80s Flashback: How Do You Say Goodbye?

How Do You Say Goodbye? (Sweet Dreams #16)
Margaret Burman
First published 1982

My history with this book
This was one of several Sweet Dreams books I read as a pre-teen. I’ve found copies of a few titles I remember from the series, and I’m going to make my way through them over the coming months.

My thoughts
I read a lot of what I think of as generic teen romances from approximately age 11 to 13. Most of these books were in series put out by various publishers. The Sweet Dreams series was the longest-running of the various teen romance series, with a whopping 230 volumes published between 1981 and 1995. I think I stopped reading these types of books around 1984 or 1985.

From what I can remember of these books, they were usually about an ordinary teen girl, with supposedly normal teen problems. The plots often centered around a girl who was torn between two equally attractive guys. These books were total wish fulfillment for your average 12-year-old girl, who probably wasn’t dealing with the tragic issue of having two hot guys wanting to date her.

How Do You Say Goodbye is a very typical 80s teen romance. Our heroine is 15-year-old Lisa, who describes herself as follows:

I guess I’m what you’d call ordinary. Even my name, Lisa Kentwood, is ordinary. Some people say that I’m pretty because I’ve got this long strawberry blond hair that falls straight to my shoulders, but frankly, I think my looks are just ok.

Sweet Dreams heroines are always pretty, but never the most beautiful girl in the class, which I suppose serves to make them more relatable. Lisa’s main interest in life is baking, and she has a small business baking and selling elaborate desserts. Lisa’s biggest problem is that she can’t say no to anyone. She’s overcommitted in her baking because she never turns down an order. She’s dating her childhood friend, the nice img_2854but kind of dull, Lawrence, and although she likes him, he doesn’t exactly set her heart afire.Then she meets manic pixie dream boy Alex, and suddenly she’s dating two guys, because she’s unable to tell Lawrence that she doesn’t want to go steady with him. Of course, this blows up in her face. But in the end, everything works out fine. Lisa wins a major baking competition, Lawrence forgives her and ends up dating her best friend, and Alex also forgives her and wants to keep dating her.

When I read the description on the back of the book, it sounded vaguely familiar, but once I started reading the book, it really came back to me and I found myself remembering bits and pieces of the story, so this book must have had at least some impact on me as a kid.

The story felt a little dated, but not as bad as I expected. The constant references to “going steady” seem dated even for the 1980s, and I remember thinking when I first read it that going steady felt very 1950s. I wasn’t particularly interested in Lisa’s baking when I was a kid, but that plot detail held up pretty well, since we now live in a time when bakers get reality TV shows and our nation’s cupcake obsession is only just now waning. The most dated aspects are the hilarious descriptions of outfits. For her first date with Alex, Lisa wears a ruffled Victoria blouse, velvet pants, and a glittery belt. In another scene, she dons a pair of yellow satin pajamas tucked into knee-high boots.

Re-reading it gave me a certain nostalgic pleasure, and although it’s not exactly a classic of children’s literature, it’s not a bad book. I get the appeal of these books–there’s always a happy ending, the heroine always get her man, and being ordinary is rewarded. They’re aspirational, but in a “this could actually happen to me” sort of way. The sort of problems the heroines face are pretty mild; these are definitely not “issue” books. Of course, Alex is the sort of magical unicorn perfect teenage boy that doesn’t exist in actual high schools. Were he written today, the heroine might wonder if he actually liked girls, but in the world of 80s teen novels, everyone is straight* (and mostly white).

Although the heroines of these books are always in high school, the reading level feels more appropriate for junior high. Maybe I just have different expectations from reading a lot of very good young adult books published in recent years, but the writing in this one feels rather unsophisticated.

Does it hold up?
Better than I expected.

Is there any objectionable content?
No.

Can you read it aloud?
Not unless you really want to embarrass your kids.

Would I want my kid to read it?
If he really wanted to, but it’s not something I’d push on him.

Availability
It’s out of print, but it’s not too hard to find used copies.

*M.E. Kerr’s I’ll Love You When You’re More Like Me, which has an openly gay supporting character, is a notable exception.

 

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80s Flashback: An Introduction

When I first envisioned this project and blog, I pictured myself reading the classics of children’s literature: Anne of Green Gables, Harriet the Spy, and so forth. But when I started making a list of books I enjoyed as a child, I quickly realized that not all of them were what you’d call classics. For every Little House on the Prairie or Are Your There God? It’s Me Margaret, there wimg_2821as a Sweet Dreams romance or a Dark Forces book.

