Wednesday, May 26, 2010

children are impressionable

Gay Sons of Lesbian Mothers by Kaki King
Appropos of absolutely nothing except the fact that I really dig this song

When I was home in Nashville a couple of weeks ago, my mom pulled me into the extra bedroom and gestured to a giant stack of white banker's boxes. "They're your books from growing up," she explained. "Do you think you could bear to part with some of them?"

When I was a child, my book collection was so vast that I created my own cataloging system (including my own non-Dewey, non-LOC system of alphanumeric codes) to organize them and keep track of the ones I lent out. When I pulled the lid off the first box of books in the extra bedroom, the first thing I noticed were the little white labels peeling off the spines, numerical codes scrawled in pencil in a child's handwriting. The bibliophilia I spoke of in this post was born in my childhood.

My parents must have prided themselves on some of my early literary choices. I read To Kill a Mockingbird from cover to cover when I was 6, Uncle Tom's Cabin when I was 8, and the Illiad when I was 10. From the time I was big enough to hoist the heavy tomes down off the shelf, I was reading my mother's books of transcendental German poetry in translation and her dog-eared volumes of Colette. I devoured my father's Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawking hardbacks and wax-stained volumes of Robert Frost.

But for every volume of Major Literary Significance that I curled up with as a child, I read at least ten or twenty ridiculous YA novels. My bookshelves were a sherbet-colored smear of tattered pastel paperbacks. Sacred above all others were my Baby-Sitter's Club books--I had over 100 of the regular series books, plus all the Super Specials, Mysteries, and Little Sister books I could talk my mom into buying me. They were arranged in numerical order on the top shelves in my room. I deemed my collection so vast as to necessitate their own coding system--dozens of books lined up in neat rows, spines labeled with code numbers starting in with BSC.

I don't remember getting a lot out of To Kill a Mockingbird at age 6 besides being frightened of Boo Radley, whom I thought was definitely a ghost. But my, oh my, did I ever get an education from those trashy paperbacks. I learned how to apply a tourniquet and the definition of the word 'cacophony' from Jessi Ramsey, Pet-Sitter (#22). On a trip to NYC when I was 11, having just reread the New York, New York! Super Special (#6), I impressed a room full of New York natives by identifying the word 'SoHo' as a portmanteau of 'south of Houston Street' (complete with correct pronunciation of 'Houston'). Perhaps that's why Harper Lee's magnum opus ended up in the donation pile (I can always grab another copy when I want to reread it), but I was not able to part with even a single one of my Baby-Sitter's Club books.

In honor of everyone's favorite multicultural septet of overly responsible prepubescent Connecticutians, it is my pleasure to present



Anyone who has ever touched a Baby-Sitter's Club book knows The Truth About Stacey--she has juvenile diabetes. She can't have even a single one of the glorious sweets depicted on the cover, but look at that plucky smile! Stacey is from New York City, dammit, and she isn't going to let something minor like the autoimmune destruction of her insulin-producing pancreatic cells stop her from enriching Charlotte Johansson's miserable life with her Abundant Teenage Awesomeness.

In The Truth About Stacey, our protagonist spends much of the book puzzling over an assortment of odd symptoms--being constantly thirsty, feeling tired, etc. In what is easily the most unforgettable scene of the book, Stacey is invited to a slumber party at the home of ultra-bitch Laine, at which Stacey guzzles several dozen liters of Pepsi and proceeds to piss Laine's bed in her sleep.

During one red-wine-soaked evening with my best girls in Texas--Mary Jane, Sammy Jean, and Sam Hoekstra--it was determined that all four of us had come to genuinely believe that we had diabetes after reading this book. After all, what child has never felt sleepy or thirsty? I spent YEARS of my life inwardly convinced that my doctors had egregiously looked over my Type 1 diabetes and that I would have to take matters into my own hands and make the diagnosis myself, possibly after soiling myself in front of numerous Popular Girls.


The Face on the Milk Carton tells the gripping tale of Janie Johnson, who is busy leading the normal life of a fifteen-year-old girl when she DUN DUN DUN recognizes her own face on her milk carton at lunch one day.

Since I'm guessing anyone who finds this premise even remotely intriguing has already read this book or at least seen the 1995 made-for-TV movie...

Look it's the girl from Life Goes On! And Kyle from My So-Called Life! Anyone? Anyone?

