Escape from New York v. Sweet Valley High: young adults, class and books

by Sara Gran
The Smith/Ninth Street station at the IND Culv...

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I’m going to begin by telling you that I had an uncommon upbringing. I went to a strange experimental private school in Brooklyn for first through twelfth grade–when I gradutated, there were 40-odd kids in my grade, and that was the biggest it had ever been. The school was a kind of hippie-eugenist hybrid run by a charismatic man who was at times brilliant (he had us reading, and loving, Greek classics in eighth grade) and at times idiotic (racial and gender equality were not part of the program) and at many times just crazy. I liked him. I didn’t like the school. Despite the theatrics, our lives were fairly narrow. We were supposed to be “gifted,” to be intellectually inquisitive (but not so inquisitive about the real-life Brooklyn around us), and to take our place among the upper, if eccentric, classes. The school was in Brooklyn Heights, a genteel, WASP-y little outpost where Mayflower decendants lived on Garden Place and Roosevelts lived on the water and you could almost forget that most of Brooklyn was poor, diverse, and pissed-off.

At home, I grew up on a block of brownstones that had been owned, mostly, by people who worked on the  Gowanus Canal, with a few artists, middle-class adventurers for Manhattan, and white-collar workers mixed in. My closest neighbors were, I kid you not, Mohawks who worked in high steel. Other than the newcomers like us, the men in these families worked for someone else and the women stayed home and cooked and cleaned. And cooked and cleaned and cooked and cleaned. (Jesus, how clean can one house be?)  My mother was not that kind of mother and my father was not that kind of father. My father had his own firm in the city and my mother worked for him, wrote, and stayed home and  did not clean and when she did cook made sushi or coq au vin. Our working class neighbors probably had more cash than us most of the time, but they didn’t have the aspirations for their children that my parents had for me. They didn’t expect their kids to go to college or become professionals. They thought their kids would work in the same kind of working-class union jobs they did–of course, by the time their kids were grown those jobs were gone, but that’s a whole other story.

So I didn’t really fit in at school, and I didn’t really fit in around the neighborhood, where everyone was poorer than me, and I didn’t really fit in at home, being substantially smaller and quieter than the rest of my family (who I love to death, lest that be misunderstood). I don’t think my parents, who are not from New York, ever really understood that they were raising their kids in Brooklyn.  They seemed to think we could be in it, but not of it–somehow we would live in New York City but it would be the New York City of Columbia of Greenwich Village, not the New York I actually lived in, and came to love, of graffiti and broken subways.

Young adult (YA) books were for me very mixed up in this mess of shifting class boundaries and overheated academics and the general oversexualization of everything in the seventies and eighties.  At the fancy private school we did  not read YA books. YA books were for public school kids. YA books were not for kids who read the classics. We were reading Evelyn Waugh and Jane Austin and Hemmingway (all great writers, but why anyone would do that to an eleven year old girl is a whole other question). There was a small window–say, 10-13–when a little Judy Blume or Norma Klien were acceptable and encouraged. It was wordlessly acknowledged that us girls needed help understanding, oh, you know, tampons and bras and groping hands and all the other accoutrements of young adult life, and Norma and Judy, with their good college-bound little white girls, could guide us somewhat (not to knock Blume or Klien, who were wonderful). And there was a campiness and luridness (and, probably, sexiness) to V.C. Andrews, Judith Krantz, and other adult-but-loved-by-teens writers that made it seem foolish but acceptable–everyone needs some light reading, right? But Sweet Valley High? At home or at school that would have been beyond the pale. It would have been more acceptable for me to read Lolita at twelve than a Sweet Valley High book.

So guess which one I wanted to read? In fact, a Sweet Valley High book was probably my first teen contraband. Long before I started stealing sips of liquor and pocketing stray pills and hanging out with the “bad” kids, my first trangression against my class boundaries was I think a Sweet Valley High paperback. A public school friend who read them all (her parents were just happy she was reading!) lent me one to take home. God was it boring! Boring in the most fascinating way possible. Suburbs, gentiles, cars, blondes–Sweet Valley High was another world. I still remember one scene in that book–a boy drives the girl home from a football game or pep rally, they get caught in the rain, and she takes their letter jackets in and her mother puts them in the dryer for them. Every word in that sentence could have been Greek for all it applied to my life–cars, moms, dryers, games. I didn’t read another SVH novel. But it stayed with me, not entirely pleasantly.

But there was another line of YA books that did relate to my life, if in a roundabout way. I’ve written before about what I will hereby officially deem the New York City Feedback Loop–the strange experience of growing up in Brooklyn while watching The Warriorsand Escape from New York and twenty-five thousand made-for-tv movies and sit-com episodes about  the dangers of New York City.  It didn’t exactly lead to a sense of safety in everyday life. And while these movies and books were of course highly exaggerated, they did portray a gritty, genuinely frightening aspect of living in the city back then. It certainly wasn’t The Warriors. But the dads in Sweet Valley didn’t sleep with a shotgun in the closet because the last time they called 911, with a burglar actually in the house, the cops never came. So Escape from New York was a fantasy I could relate to more than the SVH fantasy. And of course, better to take pride in making it through another day in the most dangerous city in America than to sheepishly tag along as the weirdo wearing all black at Sweet Valley High, right? Now I’m a little more selective about how I choose my identity, but I think that’s asking a lot from a twelve-year-old.

The YA versions of Panic in Needle Park  were books about kids in trouble who ran away to New York City where, generally, terrible things happened to them. That made sense to me. We saw these people sometimes, these people who weren’t from New York City, tourists on the subway wearing light colors with big bellies and their wallets ripe for the taking in the rear hip pocket, where no New Yorker would keep a paperclip. It made sense to me that when these people came to the city bad things happened to them. Bad things happened to us, and we were real New Yorkers. If we sometimes couldn’t safely navigate our way through the streets, those people from out of town, always looking up, up, up at the height of Manhattan, didn’t have a chance.

Besides, I didn’t want to be one of Norma Klein or Judy Blume’s nice girls. Sure, they got all the period stuff straightened out and learned how to deal with that scoliosis brace, but what did they do next? Did those girls ever leave their house? Their neighborhoods? Did they ever talk to kids who weren’t white and middle-class? Meet interesting people and see miracles and eat snails and travel on airplanes and wear sexy clothes? Travel around the world in a yacht? Ride trains with hobos? Did one of those girls ever just turn down a street they’d never turned down before on the way to school and find themselves in a new world? Not to my memory, although I haven’t reread them to find out (and again, no disrespect intended to two wonderful writers). My feeling is that these girls went right from middle school to high school to college to a brief career-gal turn in the city and then got married and started all over agin. No thanks! And the kids in Sweet Valley High were, I was almost certain, aliens. So the genre of YA books that resonated for me were the stories about teens who, generally, moved to New York City (or another big city) and became hookers or otherwise got into trouble. These were the kids wearing cool clothes and having adventures, and at least they were meeting people who didn’t live on their cul-de-sac or in their brownstone. Sure, they got VD and were cut on a regular basis by razor-wielding tricks, but at least they weren’t bored to death. (Death before disinterest!) Boys had Jack London, S.E. Hinton, and other tales of adventure. We had Nancy Drew (lovely, but beyond outdated) and baby prostitutes in Times Square. I’ll take the Time Square baby hookers, thanks.

By seventh or eighth grade I’d stopped reading the books assigned me in school (hippie school=not  a whole lot of discipline) and picked up V.C. Andrews and Go Ask Alice. A few years later I started reading the “trashy” books my parents read when they took a break from “real” books–celebrity bios and hard-boiled mysteries. Very slowly, I started to understand who I was, and that it wasn’t who I as supposed to be. Well, who is?

One YA kid-in-trouble book was different. I can’t for the life of me remember the author, title, or even the cover. Maybe you can help me find it again (hey kids! a real life mystery!). This book, probably from the early-mid-seventies, was about a girl around 16 who moved from the suburbs to New York City and did not become a hooker. She also didn’t become an addict, get raped (almost!), get cut, get VD, or otherwise sustain harm. She stayed at a “crash pad” for a while, then got a job and got an apartment in the East Village. She looked up an old friend who’d moved to the city from their Squaresville suburb and they reconnected and the friend helped her out. Scary things happened–she was mugged, she was broke, she was frightened–but she knew what she wanted out of life and she stayed the course.  And things turned out good for her. She got a steady job and a tiny apartment. She even got a cool serene hippie boyfriend, who got her back in touch with her parents so they’d stop worrying and she could start her new life as a free, responsible, adult. The hardships were there but she was tough and smart and made it work.

I think we needed more books like that.  My suspicion is that, with the explosion of quality (and trashy) YA literature over the past few years, kids today have them.

Now I’m 40, and some of my friend’s kids are approaching YA age. I try to tell these kids, when their parents aren’t listening, that they don’t have to be someone else. They don’t have to try to find a box, or a category of books, and fit into it. They can make their own category. If they’re supposed to be a good little genius like I was supposed to be be, they can throw that away for a life of V.C. Andrews and pulp fiction and bad spelling. It’s OK if they want to read Evelyn Waugh and Proust and OK if they don’t.  You really can choose your own adventure. They never believe me, but I have faith that someday they will remember their crazy aunt’s advice and make a wrong turn on the way to school one day, and veer off the Judy Blume cul-de-sac and into the rest of the world, where all good things await.

16 Comments to “Escape from New York v. Sweet Valley High: young adults, class and books”

  1. Apparently, the Sweet Valley girls have grown up and are going wild according to this NYTIMES article: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/17/business/media/17sweet.html?_r=1&scp=1&sq=sweet%20valley&st=cseg

    • How interesting! I hope everyone will follow that link–I’d heard of “SV Confidential” but thought it was just a rebooting of the teen series, had no idea it was a follow up. Thanks George, I will definitely read that!

  2. I also have a lost YA book about a girl who escapes the suburbs goes to New York, wanders on set of a woody allen movie, almost gets ‘discovered’ (but doesn’t) and I can’t remember what happens in the end. There is a scene where she’s deep condiioning her hair by a creek and bikies descend … I think the YA books of the 1970s were far more ‘edgy’ and realistic than (and I read a LOT of YA) – through the wonderful web I rediscovered Kin Platt (Chloris & the freaks) and Mary Sheldon (daughter of Sydney)’s Portrait of Rosemary (it didn’t hold up, but there was so much potential peril and I think that was the feeling that stayed with me.) – thanks for this post!

  3. Sara!
    Go Ask Alice was my CALLING CARD at age 13. I think I read it about a hundred times when I was in middle school. The fact that it was by Anonymous was so lurid to me… and also made me want to be a teenage runaway… to Los Angeles. Glad I waited until I was 18 to do that. Excellent piece!

  4. What a great post! Your friends’ kids are lucky to have you to tell them how they can choose their own adventure.

  5. hey karolina! You know ALICE turned out to be fake, right? Heartbreaking, I know…

  6. I grew up in Alabama and when I was a kid there was a book called THE TEDDY BEAR HABIT all about this awesome kid who was tragically addicted to his teddy bear and he took guitar lessons in Greenwich Village from an evil beatnik called Wiggy and his dad was a comic strip artist… come on! All us 13-year-old Alabamians wanted to be New Yorkers… you didn’t know how good you had it!

  7. Jack – I loved THE TEDDY BEAR HABIT! It made me want to live in Greenwich Village too. Even though I was already technically a New Yorker I wouldn’t be old enough to take the subway into Manhattan by myself until a few years later.

  8. Rosemary, how old were you when you could take the subway by yourself? Just curious–I don’t remember when I was allowed.

  9. Jack, that book sounds way too scary for me! I think I’ll have nightmares about Wiggy tonight.

    • Wiggy was scary! I think maybe he hid a stolen jewel in the teddy bear…? Is that right, Rosemarie? Hope that’s not a spoiler. For some reason I mainly remember that the kid’s dad had invented a superhero called The Amorphous Man, who could turn into a sticky puddle of some kind. I was reading lots of Woody Allen paperbacks when I was a kid too… I wrote an article about that which is probably somewhere on the internet. Yes, New York was the dream!

      • That’s right – stolen jewels in the teddy bear. Now I have to track down a copy of this book and read it again.

  10. Sara – I couldn’t take the subway alone until I was 16 (was allowed to go with friends when I was 15). For my mom, I don’t think it was the subway that scared her so much as my final destination – Manhattan – or as we in Flushing called it “the city.”

  11. Oh, those Woody Allen paperbacks were fun! We could write a whole other essay about Woody Allen’s New York! But yes, as you can see ,Jack, jewel thieves were EVERYWHERE! Scary times!

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