These books may not have had the most literary merit, but they were still a part of my life during a very formative period, and I thought it would be interesting to revisit some of them. I also enjoy these books for the aesthetic value of their covers–I can’t get enough of cheesy 80s young adult covers (check out the matching turtlenecks on the couple on the top left, neither of whom look like they’re in high school).

Although I’m calling this series 80s Flashback, some of the books were written in the 70s. But if I first read a book in 1980 or later, I figure it makes the cut. I’m going to concentrate on books I read as a kid, but I may branch out into books that are new to me, so if you have any favorites, please recommend them. (I’ll give priority to anything with a cheesy cover.)

New to Me: Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing

Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing
Judy Blume
First published 1972

My history with this book
I loved Judy Blume as a kid, but I had never read Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing.
My husband loved this book as a kid and recommended it to me.

My thoughts
I feel liked I missed out not reading Takes of a Fourth Grade Nothing as a kid, because I enjoyed it so much as an adult, and I wish that I could have experienced it as a kid. It’s a fantastic and very funny book. It’s quite similar to another one of my favorites, Beezus and Ramona, with a long-suffering older sibling and an adorable but annoying younger sibling.

Peter is 9 and his little brother Fudge is almost 3. Fudge is widely adored, but he’s also a holy terror, and poor Peter feels insignificant and ignored. Fudge’s adventures are hilarious, but being the nice, stable, normal kid isn’t always easy.

Judy Blume is so good at capturing a kid’s voice. Peter feels so real, and there’s nothing precious or precocious about him. The book doesn’t really have a plot. It’s mostly hilarious episodes of Fudge behaving badly and Peter making funny observations. In one chapter, the mother takes the boys to buy new shoes. She’s horrified that Peter has a hole in his sock, but she’s fairly blase about Fudge having a meltdown. “How could my mother have been so embarrassed over a little hole in my sock and then act like nothing much was happening when her other son was on the floor yelling and screaming and carrying on!” Peter’s mother ends up convincing him to trick Fudge into trying on new shoes, and Peter is torn between thinking it’s funny that Fudge is so easily fooled and feeling bad for him.

Fudge’s third birthday party is probably the funniest part of the book, although it does seem slightly dated. Fudge’s father isn’t there, and the other mothers just drop their kids off. Having given and attended of small children’s birthday parties, I can confirm that drop offs are not a thing nowadays, and dads no longer get to skip their own kids’ parties. Attending the party are a crier, a biter, and a kid who eats everything in sight. The party goes about as well as you’d expect.

Does it hold up?
Not having read this one as a kid, I don’t have a point of comparison, but Judy Blume is pretty timeless. There are some minor dated elements (references to daytime muggings in Central Park, their building has an elevator operator, the dad is clueless about most aspects of child-rearing, Peter mentions “dope pushers,” Fudge gets saddle shoes), but otherwise, it holds up well.

Is there any objectionable content?
Just some mild fat-shaming of a chubby toddler.

Can you read it aloud?
Yes. The audiobook would be great for a car trip with kids.

Would I want my kid to read it?
Yes, definitely

Availability
It’s widely available, in print, ebook, and audiobook format.

 

Giving Enid Blyton Another Chance: The St. Clare’s Series

The Twins at St. Clare’s and The O’Sullivan Twins
Enid Blyton
Originally published 1941 and  1942

My history with these books
As mentioned previously, I really loved Enid Blyton’s book as a child, but I hadn’t read the St. Clare’s series. After my unpleasant re-reading of The Secret Mountain, I was curious to see if I would have similar reactions to Blyton’s other books.

My thoughts
There are six books in the original St. Clare’s series, and three an additional books were added to the series in recent years (with a new author; Blyton was prolific, but not from beyond the grave). The books take place at a British boarding school for girls. I read the first two books in the series, The Twins at St. Clare’s and The O’Sullivan Twins.

As is fairly obvious from the titles, the first two books focus on twins Pat and Isabel O’Sullivan, who are starting at a new boarding school. The girls have recently left another, seemingly more posh school, and they’re not happy about having to attend St. Clare’s, which they see as beneath them. The twins are terrible snobs, and things don’t go very well for them at first at their img_2819new school. Their attitudes don’t endear the twins to their new classmates, and they find the schoolwork much harder than at their old school.

The girls eventually figure out that the school isn’t so bad, and once they stop being so awful, they quickly makes friends. In the second book, it’s a new term, they twins are quite popular, and we see them making friends (and enemies) with several new students in the school.

I enjoyed these books. They have a sort of old-fashioned, pip pip cheerio British quality, and I felt very nostalgic reading about a boarding school, which was always a favorite topic for me as a child. The editions I read are revised, so there wasn’t anything offensive in them (except for some cringe-inducing attitudes about class). I’m not sure whether the original versions had any offensive content.

Something that struck me as interesting is how young the girls seem. Isabel and Pat are said to be 14-and-a-half at the beginning of the first book, and the older students apparently range in age up to 18, but everyone seems much younger. If their age hadn’t been specified, I would have assumed the twins were 10 or 11. Teenage hormones don’t appear to be in evidence, and except for a brief mention of one girl having a pimple, there’s no signs of puberty. I suppose their teenage hormonal urges have been channeled into playing pranks on their teachers and torturing each other. The reading level of these books seems more appropriate for maybe age 9 to 12, so it’s fine that the girls seem younger.

As mentioned above, there are some class issues I found a bit hard to take. One example is the treatment of a character named Sheila. Everyone finds Sheila annoying because she “puts on airs.” They later learn that Sheila was born poor, but her family is now very wealthy, and she puts on airs because she’s insecure. Pat says, “But how awfully silly of Sheila to pretend like that! If she’d told us honestly that her people had made a lot of money, and how pleased she was to be able to come to St. Clare’s, we’d have understood and liked her for it. But all that silly conceit and pretence!”

So, poor Sheila’s only acceptable if she bows and scrapes and tells every0ne how lucky she is to be at St. Clare’s? Ugh.

I found the second book a bit less enjoyable than the first one. Most of the characters exhibit some form of mean girl behavior, and there’s a tacit acceptance of the attitude that it’s ok to be mean to certain people because they’re “sneaks.” There are two girls who both behave very badly, Margery and Erica. Margery is good at sports and is somehow seen as worthy despite being pretty awful, while Erica is loathed by her classmates and shunned for her bad behavior, which isn’t really that different from Margery’s. Both girls seems to be troubled, but Margery ends up winning acceptance, while Erica is banished. There’s an odd scene where the headmistress asks one of the other students for advice on how to deal with Erica and then takes the student’s advice to send Erica away.

But overall, I liked these books, and I will probably read the rest of the series at some point. I think reading Enid Blyton is always going to be somewhat problematic, but I’m glad this experience didn’t leave my jaw on the floor like re-reading The Secret Mountain did.

Does it hold up?
Yes, but there are aspects that will seem dated to kids. For example, the twins have a friend named Lucy, whose family loses all their money. Since they can no longer afford to pay her tuition, Lucy plans to leave school and go to work as a secretary. It’s odd enough that she can legally leave school that young, but the idea that anyone would hire a 14-year-old who hasn’t finished high school seems nuts to a modern reader.

Is there any objectionable content?
Just the aforementioned class issues.

Can you read it aloud?
Yes, the books are not too long, and the chapters are all 10 pages or less.

Would I want my kid to read it?
I wouldn’t have any objections.

Availability
The revised editions are still in print, and although not published in the US, they’re easy enough to find online (I bought the whole set, including the three new books on ebay). Older editions are harder to find, but I’ve seen used copies of the 70s paperbacks show up on ebay. The revised versions have very cute covers.

Revisiting Little Women

Little Women
Louisa May Alcott
First published 1868

My history with this book
Little Women was one of my mother’s favorite childhood books, and she pushed me to read it. Being a contrary child, I resisted for a long time, but then one winter’s day when I was around 11, I was stuck in the house during a snowstorm and I finally picked it up. It turns out my mother was right, and I loved Little Women.

My thoughts
I have a lot of conflicting emotions about Little Women. On the one hand, I enjoyed re-reading it immensely, and it took me back to a time in my life when I was discovering new worlds through books, and I loved revisiting that. On the other hand, there are parts of it that drove me bananas, a reaction I don’t recall having as a child.

