That’s progress, sugar
categories: unquiet things
Recently one of my sisters and I, along with our significant others, embarked on a road trip that involved a lot of car time. This was of course much different than the journeys of our youth where we relied on coloring books and sticker albums for entertainment; no, in present day we instead spent most of the time staring at our phones and ignoring each other. My sister, however, rediscovered a website she had found ages ago, Cliquey Pizza – a blog focused on 80’s YA books series & pop culture – and we took turns scrolling through the blog, getting more and more excited as we unearthed beloved gems from when we were younger.
My reading was never censored as a child; I was encouraged to read whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted. By 5th and 6th grade I was reading Stephen King and Clive Barker and HP Lovecraft, Robert Heinlein and Richard Matheson. In retrospect…did I understand the nuances of the stories I was reading? Was I able to digest the philosophies or relate to the characters? Probably not fully, but I certainly related to these stories more closely than I did to blonde-haired, blue-eyed Jessica and Elizabeth Wakefield from the Sweet Valley High books that most other girls my age were reading, that’s for sure.
Despite the fact that I could roam where ever I wished within the library, I often found my way back to the young adult section when I was that age – and I am glad that I did. I was born in 1976 and the mid-80’s was rife with really phenomenal young adult writers – Ellen Conford, Lois Duncan, Judy Blume – these ladies knew how to tell a story … and they didn’t need a werewolf or a vampire to do it. Don’t get me wrong, I love my blood-thirsty supernatural creatures, but if I had discovered them in the “Paranormal Romance” section of Barnes and Noble, I might have an entirely different relationship with the creatures of the night than I do now.
Ellen Conford wrote YA in just a twisted enough way that you felt like more of an adult while reading it. The writing is sharp and sophisticated, and you really wanted to be friends with her heroines -they always had such a clever wit and a sly sense of humor. The Alfred G. Graebner Memorial Highschool Handbook Of Rules And Regulations is a prime example of Ellen Conford at the height of her hilarity. I remember reading some passages and not being able to breathe because I laughing so hard. If you’ve ever used Zoroaster’s birthday as an excuse to get out of gym class or penned shitty poetry just so you can get published in the school paper, then I really think you will appreciate the main character, Julie, who is just trying to muddle through her freshman year of high school. I suppose it’s a little dated – I don’t think teenagers had crushes on Robert Redford even when I was reading it – but I don’t think those details really detract from the story. To be honest, I am fairly certain teens are facing entirely different problems today than Julie did at AGGMH – but the story is so much fun that this is easily overlooked. I am pretty sure that I don’t even want to know what teenagers have to deal with today. I doubt hilarity often ensues.
I don’t quite recall the other books I’ve read by Conford other than And This Is Laura, which was also pretty great, but I don’t think anything can ever top The Alfred G. Graebner Memorial Highschool Handbook Of Rules And Regulations. I was very sorry to read just today that Ellen Conford passed away last month.
The title of this post is taken from a poem written by one of the characters, and I can’t find it now because I no longer have my copy of the book, otherwise I would post it in its entirety. It’s awful and pretty batshit left-wing teen angsty, and the last line is “…that’s progress sugar.”
For all the Stephen King on my young person’s shelf, no author gave me such intense shivers as Lois Duncan. Twenty five years later, I still try to pinpoint precisely why that is. Perhaps while King’s characters were often older teenagers or adults dealing with jobs and children (along with rabid dogs and killer cars) Duncan’s heroines were young women closer to my age and who shared my concerns.
In Down A Dark Hall, Kit is a young woman who is shipped off to a sinister boarding school while her mother and stepfather are away on their honeymoon. That’s already a significant change for a young adult to process, in addition to the internal changes she is experiencing as well. Adding to the mix a strange, new environment and eerie goings-on that literally made my hair stand on end as I read it – this became a book I would read again and again because I could picture myself so well as Kit with her myriad, mundane problems in the midst of a growing supernatural mystery.
It’s strange to admit, that other than Stranger With My Face, I’ve not read anything else by Lois Duncan, which is crazy when you consider that she is the lady who wrote I Know What You Did Last Summer! I think I am going to make this upcoming June/July The Summer of Lois Duncan, wherein I read everything she’s ever written.
