Guest Post from Meredith O'Brien
There was a very tall pine tree to provide cover, along with a second cover, this one fashioned out of a paper grocery store bag. And there was surveillance. Okay, maybe surveillance is too strong of a word. Let’s just say that I was on the look out. Constantly. For my mother. I couldn’t let Mom see that I, a pre-teen girl, was reading Judy Blume’s book Forever. My mother had heard about this book through the grapevine of parents and I knew I wasn’t supposed to be reading it.
I’d already devoured Blume books, particularly the one that was considered “edgy,” Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. My friends and I had re-enacted what the 11-year-old protagonist, Margaret Simon, had done with her group of sixth grade friends: We’d gone out with our moms to buy “training bras” and had, in unison, done our, “We must, we must, we must increase our bust,” exercises. And we had made a pact to tell one another when we finally got our periods.
It was scandalous to us, reading about bras, periods and “sanitary napkins.” But if Are You There God was edgy, Forever was fatally, razor sharp. We’d heard that it was about a high school couple that had sex and actually named the boy’s, you know . . . his . . . well, we girls couldn’t even bring ourselves to say the words out loud. He named his (*leaning in closer so you can hear me whisper*) . . . private part . . . Ralph. That was as risqué as it got when it came to literature for young girls in the late-1970s.
One of the girls from my social studies class somehow got a copy of Forever. I can’t remember if she’s the one who put the paper bag cover over the front or if I did, but by the time her copy got to me, I made sure to hide the book inside my book bag until I was in my back yard, under that pine tree, facing away from my house.
Recently, I’ve been thinking a great deal about Judy Blume after seeing an increasing number of news articles lamenting how books for middle school and high school aged girls have become graphic and valueless. I read news stories about a book called, The Rainbow Party, by Paul Ruditis, about a high school sophomore girl who decides to hold an oral sex party where boys would get gratification from girls. (I read it. It was awful.) I read about an explosion in series of books that try to, as one book blurb said, imitate “Sex and the City,” only for the young, where pre-pubescent and high school girls’ love for extraordinarily high-priced couture is surpassed only by their love for being really, really cruel to one another.
Author Naomi Wolf took aim at the current popular fare peddled to young girls in a New York Times Book Review essay, saying that the problem with these new books “is a value system in which meanness rules, parents check out, conformity is everything and stressed-out adult values are presumed to be meaningful to teenagers.”
These have got to be exaggerated assessments, I thought. As Generation X parents — the ones who grew up reading Blume books and watching, “The Love Boat” on TV — get older, we must just start thinking more like our parents: That the youth culture is devoid of values and is full ‘o smut. But it couldn’t really be that bad, right? I wanted to check it out for myself. Thus began my youth lit reading project.
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First I started with the golden oldie, Are You There God, followed by Forever. It had been decades since I’d opened these books. The sixth grade girl in me remembered Margaret and her friends as being really cool. But when I re-read the book from my thirtysomething perspective, everything just seemed quaint, “old fashioned” is how one local bookstore employee described it to me. The book was so sweet that it made me feel as though I was raised in the Pleistocene era.
I ventured into Forever, a book aimed at an older audience though many junior high girls read it anyway. (The children’s book department manager at the bookstore I visited said middle school aged girls usually read older fare because their reading skills quickly advance beyond younger reader material.) Aside from its rather shocking lead sentence — “Sybil Davidson has a genius I.Q. and has been laid by at least six different guys.” — the book is a coming of age story about a girl losing her virginity, where the lead character is thoughtful, respectful and really thinks about what she’s doing.
Flash forward from the 1970s to now.
My initial foray into contemporary youth lit was the first in the series of exceedingly popular books called The Clique, featuring seventh grade girls who attend an exclusive private school in New York and spend way too much time obsessing over how to spend their parents’ money, whether to cancel their spa appointments for their bikini waxes, whether the new $800 halter top they bought matches their skin tone and how they can be the cruelest creatures on the face of the planet. Though the girls in the book – which Amazon.com listed as appropriate for ages 9-12 – don’t have sex or drink, they are among the worst, most self-centered people I’ve ever had the distinct displeasure of reading about. The cruelest thing that girls did in the Are You There Godbook was when one of the girls lied about getting her period. In The Clique, the In-girls dumped food all over an Out-girl to humiliate her.
Feeling as though those The Clique girls would savage my thirtysomething behind for my lack of couture, I moved on to another trendy girls’ series, Gossip Girl. Early on in the book there was a party scene at the mansion of yet another rich New York City family where the teenagers were liberally drinking scotch from crystal glasses (the parents allowed this “European” behavior, under the guise that early drinking would get the kids “used to” drinking). One of the lead characters – who maintains a web site where she traffics in fabricated rumors about her private school classmates under the moniker of “gossip girl”— purges an exquisite meal (again) that had been prepared by the servants. Her boyfriend, who’s about ready to cheat on her with an old flame, fondly remembers when the whole group of friends got drunk in eighth grade. This was a place where the cool kids wore the super-short skirts and the girls ate lunches of lemon yogurt, tea with lemon and sugar, and a plate of lettuce, with a bit of bleu cheese dressing. On the side.
When I started worrying that I am truly disconnected from today’s young girls, that they are all too cool for me, I got to ttyl. (For the benefit of the grown-ups reading, “ttyl” translates into, “talk to you later.”) The book is comprised of Instant Messages sent between three high school sophomores. Aside from the IMing, these girls were more my speed. They seemed like normal, high school girls, worried about their clothes, boys, what people thought of them, etc. They weren’t mean. They weren’t obsessed with out-of-reach couture or with mercilessly judging.
But they weren’t like my old friend Margaret, the 11-year-old who had her mother bring her to the department store to buy her a “Gro-Bra.”
Are you there Margaret? It’s me, Meredith. I miss you and your innocence. I hope that my daughter Abbey finds girls like you when she’s in middle school and not those nasty beings from The Clique or the Gossip Girls. While you and I may be quaint and old fashioned, reading books outside under a pine tree, at least we didn’t grow up too fast. The Gro-Bra fit us just right.