First, the good. Little Women is a highly moral tale, but it somehow avoids the overly moralizing tone you find in a lot of 19th century literature. The characters strive to do good and become better, but they all have imperfections. Jo fights against her temper, and she’s greatly comforted when she learns that he mother, the seemingly perfect Marmee, also struggles with her temper.

No one is perfect in this book, except Beth, but they all want to be better and they struggle against their worst qualities, trying to be better people. I like the concept of striving to be better.

Something I found very annoying as an adult that I don’t think even registered for me as a child is the Marches constantly complaining about being poor. I said out loud, “You are not poor!” multiple times while reading this book. Yes, poverty is relative, but the Marches live in a nice house, have enough food to eat, can afford clothes (although simple and not fashionable), and have a live-in servant. This is not exactly poverty. They were once wealthy and lost most of their money, but they are far from destitute. This feels particularly weird since Alcott has some actual poor characters in the book, the Hummels, an immigrant family who are so destitute that one of the children dies of scarlet fever because their mother has no money for a doctor. After Meg is married, she whines a lot about how poor she is, although she and her husband have their own house, a live-in servant, and enough money that Meg can go crazy in the kitchen creating all sorts of extravagant cooking mistakes. Her kitchen failures are sent to the Hummels for the children to eat. (Those poor Hummels. “Here’s some bad cooking that’s too gross for us to eat. Enjoy!”)

The attitudes about poverty are really odd. Laurie talks about wanting to spend his fortune helping gentlefolk who are down on their luck, because “There’s one sort of poverty that I particularly like to help. Out-and-out beggar get taken care of [tell that to the Hummels and their dead child], but poor gentlefolk fare badly, because they won’t ask and people don’t dare to offer charity; yet there are a thousand ways of helping them, if only one knows how to do it so delicately that one does not offend.” (No one seems to worry about offending the “out-and-out” beggars.)

The inherent sexism in society at the time the book was written is very much reflected in its pages, which makes it a little hard to read now. Even as Jo fights against society’s expectations, she’s told again and again that her true worth is in being a wife and a mother. Jo is very much the author’s stand in, but where Louisa May Alcott never married and supported herself as a writer, Jo eventually marries and raises a family. Perhaps Alcott felt she couldn’t write the story as it actually played out–the readers of her time wouldn’t have wanted a book about a “spinster.” (There’s a rather poignant lament for maiden aunts in the book; perhaps this is Alcott reminding her readers what it’s like to be the single aunt.)

I think reading this book now would be an eye-opening experience for children, to see how few choices women had at the time. This wasn’t news to me this time around, but it still makes me incredibly grateful to be alive now and not living in the 19th century. We still need more progress, but at least I have options that were unthinkable to women in the 19th century.

I remember being disappointed as a child that Jo turns down her neighbor and best friend Laurie’s marriage proposal. As an adult, her turning him down seems much more reasonable. She’s not in love with him. As a child, I couldn’t get why she just didn’t love him. He’s Laurie. He’s great. But as an adult, I feel like Laurie ending up with Amy is just fine. They’re much better suited to each other (although I feel bad for Amy having to live the rest of her life wondering if her husband still harbors feelings for her sister). But I can’t help wishing that Alcott had just let Jo remain single. I suppose that a book that lionizes marriage and motherhood couldn’t allow its heroine to not meet those goals.

Professor Bhaer is fine enough, but I can’t forgive him for the subtle shade he throws at Jo for her “sensational stories.” Why shouldn’t she be able to write stories that people enjoy? Alcott herself wrote some sensational stories, but perhaps she had some ambivalence about them.

While I re-read Little Women, I began reading Turning the Pages of American Girlhood: The Evolution of Girls’ Series Fiction, 1865-1930 by Emily Hamilton-Honey. There’s a chapter on Little Women, and it provides some very interesting historical context.

Does it hold up?
Mostly. I enjoyed re-reading, but I had a lot of critical thoughts that never occurred to me as a child.

Is there any objectionable content?
I gasped when a character is referred to in passing as a “large-nosed Jew.” Yikes. Overall, the book has far less objectionable content than most books from the time period, but this passage was painful. The attitudes about women are hard to read, but accurate for the time period.

Can you read it aloud?
It’s really a bit too long for reading aloud.

Would I want my kid to read it?
Yes, but with a few caveats.

Availability
Still in print and widely available. The ebook is available for free.