I'll go ahead and tell you what happens. It turns out that Janie's parents aren't really her parents--they're her grandparents. Or rather, they are the parents of the woman who kidnapped Janie from a shopping mall when she was a little girl. OH NO THEY DIDN'T. The Face on the Milk Carton ends with Janie making a tentative phone call to her birth parents, and Whatever Happened to Janie? picks up with Janie leaving the home she knows to go back to her birth family, and all the drama that ensues.*

After Janie sees herself on the milk carton, she conducts a little investigation of her own. She breaks into her father's office and rummages around in the drawers. There are no photographs of Janie from when she was a baby. She has no birth certificate. She doesn't look like either of her parents. Things start to add up for Janie. Initially she comes to believe that she was adopted.

As soon as I read these novels, it became clear to me that, like Janie, I was living with two people who were not my parents. I decided to do a little investigating. I found photographs of myself in early infancy, even of the day I was born. My birth parents had probably given those to the people who claimed to be my parents. I found my birth certificate too, but that could easily be faked. Even I had to admit that I looked like both of my parents, but they could still be my grandparents or maybe just my cousins.

I decided to confront my parents about my origins, nervous but steeled to learn the truth. I have no idea how they managed to keep a straight face as they informed me that I was definitely their biological child, no doubt about it. I think I pouted about it for a few days.

*By the way, Wikipedia informed me that two more books have been added to this series since I was a kid--The Voice on the Radio and What Janie Found. brb buying these immediately


Judy Blume's classic Deenie tells the story of a young woman and her struggles with scoliosis. Deenie isn't very smart or funny or athletic, but she is very beautiful. But her dreams of being a Fashion Model are threatened when she's diagnosed with scoliosis and condemned to wear a back brace every day to correct it. How will Deenie ever be cool when she's encased in a big dorky brace?

This is actually one of the most-banned books in America, for the sole reason that Judy Blume (GASP!) actually acknowledges in this book that young women masturbate. But it was not the passages about Deenie and her washcloth and her special spot that made the biggest impression on me. It was the scoliosis.

I was kind of morbidly obsessed with the idea of being fitted for a giant back brace that I would rarely be able to take off. I imagined a permanent excuse from gym class and the sympathetic, encouraging looks I'd get from my teachers. I decided that I definitely had scoliosis too.

The joke was on me with this one--turns out I do have slight scoliosis, as determined by my pediatrician. It is entirely possible that I requested the test personally. Sadly, my pediatrician did not prescribe me a back brace or even attention-garnering back surgery. He said it was minor enough to ignore. Charlatan.


Even though mysteries have never really been my thing, I read my fair share of ghost stories when I was a kid. California Casual Dawn lived in a Really Haunted Old House that was once part of the Underground Railroad, as we learned in The Ghost at Dawn's House (#9). I also really enjoyed all of those goofy Betty Ren Wright ghost books, none of which were even remotely scary. My favorite was The Dollhouse Murders, wherein the dolls in a forgotten attic dollhouse start moving by themselves and acting out a bunch of creepy stuff.

Inspired by Dawn's fearlessness, I decided that it was high time someone did a little investigation into the paranormal activity that was happening at my house. Despite my parents' protestations that we were the first and only family to have ever lived in our house, I was pretty sure the house was probably haunted. One night, my bff Katie June and I set a number of ghost traps in the house--a blanket spread out perfectly flat in the hallway, a sink full of bubble-bath bubbles, a glass of water on the nightstand. The ghosts, we reasoned, would disturb these objects and give us evidence of their existence. We went to sleep.

We were right. The next morning, the flat blanket had indentations like it had been trod upon. The sink, once filled with bubbles, held only a few inches of cloudy water. The glass of water on the nightstand had vanished entirely. Katie and I were not prepared for our findings and were significantly rattled. My parents' house was definitely haunted--haunted by my parents, who stepped on blankets and cleared dishes, and by the laws of physics, which reduced the bubbles in my sink to a soapy film in the water.


Even in elementary school, I considered Lurlene McDaniel novels to be a guilty pleasure. Darling Lurlene has written over 60 young adult books about disease and dying, and I have read a substantial percentage of them. They all have names like Letting Go Of Lisa and Telling Christina Goodbye, and most of them feature a budding friendship or romantic relationship that is threatened by the terminal illness of one or both parties. I could not get enough of these books growing up.

The book I remember as being my favorite McDaniel tear-jerker isn't by Lurlene at all--it's by Cherie Bennett, a Nashville native. I must have read Good-bye, Best Friend fifty times when I was a kid. This egregiously sad book tells the story of Star and Christina, who make friends at a hospice, Hope House. Christina gets better and moves out, and Star has to deal with the loss of her friend and her declining health due to cystic fibrosis.

I had never heard of cystic fibrosis, even in my extensive reading of my parents' Home Medical Guide, until I read this book. Good-bye, Best Friend taught me about the excruciating treatments for cf that involve basically being beaten on the back to loosen the mucus in your lungs. I also learned that you get to live in a big house with other sick kids, and it's basically like summer camp.

