'I must, I must, I must increase my bust!' Oh how we love YA fiction...

From bullying, peer pressure to divorce and even death via periods and pubic hair, there's not much that they'd shy away from.
Publish date:
June 6, 2012
books, young adult fiction, literature, judy blume, point horror

Sweet Valley, Sweet Valley Hiiiighhh....

Remember the Point Horror books? Beloved by teens the world over, they were best read by torchlight under a blanket, long after you'd been told it was bedtime. There were over a hundred books in the series, but their distinctive style and formula made them massively popular, combining cutesy Americana (cheerleaders, summer camps, proms and pep rallies) with high school politics (cliques, classes and parties) and classic horror plots and characters (hitchhikers, babysitters and psychotic stalkers). And teenage girls around the world bought them by the bookshelf.

I was one of them, of course, sleeping with titles like April Fool's, Fun House, The Mall and The Diary under my pillow all through my adolescent years. To this day I blame my bad eyesight on those under-the-cover reading sessions once everyone else was asleep. Usually followed by sleepless nights where I was convinced every noise was a knife-wielding lunatic coming to get me, or least give me a cryptic clue about their bloodlust and/or betrayal, and their elaborate plot for revenge. Better that than nightmares, though, because after reading the likes of Dream Date, I knew even mysterious strangers encountered while asleep could be dangerous.

That I can vividly remember these books after so many years shows how much of an impact my teenage reading choices had, and with adolescence being such a formative time, maybe it's no wonder. But what it is about blood-splattered teen slashers, wand-waving wizards and other YA reads that resonate so strongly with us that we're still reading, reminiscing and raving about them years afterwards?

If Point Horror was all about putting a contemporary teenage twist on urban legends and campfire classics, other American series such as Sweet Valley High and The Babysitters Club had their own cult followings for their mix of all-American soap opera alongside their descriptions of their characters' day-to-day routines; their friendships, rivalries, fashions and fads. American author Judy Blume and British equivalent Jacqueline Wilson went further, focusing on young adults' fears, fantasies, stresses and anxieties.

The fabulously cheesy cover of Judy Blume's Forever that fell open helpfully at all the right pages when it did the rounds at Guide camp. RALPH! (snigger...)

From bullying, peer pressure to divorce and even death via periods and pubic hair, there's not much that they'd shy away from. As a result, several of Blume's books have been banned by school libraries (including Deenie and Forever, to name only two), but she continues to be renowned by readers around the world, because her characters and their concerns were so universal.

When you're a teenager (especially if you were as mad and melodramatic as I was), you feel isolated. It's a confusing and turbulent time. So finding your own issues and anxieties reflected back at you in fictional form can be a comfort. Especially when you need advice, but daren't even voice what you're worried about for fear of the reaction. So instead, books (and characters going through the same thing) become a source of instruction and inspiration, even if it turns out that they're more of a 'what not to do'!

Me at Leeds festival, aged 16

So own up: I bet there's a few of you out there, in the throes of adolescent breast-centric distress, who've experimented with the exercises detailed in Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret, chanting along with the characters: "I must, I must, I must increase my bust!"

But while Judy Blume may have been booted by some school libraries, the series that consistently tops banned books lists, is none other than J.K. Rowling's lightening-scarred, bespectacled boy wonder, Harry Potter. But why are Harry, Ron and Hermione so popular with adults as well as younger audiences?

Do you still find yourself lurking in the YA section at your local bookshop?

If it was my personal list, we'd be here all day, so let's keep this brief. One theory behind their popularity is because the books bring back a classic genre adult readers know and love, but has fallen out of fashion; the boarding school story. All the latent homeroticism and after-hours mischief of Malory Towers, but with magic and rakish red-headed twins. What's not to love about that?

They also feature their fair share of classic story archetypes; they're all about adventure, heroism, the battle between good and evil, and triumph in the face of adversity. These grand themes seem to be central to the popularity of The Hunger Games too, with Katniss facing issues around family, survival, corruption and rebellion.

But whether you strictly stick to the grown-up shelves these days, or like me, still secretly fantasise about getting a Hogwarts acceptance letter, for many the innocence and escapism of YA fiction is an immersive addiction. And if nothing else, there's a lot to love about Neville Longbottom's evolution from gangly geek to heroic heartthrob. I'm all for a series where the nerd saves the world.

Which books did you love most when you were younger? Would they stand the test of time if you read them again now? And which YA reads have you tried, loved or loathed as an adult?