[Editor’s note: Today, we have a special guest post by writer Alison Gaylin. Not only is Alison the Edgar-nominated author of a string of terrific thrillers, she is also the co-author (with me!) of the upcoming graphic novel, Normandy Gold, a sordid 1970s tale of small-town sheriff who comes to Washington DC to avenge the murder of her call girl sister (forthcoming, DC-Vertigo). Alison’s upcoming novel, And She Was, comes out next year. And she used to work as a tabloid reporter, which is so exotic and wonderful I feel extra lucky to count her as a friend.–MA]
When Megan first mentioned to me that it was YA week at this wonderful blog, I thought, ‘Great!’ As the mom of a nine year old, and a veteran Edgar judge in the children’s book category, I felt reasonably qualified to discuss what I’ve discovered to be a vital and exciting genre, and a real pleasant surprise for me—especially since I didn’t read many YA books as a kid.
Then Megan said, “I’d love for you to write about the YA books you read as a kid.”
My first thought was, Does Helter Skelter count?
Because when I was in fifth grade, I stumbled across that book—my very first true crime—while trolling my parents’ drawer of grown-up books in search of The Joy of Sex. I can still remember the paperback book—the lurid title bleeding off the cover in that enticing raised red foil.
I thought it was going to be about The Beatles—until I flipped to the pictures section and saw the inside of the house on Cielo Drive, what had happened there…
I read it cover to cover, in secret. It gave me horrible nightmares. I loved it.
That book, along with all the Edgar Allen Poe stories my dad had introduced me to a year earlier, showed me an ugly, fascinating side of human nature—intricate and real as the underbelly of a bug. I couldn’t look away. While my other friends were obsessed by dragonslayers and castles—shimmering fantasy worlds they could escape into, the stories I was drawn to were the darker, all-too-real ones that made my life seem better by comparison. (No matter how horribly I’d bombed that math test, at least there wasn’t a dead body under my floorboards.)
That was the type of book I liked as a kid, and it’s probably why I went on to become a crime fiction writer myself. But I knew Vincent Bugliosi and Edgar Allen Poe wouldn’t qualify as Young Adult writers, nor would my other early favorite, Xaviera Hollander…
But then I remembered someone who would.
From fourth through seventh grade, I must have read every Judy Blume book—and the strange thing is, I believe I loved them for similar reasons as Bugliosi and Poe. I never was a fan of romance or fantasy. Xaviera aside, the fictional escapes I craved were the ones that made my own life seem better, or at least, more understandable… and that’s where Judy Blume came in.
While most all the other books for girls my age featured beautiful shiny-haired heroines that oozed confidence (and yes, I’m looking at you, Nancy Drew) Blume wrote about girls with zits and weight problems and scoliosis casts and crippling anxiety. She wrote about girls who so desperately want to fit in, they find themselves—as Jill Brenner does in Blubber—becoming the very people they hate.
In short, Blume, too, was a type of dark escape. While she didn’t write about murderous cults or hidden dead bodies, she tackled the horrors of adolescence—the awkwardness, the ugliness, the cruelty and the shame—in a way that made you physically cringe while turning the pages. (While reading Deenie, I swear I could feel that scoliosis cast, digging into my sides…) But she did it with a remarkable sense of humor and a voice that was all too human.
Rather than dragging you into the tortured mind of a psychopath, Blume allowed you to make friends with a kid who was entertaining and funny, but maybe just a little bit more screwed up than you. (What was with Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret’s heroine wanting to get her period? Was she insane?)
After reading Margaret, or Blubber, or Deenie or even that slumber party favorite, Forever, which detailed sex in a way that romance novels never did—for all of its awkwardness and silliness and potential for heartbreak—I would come away feeling satisfied, and strangely relieved to be back in my own flawed, adolescent skin.
I’ll be honest with you: Not many people made me feel that way back then, even on occasion. Judy Blume always did.