This is the page where I will be posting random lists of things that I think are truly and undeniably awesome. I will update every month or six weeks or whenever I damn well feel like it.
This month's edition: Remembering Kids' Books!
Were you a big reader when you were a kid? I was. Along with battling the evil Dr. Robotnik through my speed-addicted blue hedgehog alter-ego, bouncing little cardboard discs off each other to fight for ultimate Pog ownership, staging dramatic romantic woes between Barbie and NKOTB's Jordan, and meticulously following instructions to build majestic blocky worlds that would become settings for epic Lego-man adventures (yes, I totally always followed the directions), escaping into the pages of the books below was one of my favourite pastimes during my childhood. Countless blogs, Facebook groups, and drunken bar conversations have revolved around the cartoons and TV shows of the 90's that my generation remembers with near-fanatic nostalgia, but what of the written words that helped form who we are today? It's time to give some love to kids' books.
Read through them and see if you can find your own favourites - and if I've missed anything, let me know in the comments!
Note that I'm only sticking with some of the more memorable novel series here; individual stand-alone books and picture book series like the Berenstein Bears aren't being discussed because a) it's easier to remember series that captured my attention for years at a time than it is to remember individual books I may have only read once, and b) if I were to try and go arbitrarily through every series I read, this blog would never end. Focus, people: it's your friend!
R.L. Stine, baby. This was the guy. I mean, like, the guy. He knew how to delightfully scare an eight-year-old, and the modern-day horror genre probably owes a lot more to him than anyone else.
He introdcued an entire generation of kids to horror. And sure, horror's not for everyone; even to those who don't scare easily, it's formulaic, it's cheesy, it's shock-value-driven manipulative cheap tricks at their finest. But it is fabulous. There's something deliciously human about a love for gore and fear; horror taps into our basest instincts of survival. And if it weren't for R.L. Stine, I might never have discovered the joys of silly slasher films or the more adult Stephen King and Thomas Harris horror stories.
A love of Goosebumps came first, of course; eight- to ten-year-olds devoured those books like modern-day tween girls devour love stories with sparkling vampire stalkers. And eventually, when we outgrew the monster-in-the-cupboard tales of kids saving the day, we graduated to Fear Street: Goosebumps' older and more surreal cousin. I used to say it could be summed up as "Goosebumps = monsters; Fear Street = ghosts." And when we eventually outgrew the preteen love of teenagers discovering ghosts at Makeout Point and everything else that was Fear Street, we moved into adult horror - but we'll never forget the man who brought us there.
Sweet Valley High/University
Can I get a what-what, ladies? Jessica and Elizabeth, everyone's favourite California girls! A friend of mine had a birthday party in grade 8 and told all the guests to dress up as their favourite book character. Because we were 13, another friend and I thought that was totally lame (although now, at 27, I might completely steal that party theme for my own soirée because I'm not a dumbass teenager anymore). We decided to dress up as the SV twins because then we could just be in our regular clothes. We wore our matching Club Monaco sweatshirts - holy nostalgia overload, remember those? - and I taped a "Save the Whales" sign to my chest, because I was Elizabeth and she was the smart/political one.
But even in that half-assed costume, I betrayed my tragically uncool love of books. A truly apathetic party-goer would not have taped a sign to her chest; I would have just worn the sweater like my friend who was Jessica, and that would have been it. But I couldn't do it. I had to try and represent Elizabeth, somehow. So I made my little sign, thus demonstrating true knowledge of the Sweet Valley world. Because goddammit, I liked those freaking books.
The Boxcar Children
I don't remember these ones quite as well, but I sure enjoyed them. They weren't originally a 90's-era series, either, so some of my fellow bookworm kids from the late 20th century might not even recognize the name. But they were great stories, so parents, check them out.
They followed the lives of four orphaned siblings, who chose to live in poverty in an abandoned boxcar rather than be separated into different foster homes. And they sure attracted trouble! In true Scooby Doo fashion, these kids seemed to always get mixed up in weird mysteries that they would ultimately solve and prove not weird at all.
Part Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew and part Charles Dickens, they were tales of family and friendship just as much as they were mysteries, and although I knew it was completely not as cool to read about these scrappy orphans as it was to read Goosebumps, they were my secret treasures. So there we are, I guess; the secret's out.
Archie! Jughead! Riverside High! It's all coming back to me in a flash. Many a supermarket trip with my mother was made all the brighter with the knowledge that I would eventually make it to the check-out line, where a flashy Archie Comic would be waiting for me, adorned with one of the worst puns in the history of humour.