I used to lie face down on my bed and imagine blows raining down on my back, my handsome boyfriend Tad wincing at the sound from the other side of the drawn curtain. A milkshake or a backrub any time I whispered a feeble request for it. An asthmatic child, every time I had a coughing fit, I eagerly checked my palms for blood. I'm pretty sure I drew up a will for myself, specifying which of my schoolmates were to inherit each of my most beloved books. But not Good-bye, Best Friend--if I died of cystic fibrosis, I was definitely going to be buried with it.

But, as Mick Jagger reminds us, you can't always get what you want. I lived straight through prom night and beyond--no diabetes or scoliosis or cystic fibrosis or ghosts of escaped slaves or long-lost birth parents for this drama queen.

Now, hilariously, I work for a children's book publisher, and my lifelong penchant for reading silly YA novels has become part of my job description. I'm afraid my editorial opinion isn't always the most developed when it comes to YA--I will invariably prefer a fluffy, predictable novel with a likable female protagonist over anything educational. But you've got to go easy on me--my diabetes is making my scoliosis act up again.

Discussion Question:
Which YA novels had the biggest impact on you as a kid?


  1. Um, SWEET VALLEY HIGH, obviously.

  2. Definitely the Fudge series by Judy Blume. I don't really remember too many details though. Did he go to the bathroom in a plant or something?
    I just found out from Wikipedia that they modernized Superfudge! What the hell?! God forbid a kid read about a record player!

  3. OMG... and all these years I thought I was the only one! One of my favs was Wait Till Helen Comes: A Ghost Story by Mary Downing Hahn! I think I was about 6 or 7 when I read it, I didn't go swimming the rest of the summer after that one. I also parted ways w/ my imaginary friend. I Read and reread BBC until they were ragged. Sweet Valley Twins and my Mum tried to stop me from reading Sweet Valley High when I was in 3ed grade, she thought the subject matter was way too mature for me, but I managed to sneek them anyway lol. She had no problem with me reading Twain, Poe, Homer,Socrates, Stephen King or any other subject matter but I just was not ready for the seriousness of Californa High Schools lol. Thanks for taking me back Katie!

  4. I'm with you on the Lurlene McDaniel. And does anyone else remember Christopher Pike???

  5. OMG, so true. I agree that I learned a ton from my trashy YA novels (I once during college had a huge argument with my stuck-up ex about this!). Did you know the movie based on "The Dollhouse Murders" was done really well? I was convinced that my house (or my friend Sera's house, which she wouldn't let me search) had a secret passage. You left out GTBL books, and books with a twist, like Lois Duncan and Christopher Pike!!!

  6. Tanie--I was never that into SVH. I remember reading one book and Elizabeth was getting it on pretty hardcore with her boyfriend in the first chapter and I was like, damn, these girls are more grown up than the Baby-Sitters...

  7. Ryan--I was dedicated to the Ramona books too. Judy Blume is a freakin genius

  8. Larina--Thanks for reading, girl! If you ever want to go down memory lane, I'll loan you some BSC books haha

  9. Kayla and Rae--You made me realize that I forgot one! #6: If I babysit, I will get murdered. Love Christopher Pike!

  10. Nit-pick! This is not how Goodbye, Best Friend ends! It's actually much more tragic than that. *SPOILER ALERT* Christina dies from heart complications even though she kept pretending that her illness wasn't serious.

    I read this book - and the others in the series - a million times when I was a child... or not a child, I suppose. The one about the girl with AIDS whose boyfriend dies from leukemia is one of the few books to have made me cry.

  11. OOOH no I appreciate the nitpick! I haven't read the book in ages and I guess I forgot how it ended.

  12. KJ I am so, so with you on the BSC (except for Little Sister, who gives a f*%$# about Karen? Puh-lease.) And I, too, was completely uninterested in Sweet Valley High. But when it comes to the ghost/mysteries, I loved them most of all. "Wait Til Helen Comes", "The Dollhouse Murders"...I forgot all about those. Nancy Drew is my main girl. The '60s yellowbacks are OK, and the Nancy Drew Files will do in a pinch, but I STILL seek out the familiar dark green fabric covers of the 1930's and '40s Grosset & Dunlap editions. The plots and characters are much more complex and dark. My favorite is Secret at Shadow Ranch (the 1930's version). Nancy Drew? Anyone?

  13. I only read a few Nancy Drews, but then I lost interest since she neither wore splatter-painted overalls nor stashed malomars in her shoe boxes.


  14. If anyone is looking for a recent YA recommendation, may I suggest the books by Joan Bauer? My Favorite is Hope was Here, which is about a young girl named Tulip (seriously) who travels around the country with her beloved Aunt managing truck stop diners. I worked an anxiety (and angsty) month in the Teen Library, but came out with some winners.

