Monday, August 17, 2009

My generation

I spent the weekend reading Shelf Discovery by Lizzie Skurnick, who has a blog, Fine Lines, which is devoted to YA favorites of the 70s and early 80s. I knew my generation's books of passage included Deenie, lots of Lois Duncan and -- you know you read them -- Flowers in the Attic and its many sequels. But I didn't realize that others had also loved Blossom Culp, heroine of Richard Peck's Ghosts I Have Been, or surreptitiously read their mother's copy of Wifey. (Best Pawley's Island vacation ever!) It was nice to feel a little vindicated by this book...and, yes, I went today and got a copy of Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself so I could re-read it.
One of the strange things about time is that every generation becomes a little more innocent than the one before it. Certainly I never would have regarded the 1970s as an innocent time to grow up in. We were constantly told that our world had been corrupted by pollution, war (real and potential), divorce, drugs and sex. Innocence was for the past: we lived in a harsh present, one devoted to sorting all these issues out. (Today, of course, it all seems so quaint. We were allowed to go outside and play for hours by ourselves, imagine that!) And our fiction reflected this. How many novels in those years began with the family moving to a new town because the parents were getting a divorce? ("You'll like it here in Millersburg, Amy. And Grandma will be so happy to see us.") Add to this bullying (which in those days was just called "life," and which has never been better described than in The Chocolate War), racism and child abuse (The Summer of My German Soldier), rape (Are You in the House Alone?), the Holocaust and/or Siberia (The Endless Steppe) and abandonment in the wilderness (Julie of the Wolves, Island of the Blue Dolphins.) Even if we were lucky enough to be reading a relatively mild novel, there were angst, misery and guilt for all in practically anything by Paul Zindel as well as The Cat Ate My Gymsuit and other novels which enshrined unpopularity as the only respectable alternative to high school. Strangest of all, with about 5 exceptions (you know who they are), there was absolutely NO fantasy. My generation would have laughed at the idea of saving the world in the eternal battle between light and dark. We just wanted to survive to the end of junior high school. (I think this is probably one of the reason why I read so much YA fantasy today -- making up for lost opportunities.)
Now, I have to admit I was a bit of a rebel amidst all this. I never really took to those angsty books. (I was unpopular myself and didn't need reminders of it.) I backed away from I Am the Cheese and those other gloomy, well-thumbed teen paperbacks on the library racks. Not having fantasy as an outlet, I took to historical fiction, with predictable results. But I like to think that these books of the 1970s marked me in several ways. First, they left me with the strong belief that there was no subject that might reasonably be faced by young adults that could not be written about. No censorship, no barriers. If it happens, and you have the talent and guts to do so, write about it. Second, there was a kind of tender bravery to even the angsty novels. This world isn't an ideal one, they seemed to say, but it's survivable, if you face it. Perhaps, come to think of it, this was our particular fantasy.

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