From Archie's poor jalopy, to Moose's constant "d'uh"s (which I believe is the pre-2000's equivalent to "derp"), to Reggie's assholery to the ultimate frenemies, Betty and Veronica, Archie Comics respresented my future: the dramas and adventure I was sure were waiting for me at high school. And although the cynical grownup in me doesn't wholly want to admit it, the Archie-Veronica-Betty love triangle was really what drew me in. The triangle (really a square, with Reggie always sticking his nose in) seemed so simple to me; why couldn't Archie just figure it out already? I loved, and rooted for, Betty with absolute devotion. Betty was me, guys. She was the less-flashy, kind and honest one.
Betty Cooper would never be the stuck-up princess that was Veronica Lodge! And since Archie was pining for both of the pointy-nosed beach babes, and Veronica was, in turn, caught in a constant pull between her redheaded freckle-nosed frontman and the dark, manicured arrogance of Reggie, it seemed so simple to me: Veronica should date Reggie, leaving Archie open for Betty. It all made sense to me. And I was just waiting, and waiting, for the issue when Archie would realize the same.
Until I got older, smarter, and looked back and realized: Betty was too damn good for him.
The Baby-sitters Club
Alright. Here we are, people. This is it. This is the big one.
I picked up my first "Baby-sitters Little Sister" book, the spin-off series of the Ann M. Martin generational holy text, when I was about six or seven. The book followed Karen, young stepsister of the BSC president Kristy. A few books and about a year later, I had moved on to the BSC stories themselves - and I never looked back. Almost every twenty-five-to-thirtiesh woman I ask today will tell you about the failed attempt at starting her own baby-sitting club when she was twelve or thirteen. And that's because you can ask any former 90's-era female bookworm kid if she read the BSC, and she will say yes. It doesn't matter what her tastes are today. She will say yes. The BSC was, to little girls of the early 90's, what Harry Potter is to young bookworms of the 2000's: absolute and utter gospel.
I can still name them all in a blink (I swear I'm not googling this), and I like to imagine what these girls would be doing today. BSC President Kristy is either a Connecticut state senator (and damn straight she's a Democrat) or perhaps the CEO of a major international human rights NGO. New Yorker Stacey is rocking her Louboutins and office-chic ensembles as a publicist or client agent for some sort of Fortune 500 company; probably a major department store but maybe a bank. California girl Dawn teaches surfing lessons to underprivileged kids off the coast of LA, but that's not her real passion: she's a volunteer activist for a major animal welfare agency (but it's not PETA, and fuck you for asking!). The Junior Officers, Jessica and Mallory, are still working with kids: Jessica is a retired dancer who's opened her own ballet school, and Mallory is a high school English teacher who runs an obscene number of after-school clubs: debate club, the Gay-Straight Alliance, and directing the annual school play among her many responsibilities. Mary Anne remains the only member who's stayed true to her babysitting days: she operates an at-home daycare service with the help of her own now-teenaged daughters, who are looking to form their own BSC. Yes, Logan is the dad. And don't worry, he's still around.
And my all-time favourite Babysitter, the inimitable vice-president Claudia Kishi? Claudia divides her time between New York, Paris, Milan and Tokyo, strutting out a long line of models in a series of edgy and often subversive fashions that inspire passionate debate amongst fashion critics: is she a forward-thinking innovator or a shock artist peddling to the lowest common denominator? DISCUSS.
Someone make this movie, stat.
I remember them all so clearly and can imagine their futures so easily because each of us identified strongly with them. We all had our favourites and yes, mine was Claudia, but that's not necessarily because I identified with her more than the others. In reality, I think I just wanted so badly to be as funky and interesting as she was, and I certainly shared her love of junk food. But I was really more like Mary Anne: quiet and studious. I shared Mallory's love of reading and was thrilled when she referenced Little Women in one novel. I could relate to Kristy's need to be a leader and was often thrust into that role by certain friends of mine that were even quieter than I was. And as a kid who was in and out of hospitals and specialists' offices for a few years, due to some serious ear complications that left me partly deaf, I was ecstatic that the sophisticated, popular Stacey had also faced health issues at a young age; I might not have been diabetic like her, but any kid with a medical condition is going to relate and consider Stacey something of a role model. She had an illness, but she was cool. And I could hope to be like her some day.
Thank you, Ann M. Martin, for the world of Stoneybrook, Connecticut, and all its colourful, relatable, memorable characters; you helped so many of us grow to love your books, and books in general. I hope I can pass that love on to whatever future children I might have.
Because you can damn well bet that if I have anything to say about it, they'll be little bookworms too.
Archived Them Juicy Leaves editions: