Genre Kryptonite: Girls Coming of Age in the 1980s

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This is a guest post from Amy S. Foster. Foster is a celebrated songwriter, best known as Michael Bublé’s writing partner. You might recognize her work in his four hit singles, including “Home” and “Haven’t Met You Yet.” She has also collaborated with Destiny’s Child, Diana Krall, Andrea Bocelli, Josh Groban and a host of other artists. She is also the author of the novel When Autumn Leaves. When she’s not in a studio in Nashville, Amy lives in the Pacific Northwest with her family. Amy is the daughter of singer B.J. Cook and the legendary music producer, David Foster. Fun fact about Amy: Her extended family tree includes Bella and Gigi Hadid, Sara and Erin Foster and Brody and Brandon Jenner, and Clay Aiken! The Rift Uprising, her YA debut, was just released on October 4, 2016.

The ’80s are a thing now. The ’80s have become suddenly, weirdly, glorified. The Americans, Ready Player One, Stranger Things— people have begun to swoon over the decade that saw me into adulthood and I think I know why. We were the first real generation of divorce. We were the latch key kids. Sure, sure, there were shoulder pads and Reaganomics, but nostalgia doesn’t live in Dynasty. It lives in, well, any John Hughes movie ever made. Childhood was different for us than for previous generations. Women were working outside the home in record numbers, leaving a bunch of kids, like me, on our own. And I don’t mean we were just out playing or exploring, Stand By Me-style. We were walking into empty houses and apartments after school and making ourselves dinner.  We children of the ’80s spent a lot of time alone without the benefit of 800 TV channels to distract us. I became a loner out of necessity. Like many kids of my era, I had to learn how to be okay with my own company because I didn’t really have a choice. What I did have was a lot of books. That love of reading spilled over into adulthood, and I must admit that I do find myself drawn to books that explore what adolescence was like in that time both from the perspective of younger authors and those of us who lived through it. Here’s a short list of books where the protagonist was an ’80s girl just trying to get through life in a haze of acid wash denim, Trapper Keepers, and Neon leg warmers.

Eleanor and Park by Rainbow RowellEleanor and Park Man I loved this book. Rainbow Rowell is a straight up genius. Eleanor isn’t just an outsider (although a shout out could go to The Outsiders too–what’s up, S.E Hinton!) She was abused, neglected, and overlooked. The thing that I loved most about this book was that it really brought home the notion that sometimes, all you need is one great ally. Just one person at the right time can change your life. Eleanor escaped her abusive home, and yes, she loved Park, but it was that she was able to see her worth through Park’s eyes. To me, that transcends romantic love. I also think it’s kind of great that at the end of the day she does what she needs to do to move forward. She puts herself first so it’s not the happy ending all tied up in a neat little bow we’ve come to expect in YA novels. Cheers to that.

Tiger Eyes by Judy BlumeTiger Eyes— Okay, so no book list like this would be complete without including Judy Blume–my literary goddess. I originally had Deenie on the list because I basically inhaled that book when I was about 13, but it was actually written in 1973 (who knew?). So instead, I put Tiger Eyes on here, which works out just fine given the theme. This book is about a girl named Davey who has just lost her father to a violent shooting. Her mother relocates Davey and her brother to New Mexico for a fresh start. Davey’s pain is deep and real. She is not only grieving intensely, but suffering from severe anxiety. She falls for a boy named Wolf and while that romance is sweet, it’s not as important to Davey’s characterization as the fact that Davey moves through the stages of grief, from grief to acceptance, throughout the course of this book. She chooses the name Tiger for herself as a symbol of all she overcame and when I first read the book I got a sense of how strong Davey was deep inside from that. She didn’t call herself Butterfly or Lady Bug. A tiger is a fierce animal. That part stayed with me all these years.

Tell the Wolves I'm HomeTell The Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt — When I was a girl, I had a guy nanny, a manny, named Jack who I loved very much. He had been a friend of my mom’s who needed a job. We lost Jack just as we lost almost all of our gay friends (who were basically like family) to AIDS. This was the early days of the AIDS epidemic so once they became sick, I simply never saw them again. They just disappeared one by one. Tell The Wolves I’m home is the book I needed to finally help me deal with all that loss all these many years later. It’s about a girl named June and her clandestine relationship with her dead uncle’s lover. This book will bring you to your knees. It’s not sad, its revelatory. It’s a fairy tale. If you haven’t yet read it, do yourself a favor and buy it immediately. You won’t be disappointed.

26a26A by Diana Evans–Set in the 1980s and 1990s in Britain, 26A is the story of a biracial family, more specifically, a set of twin girls named Georgia and Bessi. Many of the books of this genre focus on the singular, solo journey of one girl overcoming whatever is going on her life as an individual. 26A detours from this narrative. It shows how you can be lonely even when you inhabit your own little world with another person. These two girls may seem the same, even as they scurry themselves away in the attic and speak a language that only the two of them seem to understand, but they are different in temperament. Georgia is the more sensitive of the two and from the minute we are introduced to her the foreshadowing is ominous. This book asks us as readers to examine our longing to have our needs mirrored and validated by another while at the same time striving for individuality. There is ’80s nostalgia in the form of the Royal Wedding and Michael Jackson and by the time the girls grow up and we move into the ’90s, the story takes a darker turn. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of funny bits in this book, but even those parts cannot distract from the truth of the book—that not every lonely girl in the ’80s finds a way to move past it, to become a Bessi. There are some–some that I sadly knew in high school and who are no longer with us–that were and will always be Georgias.