Monday, September 14, 2009

Popular Young Adult Books Series of the 90s

Image via fantasticfiction.co.uk

What's that old saying? Why write one good book when you can milk a hundred mediocre attempts on the same premise? Something like that. So maybe it doesn't have such resonating wisdom to it, but hey, I don't have a whole team of ghostwriter underlings to do my bidding and come up with something a bit more inspired like the evil geniuses behind franchises like Sweet Valley High.

Admittedly many of our favorite series did indeed come from a single author source, though some of them pulled it off more cunningly than others. I like farfetched plot twists as much as the next person, but things sometimes had a tendency to get out of hands when authors were given the gift of infinite access to the same characters in an unlimited combination of variable situations.

Though the topics and literary value of these series varied significantly from one to the other, they were all legitimate enterprises. Publishers love series for their reliability rather than their quality, and they can certainly get away with a great deal more when dealing with younger and less discerning readers. While some of these series were well-written and twisty plot-filled, others were embarrassingly more juvenile than their intended target audience. Wherever they happen to fall on the quality spectrum, one thing was for sure: book-hungry kids ate this stuff up. Without further ado, a smattering of our most beloved and sometimes inexplicably bestselling young adult series:


Goosebumps



Children's horror series were a lucrative niche genre in the 90s. If you were so imaginatively inclined to be able to think up ridiculous tongue-in-cheek plots that wouldn't stand a chance at being made into a C movie, then you were pretty much golden. Kids went crazy for this stuff. It was sort of scary in an innocent, comical way that kept us coming back for more. Sometimes the concepts were a tad frightening, but the plots were so absurd and twist-filled that it tended to give us more head bumps than goosebumps. From all the facepalming, that is. I do distinctly remember finding the mask and that camp jellyblob thing to be a bit on the nightmare-inducing side, but then again Men in Black gave me nightmares as a kid so maybe you shouldn't take my word for it.

They also had a fair run in television form, featuring this jazzy intro with creepy glowing-eye dog:



Babysitters' Club




Tween girls were a highly desirable reader demographic in the 90s, particularly as it seemed we were pretty much willing to read anything and everything. I had a rather undying love for the girls of the babysitters' club, remaining fiercely loyal to them even in the face of their complete and total stereotypical ridiculousness. These girls were not exactly three dimensional. They essentially taught me that I could be one of a few character molds: the brassy tomboy, the diabetic fashion model, the California hippie, the shy one, the defiant artistic anti-intellectual Asian one, the nerd, or the black ballerina. I was pretty sure these were my only viable life choice paths once I hit middle school.

The BSC was franchising at its finest, featuring all sorts of additional merchandise, a feature film, and a television series with a theme song that my college friends may or may not have included on a road trip mix. I'll give you a hint: they did.


I owned all of these individual episodes on VHS ordered through the magic of Scholastic book orders. I'll give you a moment to calm your jealousy.




Animorphs




Under closer inspection, it seems that 80s and 90s teen series fell into one of two categories: bitchy preteen girls with growing-up type problems or over-the-top science fiction/horror. That is to say, either incredibly girly or with gory details to appeal to a male demographic. Animorphs fell more into the latter category with its characterization of a group of preteens who had the ability to change into animals in their efforts to quash a secret alien rebel force. Yep, these disgusting outer-space slugs would shimmy into your ear canal and turn you into an alien zombie, but luckily we've got a couple of kids on our side who can morph into housecats.

Animorphs was also granted a short run as a Nickelodeon series:




Fear Street



What happens to kids when they graduate from Goosebumps? They move on to Fear Street, of course. Goosebumps author RL Stine aged his characters a couple of years, threw in some particularly gory scenes, and made brutal murder an inevitable and unavoidable aspect of any plot. Sounds fun, right? The series is loosely tied together in the same way Goosebumps books were, rarely featuring the same characters but rehashing the same themes book after book. It's tough to say whether these would hold tight with today's kids--if anything, they'd have to suffice as the poor man's Twilight. I'm not too ashamed to admit I had RL Stine sign my well-thumbed copy of Fear Street: The New Girl at a Mall of America booksigning. I did, however, soon thereafter realize I have no patience for mysteries. Sorry, RL.



Sweet Valley High





These were pretty much my bible growing up, so you can only imagine how shocked I was to find out as an adult just how god-awful they really are. I mean honestly. Jessica and Elizabeth Wakefield were nothing short of my idols as a kid, and now I hear that they're actually insufferable? Who was I to know? I was so entranced and drawn in by the ghostwriters' incredibly repetitive rehashing of their blonde hair, blue-green eyes, California good looks, and perfect size-six figures that I was blinded to the ridiculousness that was their overblown stereotypes of personalities. Jessica (also known as the cool one) was essentially the worst person in the world and Elizabeth (the smart one) made Pollyanna look like Al Capone. And I also learned a valuable lesson: you can tell popular people from nerdy brainiacs by the way they wear their hair. A ponytail is a dead giveaway for being the nerdy twin.

