Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about guilty pleasures. This may be in part due to this month’s Is This a Thing’s theme, “Musical Guilty Pleasures.” What is Is This a Thing?, you ask. (WARNING! SHAMELESS PLUG AHEAD!) It’s the monthly Live Lit show I co-produce, and I’m beyond excited that I’ll be hosting it for the first time on Monday. Inspired by October’s event, I was originally going to write about my own embarrassing predilections for Euro-trash dance hits. But the whole topic got me thinking about other areas in one’s life where indulging in the low-brow can cause others to raise their eyebrows. (Could not resist the pun.)
Which is why I decided to write about literary guilty pleasures. More specifically, YA guilty pleasures.
The debate as to whether reading YA as an adult is a source of embarrassment bubbles up every now and then like a particularly bad Ebola outbreak, and I have zero interest in rehashing it. Most of us have made up our minds about that one and, um, considering I’m a 32-year-old woman who reads and writes YA, it’s easy to tell what side I’m on.
No, I’m talking about reading books as a wee gal that you knew, just knew, were not the most impressive of choices.
It’s weird how that happens. For most of my elementary school years, I read with wild abandonment and my insatiable appetite for books was met with great admiration and pride from grown-ups. It was a simpler time, when it seemed that the content of what I read was nowhere near as important as the fact that I read (barring crazily inappropriate material for my age group, obviously.) But at some point in 5th grade,which coincidentally is around the time The Puberty starts to hit, I became very much aware that there were “smart” books and “dumb” books, “serious” books and “dumb” books, “instructive” books and “dumb” books. And even though I got the same type of satisfaction from either kind of book, the “dumb” books were also accompanied by a very, distinct feeling: Shame.
Which is how I ended up reading Sweet Valley Saga: The Wakefields of Sweet Valley hiding. Since I couldn’t bring myself to put the book down, lest I never find out what happened to Jessica and Elizabeth’s great-great-great grandmother during Prohibition, I must have disappeared for a total of five days, four hours, and 32 seconds. My love for The Babysitters-Club was a bit more palatable to those around me, though I always made sure to buy a classic next to the latest edition of their Super Specials. I read those damn travelogues so many times that several lost their covers and a few had holes from underlining the passages that I particularly liked. But the series that probably made me scorn my truncated taste-levels more than any other was the Girl Talk books. Don’t ring a bell? I’m not surprised. I’ve literally never met anyone else who has ever heard of them. I couldn’t even get them at bookstores. The only place that seemed to carry them was Toys “R” Us, that shoved them somewhere between coloring books and despair.
Look, I’m not about to defend the artistic merits of any of these publications. They were formulaic in every sense of the word, each one following a predictable pattern (the descriptive 2nd chapter in all Babysitters Club books, the phone call chapters in Girl Talk, Elizabeth and Todd’s ancestors never getting to live happily ever-after) and ending in a nice, tight, wrapped little bow. Character development was non-existent and, I would say, an anathema to their very spirit since each girl had to fit their given parameters. Kristy can’t NOT be a tomboy who knows when to keep her mouth shut!
But that’s not what was embarrassing about them. What really, truly, made me cringe was that they were “girly.”
And therein lies the problem.
Because while the entire fifth-grade class was devouring Goosebumps, The Hardy Boys, and Michael Crichton novels as if they were laced with crack, the only books that were seen as “dumb” were the ones that talked about, like, boys and stuff. I was supposed to be ABOVE it. My heart wasn’t supposed to sing when Mary Anne and Logan finally got together, I wasn’t supposed to gasp when one of the Wakefield twins cheated on their paramour du jour, or obsess over the many-tensioned layers in those damn Girl Talk phone conversations. We are conditioned at such a young age to believe that anything feminine is considered less-than, that even the act of reading is filled with strife.
But I did. And adult-me really wants to tell 11-year-old me, “OF COURSE, YOU DID. And that’s ok.”
So though the writing quality might be lacking*, I would argue that “dumb” books are an important part of any person’s personal literary history. At its most basic, it keeps kids reading. Knee-deep into my Babysitters-Club obsession, I started reading Dickens and Singer and Garcia Marquez and other literary greats. Dawn’s annoying environmentalism was a welcome respite from, um, 19th Century French politics. Even further, I find it one of the safest spaces to explore burgeoning sexualities, as cheesy and slightly-gross as that sounds. We were all thinking about s-e-x, but no one wanted to admit we were actually terrified/worried/curious/weirded-out/attracted/insert-hormone-induced-feeling about it. Finally, at a time when your insides, your outsides, your universe, is shifting, it’s nice to go to a world that is easily accessible, familiar, and static. Sometimes 8th grade needs to last for 342 books, dammit!
“Shame” and “reading” should rarely be paired in the same sentence. It leads us to limit our scope. We become suspicious to ourselves, making us doubt our very own sources of joy and interest. Banned Books Week happened not too long ago, and it was a sobering reminder that there are still folks out there who while use institutions to silence others. But sometimes, the worst kind of censorship is the kind we inflict on ourselves.
*That’s pretty debatable, if only because both Ann M. Martin and K.A. Applegate are Newberry honorees.