Young adult literature has enjoyed a surge in popularity recently–not so much among its target audience, which has always embraced it and will continue to do so in the foreseeable future, as among people my age. Twenty, thirty, and even forty-somethings are big into YA. They eat it. They breathe it. They inject it into their eyeballs and snort it up their nostrils until it eats away at their septums.
If you’re wondering why YA is having a moment, you’ll have to seek answers somewhere else. I read young adult books occasionally, but I have no particular affinity for the genre. When people tell me that the YA landscape is full of rich characterization and savory plotting, I believe them. I do. I just haven’t come across many YA books that speak to me. A lot of them seem preoccupied with romantic entanglements, and I’m not a very romantic person. If a handsome, mysterious boy came tearing around a corner and told me to follow him if I wanted to live, I’d probably call the police.
That’s not to say I was never into YA. I read heaps of it in middle school. Only now, in my comparative old age, am I starting to realize just how loony most of it was.
Join me for a fond look back at some of the YA writers of yesteryear.
Genre: Family saga
Good for: Fans of Gothic horror and consensual incest
Cleo Virginia Andrews lived a quiet life until the age of 53. That was when her first book, Flowers in the Attic, rocketed to the top of the New York Times Best Seller list only two weeks after its release. Four sequels followed, and then another five-part series. Over the course of her career, this once-unassuming woman raked in millions of dollars and saw her novels translated into 17 languages. Andrews was wildly successful–so successful, in fact, that she’s still publishing books nearly thirty years after her death.
That’s right: her estate hired another writer, Andrew Neiderman, to assume Andrews’ name and prolong her career postmortem. There are now more “V.C. Andrews” novels written by Neiderman than by Andrews herself. I wonder how many instances of brother-sister incest he had to include to carry off the ruse.
Representative work: Flowers in the Attic
When Corrine Dollanganger’s husband kicks it, she returns to her parents’ house with her four children in tow. They do not receive a warm welcome. The Dollanganger children, as it turns out, are the product of incest between their mother and her uncle, and their granddad is still a little pissed about it. Corrine and her mother, Olivia, take the only logical course of action and lock the kids in the attic for three years.
What follows are hundreds of pages of neglect, rape, and sibling incest. Eventually, one of the kids dies of pneumonia, the other three run away, and Chris reveals to his sister-lover Cathy that their mother has been poisoning them with arsenic for nine months so that she can claim some insurance money. None of this feels any less bat-shit in context.
(No, not the guy from Star Trek)
Good for: People who wished Twilight included more Indian mysticism
Christopher Pike’s Spooksville series came out around the same time as Goosebumps and covered a lot of the same kiddie ground, except none of his characters ever turned into dogs. His primary audience, however, was the twelve to seventeen crowd, at whom he lobbed such memorable works as Slumber Party, Chain Letter, and Final Friends. It’s standard teen thriller stuff–until you get to The Last Vampire, a series that made my 12-year-old self wonder if she was going to Hell for reading it.
Representative work: The Last Vampire
This series runs nine books and counting, so forgive me if I abridge things a bit.
In the year 3000 BC, an Indian girl called Sita sees her village decimated by a horrifying disease. As if on cue, a wandering mystic shows up. He explains to the remaining villagers that everything will be okay if they put a demon into the corpse of Sita’s recently-deceased pregnant friend. The demon, in a fit of either fiendish cunning or confusion, possesses the corpse of the unborn child instead of its mother. The kid pops out of its corpse mom, and Sita names it Yaksha.
Some time later, Yaksha reveals that he’s a vampire and turns Sita, whom he’s in love with. He turns a bunch of other people, too–so many, in fact, that the god Krishna gets his panties in a wad and decides to wipe them all out. Yaksha and Sita survive and continue their feud until the mid-1990’s.
A lot of other wild stuff happens, but here’s what I remember most: At some point, Sita gets pregnant, and her vampire baby demands blood. Sita obligingly kidnaps a man and holds him hostage in her bathroom so that she can feed his fluids to her infant daughter. Years before Twilight, Christopher Pike was grappling with the implications of a vampire baby. Fortunately, he came up with something a little more frightening than a two-year-old with a three-year-old’s face CG-ed onto it.
Good for: Younger teens, kids who try to astrally project out of science mid-terms
Lois Duncan has had a long and fruitful career. Her most famous book is undoubtedly I Know What You Did Last Summer (though she reportedly despises the movie of the same name), but she’s written dozens of others, as well as 300 or so magazine articles. In 1992, she penned the non-fiction book Who Killed My Daughter? about the unsolved murder of her youngest child, Kaitlyn. Unfortunately, the question has yet to be answered.
Representative work: Stranger with My Face
Of the many, many Lois Duncan books I read as a kid, this is the one I remember the most. Pretty, popular Laurie is troubled by recurring dreams of a girl who looks just like her. Said girl turns out to be her long-lost twin sister, Lia, who has taught herself to astrally project in order to speak with Laurie. The reunion is joyous–until Lia’s true motives reveal themselves.
This book was the first place I ever saw astral projection mentioned. I was obsessed with the concept for a solid month and spent untold hours trying to astrally project into neighboring classrooms to say hi to my friends. Seventh grade was not my most successful year, academically speaking.
Genre: Supernatural horror
Good for: Fans of The Vampire Diaries, board games, and/or stalking people
This is the second author on this list to have had her name and trade usurped by a pretender. In this case, a ghost writer was brought in not because Smith had died, but because she put her foot down. Apparently, her editors wanted her to cut a pivotal plot twist from one of her books, and when she refused, they gave her the boot. This is starting to get spooky. Just how many YA authors has the industry surreptitiously replaced?
Anyway, Smith’s first series, The Vampire Diaries, was reworked into a TV show. Having never seen the show, I never made a connection between the two until I was researching just now.
Representative work: The Forbidden Game
Do you like games? How about amusement parks? Do you long to be stalked by a mysterious boy who might be a literal demon and won’t stop prank calling your house? Then have I got a series for you!
To be honest, I read these books so long ago that I only remember the incidentals. Basically, it starts out as Jumanji for a slightly older crowd and ends as Westworld for people who thought Westworld needed fewer robots and more searching for Spanish doubloons. The basic premise is that the heroine, Jenny, has become an object of obsession for Julian, a Shadow Man with piercing blue eyes. He decides that the only way to possess her is to trap her in a series of convoluted games. And also to prank call her house. I definitely remember him prank calling her house a few times.
Good for: Anyone who’s ever worried that they might secretly be a dog
You didn’t think you’d make it through this article without seeing this guy, did you?
R.L. Stine needs no introduction. The man has written hundreds of horror novels, most of them for children, some for teenagers. You can’t dispute the quantity, even if you might dispute the quality. As of 2008, he had sold 400 million copies. In 1996-97, he was the 36th highest paid entertainer in the world.
Representative work: My Hairiest Adventure
This book. Jesus Christ, this book.
Main Kid, whose name escapes me but who is almost certainly twelve years old, begins growing a boat-load of body hair. Your first instinct would be to chalk it up to puberty; his is to assume he’s turning into a werewolf.
You’re both wrong! He’s actually a dog! Twelve years ago, some scientists turned a bunch of dogs into children and adopted them out to loving families. The reason for this is never stated, but presumably it’s because R.L. Stine had a deadline and that gold-plated catamaran wasn’t going to pay for itself. Anyway, the scientific…procedure, or whatever, starts to wear off around puberty, and all the kids turn back into dogs. The book ends with Main Kid running carefree around his yard, bothering squirrels and shitting wherever he damn well pleases.
That’s also where this article will end. See you guys tomorrow!