Over at The Hairpin, yesterday, an essayist complained that Sweet Valley High had utterly screwed up her expectations of high school. I hear that, though really I feel the document which most warped my expectations was Saved by the Bell. (The book nerds are never friends with the popular girls. It just doesn’t happen.)
While I certainly agree that there was something insidious about Jessica and Elizabeth — Jessica, to be honest, always seemed like a mean girl to me — it seems to me that Sweet Valley barely scraped the surface of weird ideas in YA lit. Imagine framing your life around many successful books, and there the nightmares start. Consider, for example, The Hunger Games.
The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins
What always set The Hunger Games apart from the others was its overwhelming sense of dread, as well as a distrust of authority so profound there are basically no good guys in the books. Which, in the wrong hands, will turn into a persecution complex and inability to make any human connections. At the end, it suggests just giving in to your lover and having his kid even if you’re super-ambivalent about it. Go numb, Katniss instructs, go numb.
Eva, Scott Dickinson
In this deeply creepy specimen, which we’re told makes it onto school syllabi, a girl’s consciousness is transplanted into the mind of a chimp. It was the recipient of a lot of YA book awards because it raised all sorts of questions about the ethics of animal testing and other assorted 1980s and 1990s social issues. It also, as it happens, imparted a fair amount of information about the, er, mating habits of chimps. The book that launches a thousand nightmares about monkey sex, kids. Just don’t do it.
Don’t Die, My Love, Lurlene McDaniel
Really any of Lurlene McDaniel’s novels could have fit in here. She’s prone to cataloging extensive medical detail in her books, in the name of both science and tragic romance. But couple that with a bit of American teenager obsessiveness and you’ve got lifelong hypochondria on your hands.
The Girl in the Box, Ouida Sebastyen
This one is in the Just Plain Disturbing and Upsetting category. In this book, a girl is kidnapped and put in a cellar with some food and water and a typewriter and no other contact with the outside world. And then she gradually loses her mind. I can still remember the typeface of this book, it’s so disturbing.
Flowers in the Attic, V.C. Andrews
Do I even really need to explain this one? It’s not exactly pro-incest, but it suggests that in a time of cruelty it might be a good psychological coping mechanism. Spoiler! It isn’t!
The Midnight Club, Christopher Pike
A number of Pike’s books could fit in here, as he is probably the most genuinely weird of the popular teen horror novelists. The one, about a group of teenagers dying of cancer in hospice, who gradually discover their past lives are intertwined, is delightfully screwed up. You will come out wishing you had some long, wasting illness so you can join their journey of self-discovery.
Kilmeny of the Orchard, L.M. Montgomery
Mute girl plays violin in the orchard, all alone, which makes her a fetish object of young men enchanted by her silent ways. She, noble, refuses to marry her true love because she’s so “ruined” as a disabled person. Come to think of it, this isn’t too unrealistic on the male-behavior side of the equation.
The Babysitters Club, Ann M. Martin
So here’s the thing. Kristy? She was a giant fascist. Controlling to the nth degree. And it was a little weird, a little proto-CEO, I’m saying, the way she wanted the Baby-sitters Club to permeate every aspect of her employees’ — sorry, I mean co-owners’ — lives. It was like she expected them to live every aspect of their lives as babysitters, you know? Prefigurement of late capitalism, if you ask me.