Literary children of the 1980s and ‘90s will remember it well: the days spent roaming the halls of Sweet Valley High with Jessica and Elizabeth or babysitting alongside the hip kids of Stoneybrook, Conn., when racing to the mall bookstore for the latest title in a popular series was the epitome of Friday night cool.

In “Paperback Crush: The Totally Radical History of ‘80s and ‘90s Teen Fiction,” Gabrielle Moss pays homage to the pastel-tinted golden years between Judy Blume and J.K. Rowling. She takes a nostalgia-heavy tour of “Sweet Valley,” “The Baby-Sitters Club” and dozens of other titles 30-somethings were weaned on. Lest they be dismissed as superficial fluff, these are the girl-centric books that taught us about BFFs and frenemies, first kisses and near misses. Here are Moss’s insights about six of the most beloved and influential now-relics that turned a generation of schoolkids into readers:

“Wildfire,” multiple authors

Young love may be as old as time, but YA lit was late to the party. By the mid-’70s, Harlequin was publishing about 150 million copies of adult romances a year, but few such titles existed for teens. Scholastic decided to make a move, and in 1979, published “Wildfire” No. 1, “Love Comes to Anne,” the first volume in the first YA romance series. Multiple authors contributed, including YA legends Caroline B. Cooney and Ann M. Martin, and more than 2 million copies of the books had sold by 1982. The series continued through 1986, featuring predictable but relevant plotlines: girl’s steady boyfriend breaks her heart, girl falls for best friend’s brother, girl must overcome shyness to tell cute boy she loves him. There’s nothing too risque here, though — on the awkwardly cheesy covers or in the pages.

“The Baby-Sitters Club,” Ann M. Martin

Those of us who spent our formative years trying to be as cool as Claudia can thank Scholastic editor Jean Feiwel. In the mid-‘80s, she noticed that a book about babysitting was selling well, which clearly meant young readers needed more. She directed children’s book editor/author Ann M. Martin to create a miniseries about a group of babysitters, with specific instructions that each should have a unique trait or problem — and the rest is YA history. In 1986, we met Kristy (the driven, money-smart leader), Claudia (funky fashionista), Stacey (boy-crazy New Yorker with diabetes) and Mary Anne (shy club secretary with a strict dad). Only four books were originally planned, but that proved insufficient — so Scholastic signed on for more, which brought additional babysitters and, ultimately, around 250 books. As Moss points out, “BSC” wasn’t just frivolous reading: The series “shaped how a generation of girls conceived of our careers and ourselves.”


(Scholastic)

(Laurel Leaf)

“The Face on the Milk Carton,” Caroline B. Cooney

Try bringing this one up at a cocktail party, Moss suggests, and just savor the lit-up eyes and rush of fond memories. Caroline B. Cooney’s “The Face on the Milk Carton,” in which 15-year-old Janie Johnson realizes the missing child on the side of her milk carton is, in fact, herself, was the gold standard of books about kidnapping. And there were a lot: Stranger danger was a rising concern in the ‘80s and ‘90s following a rash of highly publicized snatchings, and YA lit capitalized on that fear. “Milk Carton” was meant to be a stand-alone, but it was such a hit that Cooney’s publisher convinced her to turn it into a five-part miniseries.

“The Girls of Canby Hall,” Emily Chase

What better, more relevant breeding ground for drama is there than a school? When “The Girls of Canby Hall” by the pseudonymous Emily Chase debuted in 1984, it became one of many dramatic narratives set in the classroom. The 33-book series follows “three roommates at a fancy-schmancy New England boarding school as they weather the hijinks, boy problems and occasional kidnappings of your typical ‘80s YA series,” as Moss puts it. So, fairly mundane. But “Canby Hall” was unusual for YA lit during those years in that one of its heroines, Faith, was African American. The story lines didn’t shy away from examining the tension Faith experienced at a mostly white school, either.


(Bantam)

“Sweet Valley High,” created by Francine Pascal

Those identifying as a Jessica or an Elizabeth can agree on this: The Wakefield twins remain the “First Siblings of ‘80s teen fiction,” as Moss describes the drama-prone California blondes. Though she had already written a few successful YA novels before her brain wave, Francine Pascal opted to use a ghostwriter for “Sweet Valley,” reasoning that her previous work had been “sophisticated” and she wanted the new series to be accessible to all. “Sweet Valley” wasn’t intended to be realistic — clearly, given that at some point Jessica and/or Elizabeth was kidnapped by a cult, lost at sea or involved in a doppelganger murder plot. But the absurdity worked so well that the intended six-book series ran for 143 volumes, plus a few spinoffs, a television version and a board game.

“Fear Street,” R.L. Stine

R.L. Stine has been terrifying kids — giving them goosebumps, one might say — since the ‘80s. The King of Creep became a household name with the “Fear Street” series, which debuted in 1989 and chronicled the lives of Ohio teens who were stalked by murderers and courted by ghosts. It was the first blockbuster horror series of the era. In 1992, Stine’s next megahit, “Goosebumps,” the one with the psychedelic covers, continued turning the paranormal into the normal. Getting lost in a tomb with a cursed mummy, running into a headless ghost — it’s all par for the course. Both of Stine’s series helped set the stage for “Twilight,” “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and other stories about the “misunderstood creatures of the night” that would play a prominent role in YA lit in the years to come, Moss says.

Angela Haupt is a writer and editor based in the District.

PAPERBACK CRUSH
The Totally Radical History of '80s and '90s Teen Fiction

By Gabrielle Moss

Quirk. 256 pp. $22.99.