Thursday, March 24, 2005

Why Must I Be A Teenager In Love?

Currently I've shoved aside all my partially read vampire books and picked up something that's been sitting on the top of my TBR pile for a good month or so. And let me tell you, Megan McCafferty's Sloppy First is the best book I have read in a very long time. The type of can't-put-it-down read that's making me think of forgetting about the two kids and the 294 different projects and chores I need to get done today in favor of curling up on the sofa so I can race through the rest of SF and get started on its sequel, Second Helpings.

Sloppy First is told from heroine Jess Darling's point of view in a journal-style but non-Bridget Jones's Diary way (which I appreciate greatly), and a sharper young woman I've never met. Jess is in the throws of some serious teenage angst after her best friend, Hope, moves to a distant town, leaving Jess alone to navigate the torturous world that is today's high school. Her remaining friends are hardly paragons of support, the one guy who everyone thinks she should date sparks nothing in Jess's heart, and much to her consternation, bad-boy Marcus Flutie has suddenly taken up a permanent spot in Jess's thoughts. Jess is a wonderful protagonist and I'm completely captivated. I cannot wait to see what happens.

You might be saying, so what? Mr. Impossible is that good, so what's the big deal about SF? The thing about this book that is so unusual - for me, anyway - is that it's a Young Adult title rather than a romance. I did find it through the romance channels, both the review on AAR and via a recommendation made by LLB in her blog. And not that this is the first YA title I've picked up since I turned the wizened age of eighteen when I figured I qualified for full Adult status. I've had the first of Ann Brashares' Traveling Pants books - Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants - for probably as long as it's been on the shelves because the entire premise looked so fun. I still haven't read it and I've resisted picking up the second and third Sisterhood books even though my inner-glommer is itching to order them in anticipation of loving the first. As soon as I finish the McCafferty books, I do plan to read them. I also have Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging: Confessions of Georgia Nicolson by Louise Rennison that's going to zoom to the top of the pile.

Yep, it's a YA glom-fest.

Which puts me in a highly nostalgic mood and inspired me this morning to pull the keepers from my fledgling romance-novel reading career off the shelves for a trip down memory lane. I cut my romance teeth on the old First Love from Silhouette line. Back in those days - the early 1980s, when I was a newly-minted teenager - I had no idea that what I was reading was in fact a category romance. I only knew that every month a few new titles hit the stores and I'd scarf them up. The books had numbers on the front covers and spines, and I had them all shelved numerically, trading with friends to fill in gaps.

Even back then, though I didn't have the vocabulary to understand, some of the books were toss-aways, read once and passed on to a gal-pal. Other were keepers that I read over and over and still have to this very day. Books like Alabama Moon by Brenda Cole, the story of a city girl sent to live on her aunt's farm while her parents try to reassemble their post-divorce lives, and A Passing Game by Beverly Sommers, in which the heroine is the first and only girl to play on her high school football team, are even today stories that thrill my inner prom-queen-wannabe.

Except when I read these books now, with the wisdom of some twenty years of reading adult romance novels and of watching countless hours of TV shows such as Smallville, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and the short-lived Life as We Know It which are all supposed to kinda sorta depict life as a teenager today (albeit with superpowers of some sort), I'm blown away at how innocent those stories were.

Never did any romance move beyond a few nice kisses. Except I do recall one title - Janine by Elaine Harper - that covered the story of a teenage girl who was not only married but had just had a baby (have no idea of which came first and would have to reread to find out...). Anyway, the characters in FLfS books didn't use cuss words. They didn't snark or even introspect about how completely annoying and hypocritical the adults around them happened to be. Back in those days, the worst possible tragedy to rock a hero or heroine's world usually was the divorce of his or her parents. Drugs, alcohol and sex were non-issues. Heck, I don't even recall anyone smoking a contraband cigarette. The boys and girls were all prototypical all-American, clean-cut exemplary role models for the young girls reading the books.

Now, I don't recall any specifics, but I do know that kids back in the day when I was reading these stories did cuss. And smoke. And do more than kiss. And used drugs and alcohol - at least some of them, anyway. So clearly the slice of life depicted in FLfS was a highly sanitized version of the real world. Not that I noticed this at the time. All I knew was that I loved how these girls met cute guys and fell in love.

What's really funny is that when I rationalized keeping the half-dozen FLfS titles that now take up 10 inches of valuable shelf space, I imagined that some day my daughter would read them and love them as much as I did. I can already anticipate the muscle-pulling eye-rolls should I even suggest she read them, followed by the snorts of disbelief if she actually she humors me. I can hear her now. "Geez, Mom, what a bunch of lame people..." Because using today's ruler, the young adults in the FLfS world were pretty lame.

