I’ve already dated myself a hundred times over, so it’s no secret that I was an 80‘s child. Solid Gen X, and man, it was a great time to grow up. Sure, age has made me look at some things with rose-tinted glasses. We did have the Cold War, high crime, plane bombings, latch-key kids, pollution, and a bunch of other social problems. It wasn’t all great, but it was pretty good.
We did have the advantage of growing up pre-internet which, while it made doing homework harder, meant that we avoided much of the drama that comes when you combine social media with adolescence. We also had to find other ways to entertain ourselves. At the dawn of video games, arcades were the places to gather. Free ranging was allowed, so many of us wandered our neighborhoods just doing “whatever.” The music and movies of the decade were awesome, and many are still popular today. There may have been no social media or YouTube, but we were never short of stuff to do.
And the books. My god, the 80’s were a hotbed of books. And bookstores. We didn’t have Amazon, but every mall had a B-Dalton or a Waldenbooks. The truly great malls had both. There were indie stores in most cities and towns, with staff who actually knew books and loved to give recommendations. The Pizza Hut Book It program debuted in 1984 and rewarded readers with their own pan pizza. And let’s not forget the Scholastic Book Fair. That epic explosion of book awesomeness hit your school once or twice a year and kids saved up all year to be able to go buck wild buying books (and other adjacent crap like pencils, erasers, bookmarks, and whatever other shiny trinkets caught our eyeballs).
The 80’s were also famous for their book series’. Sure, most of them were for girls (romance oriented, babysitters, or girls on horses), and most featured an appalling lack of diversity. Even so, it was a great time to turn kids into readers. These books were cheap, ubiquitous, and often the topic of locker-side conversations. Even if you didn’t buy your books, the libraries had endless spinning racks filled with these books. They were the perfect antidote to heavy school reading, brainless fluff devoured in a couple of hours between homework assignments. You could cram about ten of them in your backpack, stuffed in around the textbooks, and sneak them out during class to read either in your lap or behind your actual textbook. Not that I would really know how any of that worked…
They were the neon-colored, leg-warmer wearing equivalent of the pulp detective and sci-fi novels of the early 20th century. Instead of busty women fleeing from aliens, or detectives with guns, their covers showed perfect, rosy-cheeked girls in prom gowns, horseback-riding attire, or preppy sweaters. Most were accompanied by a similarly-perfect guy with big white teeth and (more) preppy sweaters. Yep, they were cheesy as hell and had all the redeeming qualities of Pez.
I read them by the boatload. While I could have found more educational reading material, no one really argued about it because at least I was reading. While many of the pulpy books I’m going to talk about in a minute have faded from history, they left a lasting impact on me and how I approach reading and writing, even today. Here’s a brief list of just a few of the series’ I’m talking about.
- Choose Your Own Adventure
- Trixie Belden (most written before the 80’s but I devoured them just the same)
- Sweet Valley High
- Babysitter’s Club
- Class of 88/89
- Going For It
- First Love
- Sweet Dreams
- Goosebumps (technically the early 90’s, but close enough)
- Saddle Club
- And sooo many more.
While today I read widely, these books still shape my reading habits to a degree. I still love a good series. Sure, I enjoy the epic series’ like Wheel of Time, Outlander, Game of Thrones, etc., but I really enjoy a series comprised of shorter, snappier books. They aren’t the most educational things, or books that make you think. They’re just good fun. Think Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series, In Death by JD Robb, Sophie Kinsella’s Shopaholic, or Virgin River by Robyn Carr. In YA, there are tons of choices today, grandchildren of the books I used to read. The Geekerella series is one I recently enjoyed. Everything about these types of books is easy, breezy, and comfortable.
Never underestimate the power of comfort reading. Or predictability. That’s what those books were in the 80’s. The characters usually moved from book to book, either as the main characters or as supporting characters. You knew what you were getting when you bought the next book in the series. In a time of upheaval, like adolescence or, say, a pandemic, comfort reading can’t be appreciated enough. Neither can having something predictable in life. It’s nice to be able to look a little forward on the calendar and know that something good is coming, especially in times like these when it seems like nothing good is ever coming.
But more than comfort, these books give my brain a space to breathe. They did when I was drowning in homework, and they do now when adult responsibilities and concerns clog my mind. It’s almost like a form of meditation. Quiet reading of something that entertains, but ultimately doesn’t mater or add to my mental load. Ahhh. Light series’ can boost your mental health in a way that heavy literature just can’t. And there’s something to be said for that.
Sure, the critics pan such books, just as they pan films like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Weekend at Bernies, or You’ve Got Mail. There’s nothing deep or meaningful about them, so it’s easy to dismiss them as junk. But the lover of a good series knows that there’s more to such books than junk. They offer something that’s often missing in the world: Good, simple fun. In a time when everything is complicated and often ugly, the power of fun is strong.
So my love of escapism was formed in the 80’s, and it even influences how and what I write today. I generally like to write a series because I know the pleasure one can get from a good series. I want my readers to experience that. They say write what you know and I know series’. Maybe mine aren’t are fluffy as those 80’s books, but neither are they life-changing literature. And I’m thinking now of getting into shorter, fluffier books. Maybe YA, or maybe adult. I haven’t decided, but I’ve got a ton of ideas floating around. It wouldn’t hurt my feelings one bit if people read my work and “dismissed” it as low-brow escapism, or even junk. I know how books like that can help people.
(Image by iywbr)