22 March 2011


Life as a Reading Challenge, Chapter 5

Does it take you back or what?

A fellow "Child of the 80s" whom I never met anywhere but on the Internet had the perfect explanation for the greatness of Tears for Fears's Everybody Wants to Rule the World: its effortless ability to invoke the "Deep 80s Feeling."

If I were a musicologist, I could break it down for you further; but since I'm not, I'll just point out again that he is so right.

The 1980s was about more than just distinctive fashions, musical styles and other pop cultural markers. It was rooted in a lot of intangible impulses, beliefs and assumptions that went into those fashions and styles, and gave the best of them that "Deep 80s Feeling" which is as ineffable as it is essential.

The catch is that the things that prove to be popular are not also the things that turn out to be great. Truly great things transcend the times in which they first burst into the world; everything else just stays stuck . . . which is why it's easier to name Everything Else. And why my otherwise encyclopedic knowledge of 80s pop culture has been stumped and is now relying greatly on serendipity to find books to read for the YA of the 80s and 90s Reading Challenge. (Remember that I want it to complement the Victorian Literature Reading Challenge as much as possible.)

I'll admit it: while I can tell you what made the kids of the 80s buy movie tickets, plop down in front of the TV, and turn up the volume on the radio . . . I don't really know what made them curl up and read.

Well, yes, I'm aware of the "new generation" of Juvenile Series books which came out at the time; and of course, I have my own collection of Newbery Award winners and Newbery Honour books from that decade. But these are just the two extremes of the spectrum. What about the "ordinary" books which neither won accolades (from grown ups!) nor had to be produced by a team of ghostwriters? I have some ideas--e.g., Lois Lowry's Anastasia series immediately comes to mind (although the first of the books came out in 1979)--but I don't have a very thorough picture.

A few months ago, my idea of "a thorough picture" involved being able to answer the question: What YA novel from the 80s would be a good follow-up read to King Solomon's Mines by H. Rider Haggard?

The best answer I came up with after asking many different sources was the Young Indiana Jones series, only some of which are novelisations of episodes from the TV show. That line of thinking reminded me of the Choose Your Own Adventure books and their spin-offs. Both sets certainly have all the required elements of adventure, archeology, unscrupulous villains, and exotic settings. But did I really want a ghostwritten juvenile series book to be my follow-up to one of the greatest Adventure Lit classics of all time?

Someone else suggested John Bellairs' Gothic Mysteries, which dovetailed nicely with another friend's recommendation of Bellairs' Johnny Dixon books. I bought the only Johnny Dixon novel my favourite chain store had in stock, soaked up a very different YA style from what I am used to, mused that the original readers would get that "Deep 80s Feeling" if they reread them today . . . but admitted to myself that the book itself was hardly a partner to Haggard's novel.

And then I found, completely by accident, a third book: a first-edition copy of the recently reissued first book of Diane Duane's Young Wizards series, So You Want to Be a Wizard. It seemed to fit!


In both novels, the characters begin their adventures because of some mysterious document: in Haggard, a map; in Duane, a book.

Both novels also have a team of three characters: in the Victorian novel, three perfect representatives of British society; in the Young Adult novel, the ideal trinity of modern Children's Lit--a girl, a boy, and a creature that is more friend than pet.

Thirdly, the two stories unfold in fantastic settings: for readers in the British Empire, an exotic kingdom beyond Western colonisation; for readers with fascinations beyond both the Space Race and the Arms Race, an alternate dimension beyond Cold War geopolitics.

You can also argue, of course, that I'm just forcing the parallels. There is a great deal of difference between a search for ancient diamond mines and a quest for an eternal book. It's kind of cute that the adventurers find the diamonds when they are really looking for one's missing brother and that the children are charged to find the book when they are trying to retrieve one's space pen . . . but that's just circumstantial, and my pointing it out is just me being glib.

The main thing to note is that no matter what elements these two novels have in common (and no matter how much wishing I do), they are not a Victorian version and an 80s version of the same thing. (So I would have hit closer to the mark with a Choose Your Own Adventure readathon. LOL!)

Indeed, it's kind of insulting to 80s books to be expected "to match up" to Victorian classics. Each decade has its own distinctive stuff beyond such limiting parameters. And there's no way I'm going to get the "Deep 80s Feeling" by going down such a rigid reading path.

So now I have a different standard for the "thorough picture" of 80s reading that I'd like to have. It involves being able to answer the question: What would a YA book blog look like if the blogosphere had existed in the 80s?

Image Sources: a) You Know You're a Child of the 80s When . . . by Mark Leigh and Mike Lepine, b) Find Your Fate Adventure #2: Indiana Jones and the Lost Treasure of Sheba by Rose Estes, c) King Solomon's Mines by H. Rider Haggard, d) So You Want to Be a Wizard by Diane Duane


lisa :) said...

Hmm... I suppose this is where I confess that I spent a much larger chunk of time in the 80's/90's hooked to Atari and Nintendo systems rather than to my local library... But I definitely still had my reading passions.