Though these books veered into some pretty outlandish directions (vampires, werewolves, viscount boyfriends), they did manage to keep it toned down for the brief run of the TV-series, which focused mainly on their regular Sweet Valley lives.


I always thought the twins who played the girls on TV were way too slutty-looking to be Jess and Liz. Either way, I totally owned a Sweet Valley High board game and had full collections of Sweet Valley Kids, Sweet Valley Twins, Sweet Valley High, and Sweet Valley University. I imagine that my family singlehandedly supported Francise Pascal's enterprise.



Harry Potter


I will no doubt have to better explore Harry Potter in its own full post as it's a legitimate phenomenon in a way few of these others are. I'm also willing to give credit where credit is due and concede the books are far better written and well-conceived than any of the others on this list. In short, Harry Potter made being nerdy cool in its own way. The content was undeniably fantastical and imaginative in a manner compatible with extreme geekiness, yet everyone seemed enthralled by them. Perhaps in the way media like Star Wars gave geeks an outlet of kind of cool make-believe people to admire, Harry Potter managed to simulataneously win readers with nerds and well, everyone else. You'd be pretty hard-pressed to find someone who hasn't at least read one of these books.

Harry Potter is the ultimate money-making franchise, far outliving its rival book series peers. The big-budget fantasy adventure film adaptations don't fare too poorly, either:





Help! I'm Trapped...




Did you know that you can write 16, count 'em, 16 books that have titles beginning with "Help! I'm Trapped in (insert entrapment device or body here)"? Because you totally can. Todd Strasser made a healthy living off of doing just that, trapping our pals in everything from their teachers' bodies to the first day of doggie obedience school. Actually, we got to go to obedience school twice, so I'm somewhat suspicious that he just ran out of ideas.


By the by, it wouldn't hurt to check out some of these young adult book blogs if the YA series dosage in this post didn't quell your 90s YA book withdrawal. Enjoy!

Dibbly Fresh
Shannon's Sweet Valley Blog
Are You There Youth? It's Me, Nikki

44 comments:

Practically Perfect... said...

I read all of these series except for Animorphs. I probably read The Babysitters Club the most, though :-)

Adorably Distracted... said...

I remember all of these so well! And I wanted my name to be Kristy growing up!

Shannon said...

Thanks for the shoutout!

I actually only read BSC and SVH growing up. I was too much of a book snob for Goosebumps and the like, ha.

lovelila said...

I was too much of a chicken to read Goosebumps and Fear Street books, haha! I loved BSC, but only owned one book! I could never get into Animorphs, but I did like flipping the pages to see the person change from human to animal, haha! Oh and the first Harry Potter book was our in-class reading when I was in seventh or eighth grade! I did NOT want to read it because I was "too cool for wizards and magic stuff..." So naturally, I got sucked in, haha!

Frank said...

I was always a fan of the Strange Matter books. They were a lot like goosebumps, but I thought they were (slightly) better written.

Melanie's Randomness said...

Omg I was absolutely addicted to the Fear Street books & the Goosebumps. Ooooo the show!! They used to play the goosebumps show on the cartoon network for a bit but not for long. I think I still have the babysitter kids books under my bed.

Woa, great post!!

Lil' Woman said...

I was a huge fan of Goosebumps, Babysitter's Club, and Sweet Valley High and def. watched the SVH show.

Lisa said...

I definitely read most of these!! So many memories...I remember most of them so clearly still!

Mrs. Newlywed said...

OMG I loved RL Stein and Christopher Pike.

Jaime said...

LOVED Babysitters Club and Sweet Valley High!

Nic said...

I LOVED Goosebumps, I LOVED The Babysitters Club and I LOVED Sweet Valley High!!

I always look forward to your posts. They bring back so many memories!

neenie said...

I think Harry Potter was more of a 2000s thing... yes, it was originally published in '96 (and I was completely beyond obsessed as of Halloween '98).

But I'm SO looking forward to your post on it!

Jenny said...

I just watched season 1 of SVH over the summer. I am always so excited to watch it, and than realize how cheesy they are!

Janna said...

I read BSC and Goosebumps (and HP, but not until 2001), but SVH was definitely too low-brow even for me. :P

Sadako said...

I don't know what it is about me that I still read Goosebumps and BSC.

Never animorphs, though. I was very strict on what I read and didn't. My YA books? They were like a religion to me!

Thanks for the shout out!

JGIWC said...

Sure, you have all of the BSC eps on VHS... But do you own the MOVIE? I cry every time!

Meghan said...

I freaking loved Babysitters Club on a level that was probably unhealthy. And Christopher Pike novels.

