7. Kristin says:

    I loved many of the same books, especially Judy Blume. And I thought Sweet Valley High was super boring too. I also really like The Outsiders, The Dark is Rising series by Susan Cooper, anything by Madeline L’Engle, lots by Paul Zindel and all by Robert Cormier, and I probably read The Island of the Blue Dolphins 800 times. Thanks for the trip down memory lane!

  8. alexis says:

    I still read a lot of YA, but that’s because I want to write it. And I’m part-teenager.

    I liked to read the “disease books”, especially books about diabetes and such.

    A lot of women I know said they learned about sex from Flowers in the Attic and Clan of the Cave Bear. I remember reading the raunchy bits in Clan of the Cave Bear. But then I was also reading Erica Jong when I was about 14 or 15.

    1. Kerry says:

      I loved disease books too. These where the ones where the protagonist always went into remission, but her best friend died, and fun was had by all at cancer camp.

  9. Mark says:

    I remember copies of Judy Blume’s *Blubber* going around when I was in third or fourth grade, and everyone reading it (even us boys) because it had a scene involving nudity in it. Absolutely scandalizing.

  10. Lisa says:

    My mother wasn’t a reader, and judged books by their cover. I skipped right over YA and started reading Harlequin Romances (the original line, not the rest of them that were more graphic) when I was 11 or 12. My mother freaked out and forbade them because of “all the sex” (what sex??) That’s when I discovered the YA section and Norma Klein at the public library. HA! Little did my mother know I had moved on from nothing worse than kisses and suggestion in HRs to full on graphic sex — thank you Norma Klein! lol

  11. Heidi says:

    I was not allowed to read Judy Blume. I have a vivid memory of my mother finding one in my backpack. After that I just read them at school.

    1. Kerry says:

      Whereas I was even allowed to read Judy Blume’s “Wifey”! (By mistake, I think.)

  12. Zsuzsi says:

    Someone mentioned Paul Zindel — I remember being taken by My Darling, My Hamburger and The Pigman, and finding them risque, neither of which I remember, but have found both used recently and plan to reread (gulp)

    Also, Go Ask Alice (we had to hide that one from our mothers)

    For the tween years, there was Gone with the Wind (13 times!) and Marjorie Morningstar and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

  13. Sheree says:

    These are good titles and some new to me. Have you seen the big bru-ha-ha about the Wall Street Journal article on Y/a darkness and Sherman Alexie’s brilliant Rebuttal. Whoah. Highly recommend The Gravesavers for tender coming of Age and Pluto’s Ghost for dark heartbreaking bad ass who moves towards hopeful. (: By east coast writer. Forget her name but the stories linger. No ghosts or vampires. Really. A few spirits.

  14. Sheree says:

    Yes, you have! The bizarre piece, I mean. The hubub on Twitter incredible.

  15. alexis says:

    My parents were EXTREMELY liberal about what I read. They were teen counsellors and my mom was a counsellor for kids who had been sexually abused, mainly by their parents. This is why I read pamphlets about masturbation and looked through a book called “Women’s experience of sex”. They were just lying around the house. I was also precocious (sp) so I tried to read “Tex” and “The Outsiders” when I was 8. I didn’t really “get” them until I was older.

  16. melanie says:

    This post made me laugh so much – it was definitely all about the sex but no one I knew ever talked about that when they talked about books. I do remember everyone talking about Sweet Valley High book 3 (I think) where Jessica & Bruce Pattman (I think that is his name) are in the water and her bikini top comes off – eek! That was scandalise when we were in elementary. My parents didn’t pay much attention to what I read although I remember my Mum telling me not to read DH Lawrence because it was trashy – and this was after years of picking up and reading her Sidney Sheldon novels! I should mention this to her, I bet she would laugh.

    I loved The Dark Is Rising series too although I think someone gave it to me for Christmas when I was about 8 years old and I was too scared to look at the covers for years.

    1. Kerry says:

      Oooh, I read a lot of Sidney Sheldon too! I usually forget to credit him with being one of my formative influences, though…

  17. melanie says:

    We didn’t have a lot of books in the house when I was growing up so I ended up reading a lot of stories from Good Housekeeping and Redbook magazines too. I have a feeling if I ever wrote a story it would sound a lot like one of those stories for some reason.

  18. melanie says:

    And by “sound a lot like” I really mean “be boring a lot like…”

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