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