If I were chronicling my reading in the 1980's (and actually had this beautiful thing called internet!) I'm pretty sure my book blog would be almost strictly a mystery blog. John Bellairs along with James Howe's Sebastian Barth stories sold me on the genre. Of course, I was also an Avi addict so I suppose I'd have to stir in some historical fiction too.

Paul Stilwell said...

"What would a YA book blog look like if the blogosphere had existed in the 80s?"

That's something I would like to see.

"I'll admit it: while I can tell you what made the kids of the 80s buy movie tickets, plop down in front of the TV, and turn up the volume on the radio . . . I don't really know what made them curl up and read."

I like to think that the simpler technologies of that decade (simpler in comparison to now, not before the decade) were so not because they had not progressed but because the decade was too alive. TV, video games, radio, movie theatres were entrenched but it seemed that life existed with them in full swing: we could go from video game to playing outside without diminishment of the other.

Just ask the kid who watched WWF and went outside with his friends, and debate ensued about who was going to be Hulk Hogan.

That doesn't answer the query you pose about reading, but I think maybe it gets to what was behind it.

Enjoyed this post.

Lesa said...

Well, I was YA in the 80s and I really can't recall any YA series/books of the time.

My bookblog would've covered rereads of fave children's classics (Little Women, Anne, Sara, Time Trilogy, Oz ect ect), LoTR, GWTW, gothic romance, regency romance, Stephen King and other horror, Taylor Caldwell books, Anne Rice, lots of fantasy, classics for school-- Oh and lots of moldy oldies about teens in the 1900s-1950s.

Dang, I must've been really oblivious to YA published in the 80s...

Enbrethiliel said...


Thanks for the great responses, everyone! =D

Lisa -- I've read some Avi and want to read more Bellairs, but Howe is an author I don't think I've ever tried. I'll definitely look up his Sebastian Barth books for "Young Detectives"!

Since I was really young in the 80s, I read mostly the Berenstein Bears books and the Little Golden books . . . and those books that tell you what to do when you get lost in the mall or if a stranger tries to lure you into his car or if you see someone about to stick a fork into the toaster. LOL! It seemed that someone was always warning 80s kids--whether in books or on TV--not to do dangerous stuff! =P

But as soon as I hit the 90s, I got hooked on Sweet Valley, Fear Street, and Christopher Pike's Horror. Ah, memories . . .

Stilwell -- The 80s were more alive. (And just to toss You-Know-Who a bone now, so were the 70s!) I hope this is not more of my Child of the 80s chauvinism, but it does seem that today's entertainment technology diminishes other leisure pursuits. Even I sometimes realise that the reason I don't have as much time for reading as I'd like is that I spend so much time blogging! =P

Now that we're living in a Golden Age of YA novels, we really should see more books getting tangled up in that glorious matrix of life and youth . . . but I don't see that. Young people don't effortlessly go from book to video game to TV show to outdoor play to movie to attic exploration to cartwheel practice to boat building out of sofa cushions and upturned card tables the way I and all my peers used to. There is so much less.

Lesa -- It sounds like a great book blog, nonetheless! I know I'd read it! =D

I'm sure "Retro YA" wasn't marketed half as well as it is in this post-Potter age. I know I must have run into quite a few 70s/80s YA novels in my grade school library, including a modest share of Paula Danziger and Judy Blume books. I have fond memories of Kid Power by Susan Beth Pfeffer and Do Bananas Chew Gum by Jamie Gilson--and there was a time The Pistachio Perscription was my favourite novel EVER. But these don't really help me create that "thorough picture" I want.

Anonymous said...

My 1980's book blog would have thrived! Animal stories would have topped the list, with titles like Brian jacques's Redwall series, Too Much Salt and Pepper by Sam Campbell, and classics like Curious George and Charlotte's Web. I LOVED Judy Blume books, especially the Super Fudge series, and I loved the Little House series. I know I read some Lois Lowry books, but I can't remember the specific titles. I also read some Encyclopedia Brown mysteries.

I was reading Braille books in the 1980's, and there may have been a delay between when the books were published for everyone and when they were published in Braille. So I apologize if the novels I refer to actually came from the 1970's or earlier.

This is one of the best posts I've ever read! Lol, now you've got me thinking of 1980's YA books I should go back and read.

Btw, I found you through Bookblogs.

Enbrethiliel said...


Rachel, I'm so glad you came over and left that great answer!

I started the Redwall series too late to gobble the books down as I'm sure I would have as a pre-teen or teenager. But if the book blogosphere had existed in the mid-90s and I had had access to it, I'm sure I wouldn't be saying that now. ;-)

The year of publication doesn't really matter. Even today, YA book bloggers review "retro" or "throwback" titles just to change things up a little. And now that I think about it, there would have been far more variety in terms of the respective "eras" of the books read by young people in the 80s, because the huge marketing push YA novels are getting today didn't exist. Kids could choose their own reading material but were also likely to have picked up older books.

The more people chime in and say what they were reading "back then," the more I am certain that book blogs of the 80s, had they existed, would have put ours to shame!