    Has anyone read Gossip Girl, the Private series, or the creepy series where all the girls on the cover look like Barbies? This is what they're all reading these days instead of BSC and Face on the Milk Carton. It is serious sadness.

  15. LOVE Judy Blume- she's my hero! I read everything she wrote. I remember Deenie so well, and getting those tests at school. Tiger Eyes is going to be a film soon! i am 37 and soooo excited :)
    I also read the last 2 Caroline B. Cooney books a couple years ago, b/c I had to know what ever happened to Janie?! I admit to disappointment. But glad i finished the series. I needed closure.
    I was another bookworm who read classics and schlock, often on the same day :) I didn't get into Babysitter's Club, but I did read Sweet Valley High and I had a huge collection of all those teen romances that were out from every publisher. Ahh, good times :)
    Love this post...found it through ArmchairBEA... will visit again :)

  16. janflora--

    I am just dying to read those last two Janie books now that I know they exist. It's funny how many young readers enjoy the classics right alongside the brain candy!

    Thanks for stopping over!

  17. Katie Jane you are completely missing the most important part of Whatever Happened to Janie which is that she spends the NIGHT in a HOTEL with a BOY. AAAAUUUUGGGHHHH *SPLODE*


  19. This is a truly great blog post. I read The Saddle Club extensively - it's like the BSC but for horse-obsessed girls. Between us, Erika and I had them all. From them I learned that while boys are stupid, your pony will stand by you. Which is still true.

  20. Lanier, were the Saddle Club books as formulaic as the BSC?

  21. I read all of those. BSC, saddle club, SVH, christopher pike, nancy drew, lurlene mcdaniels, judy blume.
    You had me cracking up about lesson number one-I have diabetes. I, too, thought I had diabetes after reading The Truth About Stacy.

  22. OH wow! Great post! I really, really want to read Goodbye, Best Friend. I saw the play John Lennon and Me at a high school back in late February this year and was written by the same author and is pretty much the story. Star is such an amazing character!

    I LOVED all of the Judy Blume YA books (as well as the Fudge books) and last year, I went on her site to see what YA book of hers I hadn't read and to my surprise I realized that I had read all of them. (except Forever) However, it's been so long since I read them that I couldn't tell you much about it. I plan on rereading all of them before I graduate high school. I'll be able to understand all the things that I didn't get back in 5/6th grade when I read it, like masturbation, etc.

    Also. I LOVE, LOVE LOVE the ALice series by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor. My God. They are fantastic and I'm so glad that there are a few more to come. I know I'll be sad once the series is over.

  23. This. Is. Outstanding. I read a lot of quality literature when I was a kid, but I also LOVED (still love) trashy YA books. My sister is three years older than I am, and she would make me read one "real" book for every Christopher Pike, Babysitter's Club or R.L. Stein book I borrowed from her. I also read "The Dollhouse Murders" and "Wait Till Helen Comes" maybe 50 times each. At least Judy Blume was sort of quality for that genre...

    Ann M. Martin is a very wealthy and brilliant woman for cranking out those craptastic books every five minutes. I wanted to be Stacey pretty badly, but some girl told me I looked like Claudia when I was in high school. She's Japanese and I'm Chinese, so whatever... not too many Asians in my hometown.

  24. Gillian, your sister was smart with her loaning system!

    Ann M. Martin only wrote a few of those books, and then she sat back on her buckets of money while chumps like us ghostwrote the rest of the series.

  25. Wow that was a GREAT post! I don't normally read long posts but you had me enraptured! I LOVED BSC and the Janie series by Caroline B. Cooney. I had not heard of the last two though and just put them on hold at the library. I've read one Lurlene McDaniel but not as a teen.

    As a child/teen I read: BSC, Gymnastics (not sure of exact name), Goosebumps and Fear Street, and one Christopher Pike. I also read at least onee Richard Peck when I was a teen.

    I can't remember thinking things I read in books applied to me but I'm sure I did it because I know when I read the medical books I thought I had every disease and ailment. I was actually barred from looking at it!

  26. Thanks for reading, Callista! Tell me what you think of those last two Janie books when you finish them.

  27. I gorged myself on Fear Street between 10 and 11, even while all my friends read Goosebumps(I considered that series too childish). For guys, we were stuck with the notion that we might a.get to fight off an alien occupation, b.solve crimes, or c. simply walk into Mordor.

  28. Oh my god these books are making me feel so old! I loved the BSC when I was a kid, as well as the Mary-Kate and Ashley mystery series, hahah. I really liked the Boxcar Children, too. I hope my kid will read stuff like that.