Annie said...

i think the only books i read were rl stine books...actually i don't even remember reading them, just collecting them! ha!

Smart Ass Sara said...

I had EVERY RL Stine book. I do remember reading "Sun Burned" or something like that and literally getting sick in the first two chapters. The description of a dead body was kind of intense for that age group I thought at the time. And yah- read all the Goosebumps. I think I got 12 at once for Xmas one year and read all of them before bed!

heisschic said...

yes yes YES! remember the choose your own ending portion of goosebumps?

and with baby sitters club... wasn't there a little sisters series too? with kristy's (step?) sister karen...


read and loved animorphs as well. totally had a crush on that one guy- wikipedia is telling me his name is shawn ashmore. he was mroe commonly iceman in XMen.

Molly said...

Elizabeth Wakefield was hardly a saint. She was just a sanctimonious passive-aggressive bitch instead of a raging one.

Amy said...

OMG! I just stumbled across your blog and I am cracking up over this post! The freaking babysitter's club??? Dude, I totally loved that shit!

And sweet Valley High? That author had me hating myself for not being a bleach blond from Calie!

Hilarious blog!

Katie said...

I read all of those!

P said...

Oh god, the memories . . .

I LOVED sweet valley high so much, and like you i only realised later on how annoying the twins actually were. Thanks to a blog actually, I think it was called The Dairi Burger or something like that. i need to find that blog again . . . and check out the links you have supplied. Talk about memory lane.

I loved The Babysitter's Club as a child, and thought I was fairly "edgy" reading RL Stine, haha.

I can think of loads of others I enjoyed too. Did you ever read the "Heartbreak Cafe" series by Janet Quin Harkin? They were awesome. Or Paula Danziger's books? Then there was the "Freshman" series which was far cooler than "Sweet Valley University"... Man, I could go on all day!

Apologies for the long comment, I think I got carried away...

JennyMac said...

Oh...Sweet Valley High....back when teen girls were "innocent". LOL.

~ Kelly Ann ♥ said...

Sweet Valley High- I used to love those's books-
Great blog- brings back a lot of memories!
http://kellyannstudio.blogspot.com/

Eli said...

This is a great post! I use to LOVE the animorph books! And of course Goosebumps!! Good times... x)

Optimistic Pessimist said...

RL Stine was a god to me back in the day!

Shoshanah said...

I love all the baby-sitters club books. And watched the video mainly because I wanted to listen to the them song.

Another good 90 YA blog is What Claudia Wore at http://whatclaudiawore.blogspot.com which analyzes most of the outfits Claudia and the rest of the baby-sitters wore throughout the BSC books.

teasinglydiverse said...

I was in a BSC book club, they mailed me four books a month :) I still have almost the entire series in a box at my mom's. Was going to get rid of them, but since they are out of print decided to save 'em!

I once was Elizabeth Wakefield for Halloween. I just went in my regular clothes :)

Elizabeth Marie said...

SVH!!! I'm a twin, and I'm totally the Jessica hahaha :)

Just Playing Pretend said...

Sadly these crappy series books get kids reading. It's kind of crazy but I love that something gets them reading. Even if it's something mediocre.

Thanks for your love today. You're amazing as always.

Carol said...

Loved the babysitters club!

Chelsea Talks Smack said...

I TOTALLY tried to make "BABYSITTERS CLUB" of my own. man, i miss that shit.

Andhari said...

OMG I remember reading fear street and goosebumps, I was in elementary school. I giggled everytime i read fear street because the whole semi-adult content :P

Loys said...

Oh my gosh, I had totally forgotten about those Goosebumps books! I used to love them!

Manja said...

Thanks for your comment on my blog!

I LOVED the goosebumps series when I was a kid - I probably read every single one of them but there were definitely some that creeped me out (the one with the mirror in the attic and the twins - freaky!)

Laina said...

I own the Dead Life Guard, among numerous other Fear Street books, Goosebumps books, a few Baby-Sitter's Club books, two BSC tapes I bought at a yard sale recently and one Animorph book. Library sales. *nods*

OJ in Bishop's Garden said...

Loved all of these. What about choose your own adventure?1 Just has a discussion about all the great teen reads from the 90s. http://orangejuiceinbishopsgarden.com/blog

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Claire Dawn said...

I actually read all of Babysitter's Club. That's so embarassing to think about now. YA has come so far!

Jennifer M. said...

I have no memory of that BSC tv show - until I played the video - then it looks totally familiar! Crazy. I totally don't remember there ever being a show, but it seems so familiar! Lol.

Octavio Bannach said...

I outgrow all this books (Including HP), but still feeling the nostalgia.

HunterRider4eva said...

haha i had every book of the goosebumps and babysitters in the 90's..ah the good old books of that time.

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