I suppose I'd be better off comparing books such as Sloppy Firsts with the non-category, one-off titles by writers like Judy Blume. Blume's heroines and heroes were very real, and the subjects of sex and other majorly critical life-altering issues were covered in fabulously real ways. I cannot tell you how many times I read Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret while anxiously awaiting for that first sign that I had "become a woman". And can anyone who grew up in the eighties tell me that they don't remember the battered copy of Forever being passed around with the all-important Page 81 carefully dog-eared for easy reference? Man, all of Blume's books still resonant deeply with me. Deenie and Blubber. Then Again, Maybe I Won't which was probably the first book I read that gave me the boy's point of view. All of these treated the protagonists as real people despite their youth, and I think Blume deserves the distinction of being the founding-mother of today's reality-based YA novels.

Another writer whom I loved because of her realism and the fact that the stories she told were based in a hard, tough world was S.E. Hinton. Even more exciting was the knowledge that S.E. herself had been a teenager when she wrote The Outsiders, a book I consider a bonafide classic that should be read by every person who goes through high school and one of my all time favorite top 5 books ever. I'll never forget Tex and Rumble Fish. Man. I'm really feeling a need to hole up in a room somewhere with a huge stack of these old favs.

So, yeah, realism did exist back in my day. But even so, it seems like today's YA books have grown up quite a bit. If Sloppy Firsts is any indication of the genre as a whole, snark and an extreme perception of the world around them seems to be the main quality of YA heroines. The topics of importance to this age group are mentioned often and without any judgment attached to them. The writers don't seem to be aiming to lecture to the readers (Drugs are bad. Wait to have sex. Don't smoke. Brush your teeth...) but rather are actually attempting to get inside their characters' young minds simply to create the most realistic, three-dimensional people possible. This lack of preaching works quite well, and what results is the most awesome glimpse inside a teenager's brain and a very entertaining read, at least on the part of SF.

Because as much as the Blumes and the Hintons of my day showed me a real world, still there seemed to be an overriding moral umbrella that painted things "bad" or "good", often demonstrated by the fate of the characters who personified one side or the other. In Blume's Then Again, Maybe I Won't, the shoplifting neighbor boy who cause the hero so much stress ends up getting sent to military school. And in Hinton's stories, the punishment for juvenile delinquents was even worse. Not that either of these two authors painted stereotypical villain-type characters. In fact, The Outsider's Dallas was probably the first anti-hero I ever read, a hardened, cynical teenager who'd seen too much but remained a loyal friend to the bitter end, fully three-dimensional despite his casting as the bad seed of the group. But even with his heart of gold, Dally met with a tragic end...

But going back to those sweet First Love books...Not only did they inspire a love for romance novels, I hold them responsible for planting the very first stories in my brain. Instead of just sitting one aisle over and three seats in front of me in seventh grade social studies, completely oblivious to my awestruck stare, cute Scott Handy became the star of my elaborate daydreams involving him hitting a grand slam homerun to win the junior high state baseball championship at which time he runs to me, watching from the stands, sweeps me up in his skinny pre-pubescent arms and whispers in my ear "I won this for you..." (I really hope Scott Handy never does a Google search of his name and ends up here. Then again, my name has changed since then...)

While a good 99% of those junior-sized fantasies are too ridiculous and embarrassing to ever go anywhere, I do think that with a lot of work, some of them might provide fodder for a decent YA novel or two. Problem is, I am so completely out of touch with the world of today's young adults that any attempt on my part would probably read much like a FLfS book. And I honestly have no idea how to find out about what today's teenagers really think and say and how they act. I have nephews who are thirteen and sixteen, but somehow I imagine the prospect of answering Aunt Lynn's probing questions is right up there next to having their parents chaperone at the Prom in terms of last thing on Earth they'd want. Do you suppose they would think it weird if I asked if I could hang with them for a few Friday nights?

Sure, some fundamental things remain the same as far as today's teens and my-day's teens. They still care about things such as acceptance and belonging, pressure from parents and teachers to get good grades, newly developing and majorly confusing feelings about the opposite sex, or even more confusing, about the same sex. Peer pressure is still there as is the sudden realization that parents are only human and can make mistakes, sometimes big ones. Divorce and broken families are a reality, and always present are the temptations of booze, drugs and sex to make problems go away.

But knowing this stuff hasn't changed in the past twenty years doesn't mean that kids haven't changed. It's my observation that today's young adults are far more aware than I was at their age. I hate to use the word jaded, but it does seem that they are far more cynical or at the very least less willing to just accept the status quo without comment. So unless I start talking to my nephews a lot or pull a Johnny Depp 21 Jump Street maneuver, I don't know that I have the vocabulary to pull off a modern-day YA novel.

Sorry, Scotty, you'll have to remain in my sweet memories.

1 comment:

Alyssa said...

Wow, this post brought back a lot of memories. I used to devour the First Love books and other teen romances. Like you, I've kept a number of them, though I haven't unpacked them from my last move. I'll have to look for them--it would be fun to flip through them again.