There are so many more of these books that I treasure for their humor and insight and wonderfully creepy suspense sans gore, and some of them which really gutted me on an emotional level as well… but Ellen Conford’s Alfred G. Graebner Memorial Highschool Handbook Of Rules And Regulations and Lois Duncan’s Down A Dark Hall are without a doubt, my forever favorites.
Tell me of the books and stories that you loved as a young adult. Are they stories that still resonate with you? Would you still feel that frisson of excitement flipping through those pages? Are those books still on your shelves?
I wonder if I have read them, too, and remember them just as fondly.
I devoured everything by Lois Duncan. Daughters of Eve really stood out as one of the scarier ones. (I re-read it just a couple months ago.) She has some great stories. BUT. When you go to read them, make sure you're picking up the originals. Apparently there are re-issues of her stories that are "updated" to include things like cell phones. Which frankly, is fucking ridiculous and annoys the crap out of me.
S. Elizabeth says
WHAT! You have got to be kidding me, that is absolutely ridiculous. Thanks for the head's up - that NEVER would have occurred to me.
I cannot believe I have never read Daughters of Eve...I definitely plan to remedy that soon!
It's really strange, and I kind of hate it. A lot of the situations lose some of their strange isolation and terror with the updates. I mean, if the kids in Down a Dark Hall could just call home on cell phones then a lot of the weirdness would be lost.
I dislike the half assed "updating." Just write a new book, or do a modern rewrite.
I also spent a lot of time in the YA library. I had some favourites (like Astrid Lindgren's Ronja the Robber's Daughter) that I would take out every couple of weeks to re-read (and revisit all those places in my head... I still know my way around that forest). There was one book especially that scared me in a very pleasant way - especially because if my mum has known it was technically YA horror, she'd probably have taken it away from me. Years later, I tried to find it again, but I only recalled the title - Die Affenpfote (The Monkey's Paw) - and some plot elements, but not the name of the writer. And needless to say, it was not W. W. Jacobs' short story "The Monkey's Paw" (which nonetheless turned out to be a nice supernatural read when I came across it on my search for the YA book). What I remembered of the plot was this: One day on his way home from school, a boy finds a severed monkey's paw on top of a bin. He takes it home and hides it on top of his wardrobe. In the night, he wakes up to find the monkey's paw crawl across the room much like a tarantula... and onto his bed. He tries to fight it off, but the paw in return tries to strangle him. His cries wake his father who reveals that he's under a strange curse, so that one day a year (the anniversary of some wrong or other that he committed) he grows a monkeys paw. So he usually chops it off and hides his stump until the normal hand grows back the next day.
That was all I remembered... and I couldn't get may hands on another copy of the book. Then one day I was back in my hometown, visiting family, when a BookCrossing alert popped up in my mailbox. Somebody had released this very same book on a park bench in that town! I was in the right place at the right time - still, I couldn't locate the exact spot in time to get the book. But now I had the author's name: Rainer Winkel. *Who would have remembered that?!) And I found a used but pristine copy in a matter of days and re-read it immediately. And guess what - it turned out to have been my very first work of Weird fiction! The secnd part of the plot, which I had completely blanked out, features a tentacular swamp monster that eats little boys! In the end, yeah, I guess it's a really nice YA supernatural horror story (with unspeakable tentacular things!), but for me the most horrific element will always be the disembodied monkey's paw climbing up onto the protagonist's bed with the movements of a big spider...
S. Elizabeth says
Oh my gosh! That sounds fantastic...and indeed, very memorable. I feel like I must get my own paws upon this tale.
I do hope there's a translation!
Heather Drain says
Wonderful piece, though I am really sad to see that Ellen Conford has passed away. She was truly one of the best in the field and I need to read all the books of hers that I never got to as a kid. I think one of the thing that blows me away now as an adult about so many of the young adult writers from the 70's and 80's, was how dark and with that, honest, some of them could be. The good ones, like Conford, lacked any sort of bubblegum condescension towards the reader. I appreciated it then, but I love it even more now.
S. Elizabeth says
Heather, I am right there with you on that. I am adding Ellen Conford to my summer reading as well. We can probably pick up paperback copies of just about all of them for .01 on amazon !
Jenn B. says
I was obsessed with a book called "Voices After Midnight" by Richard Peck when I was a kid. Not a particularly striking novel but I believe it did ignite my love of time travel stories.
S. Elizabeth says
I loved Richard Peck - Ghost I Have Been is right up there on my list of favorites! I don't remember ever reading Voices After Midnight though...