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'Baby-sitters Club' and beyond: The lasting impact of teen fiction

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Of all the books teens read during those formative years — required or for fun — some fade from memory like bad fashion choices while others carve a niche that lasts a lifetime.

In her latest book, “Paperback Crush,” Gabrielle Moss, author and lifestyle editor at Bustle, takes readers down pop culture memory lane, exploring the ’80s and ’90s preteen paperback genre. Think “Sweet Valley High” or “The Saddle Club” or the “Wildfire” romance series. She offers a researched and nostalgic look back at what made the genre so successful, from cover art and feminist themes to fan favorite authors and publishers.

The Chicago Tribune talked to Moss about what book still gives her the heebie-jeebies and why so many teen novels from those decades have stuck with her all these years. The following has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: Why write “Paperback Crush” now?

A: “I think (the genre) had good and bad impacts, but I was just very fascinated by the idea of digging a little more deeply into the impacts and how it shaped our generation of women. We would consume these books in such massive quantities — and anything you consume in that large a quantity is going to have an impact on you. They helped give us a way to safely think about and deal with issues we were just exploring. I learned a lot about the idea of women having careers from “The Babysitters Club” because I didn’t get a lot of that at home. I think they also impacted us negatively in a lot of ways — looking back on some of these books is kind of horrific in that everyone is skinny, rich, white and talking about their nice cars.

Q: What book sticks out as having a big impact on women?

A: I have heard so much from so many grown women who are like, “I’m still traumatized and constantly thinking about ‘The Girl in the Box’ by Ouida Sebestyen.” (Teenager Jackie McGee is kidnapped and locked an underground bunker with scant food or water. To pass the time, she writes letters to friends, family and the police. We never learn her assailant’s motive or identity.)

It is a messed-up book. I had not seen it as a teenager, but reading it now (I’m 36) it was upsetting. But I think a lot of people were permanently effected by “The Face on the Milk Carton.” It definitely gave me a severe case of the heebie-jeebies. (In the Caroline Cooney novel, a teen girl finds out she was kidnapped as a young child, and the people she thinks of as her parents are not her biological parents.)

I think a lot of teens go through that stage where they’re like, “I’m nothing like my parents. How can they be my parents?” I remember reading that and thinking: “What if they’re not?” They are — we have since proven that they are — but in that moment in the culture there was so much constant talk about kidnappings. I remember having a home fingerprint kit from our local police station so just in case you got kidnapped, your parents would have your fingerprints.

Q: Looking back, were parents letting teens read these books too early?

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A: Kids can handle a lot. They’re so curious about the world and not just scared of that stuff, but they also have questions. When I was a little kid and realized kidnapping existed, I was terrified, but I was also like, “What is it? Why does it happen?’” I think the really dark “whys” — like “The Girl in the Box” — the kids who are drawn to it are usually the ones that have a curiosity about that subject. They have a lot of questions and maybe their parents aren’t comfortable answering those questions, so I do think those books did provide a service in that way by allowing us to have our feelings and ask our questions. Were the answers to those questions always correct? Probably not. But I think it was a really worthwhile time to ask these questions. ... With the caveat of V.C. Andrews. I don’t think V.C. was answering any important questions. I think most of us read her way too young. I don’t know what’s the right age to read V.C. Andrews — maybe age 30?

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