Teen Lit Pre-Potter

For some reason, when I was at the used bookstore at Halloween, I had an overwhelming urge to re-read one of my favorite trilogies from Junior High. So I tracked down R.L. Stine’s Fear Street Saga trilogy. They only had the first book at the time, The Betrayal, so I took that one home. It’s set in Colonial New England and is about an ongoing family battle between the Goode family and the Fier (Fear, get it?) family. Anyway, what really stood out for me was the difference between this series and many of the ones written post-Potter. So I got to thinking about those books I read when I was in Junior High – the Babysitters Club, R.L. Stine, Christopher Pike (though I preferred R.L.), some Mercedes Lackey and the occasional Stephen King and Anne Rice, but of course, those aren’t considered teen lit. I’m not sure what else I read. But all of those books are really silly. True, the Fear Street Saga is well written and descriptive, but it’ is only 161 pages. Tiny pages. Small potatoes compared to the epics that are being published these days.

I’m curious why the change. I’ve read that publishers really just underestimated the attention spans of young readers, but I suspect that it’s more than that. I suspect it has something to do with authors finally writing something interesting, books relevant to the actual teenage experience, not the idealized fiction of John whatshisface movies. But, here’s the rub: they accomplish this without directly addressing these issues. The fictionalized realms and heroic journeys are exactly what the young reader needs. Not further reminders that being a teenager really sucks.

What is additionally interesting is how attractive these stories are to older readers. I’ve been suspecting that for awhile, American society is prolonging adolescence intentionally because something isn’t being fulfilled during the usual time. I’m not sure exactly what that something is. It’s not enough to say that we are a society without cultural mythologies and rites of passage. I think there’s something actually not fulfilling. I don’t think that this can be easily blamed on our social materialism, or on the failings of our educational program, or on various diseases and such. Maybe the problem is inherent in just being American. Maybe the problem is our culture and the cultural psychology. Maybe because the country was founded on ideals, and ideals built upon ideals, and Xerox copies of ideals drastically faded from the originals.

I’m not sure what happens next, but I am certain that we can’t keep up the current M.O. As a culture, it is making us cranky, aggressive and rude. And suppressing it with a lolly doesn’t seem to be working.

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