I’ve never been big on nostalgia, but the reality is, we’re in dark times and have been in dark times for (checks watch) all of our adulthood. There’s something comforting in thinking about favorite books from the past, when we were but younger versions of ourselves and perhaps a little less in need of staying atop every breaking news update. Enter: a fun look back at the ’90s teen book series you loved and maybe forgot about.
We all know The Baby-Sitters Club. We’re familiar with Fear Street and similar ’90s teen horror. There’s Sweet Valley High, Redwall, various series by Mercedes Lackey and Tamora Pierce, and, as highlighted in an earlier post, even more lesser-known nostalgic children’s book series. This roundup won’t cover those titles, but instead will dig even deeper into the trenches of your locked memory boxes. The majority are from the ’90s, though a few of these begin in the very late ’80s.
The majority of these books were published straight to paperback. They were affordable for young readers, and many would make their appearances in school book fairs and fliers for book sales. Many are also firmly situated in the “problem novel” genre of YA, wherein the central thrust of the story is a social problem and the teen operates as the means by which a message is conveyed. They’re often formulaic without character depth, though what they attempt to do is at least noteworthy. Preachy, but noteworthy.
In many ’90s teen book series, girls are central to the story, and they have a significant amount of agency. It’s interesting to compare girls starting businesses and baseball leagues and cable television shows to the series which are focused on girls getting the cute boy or the many ’90s teen horror novels wherein girls were simply victims and plot devices.
It should come as no surprise by this point that the majority of these series will be by and about white folks. Most of them will also be straight. The reality is that for all our nostalgia, too often that is nostalgia for a time that didn’t exist or that was comprised of whitewashed, heteronormative narratives. It doesn’t make those books or stories bad, but it’s impossible not to pause and wonder what the stories we didn’t get to read or see did to us growing up — and have done for us now, in our adulthood.
As mentioned in the piece on ’90s teen horror, note that many of these series would fall into the middle grade/tween category in today’s market. They feature younger teens or those who aren’t quite teens, as opposed to centering stories of those in the 17, 18, or 19 year old range, which are far more common today. They’re also likely to contain some, err, problematic language, so before you pick one up to read, check reviews.
I’ve also purposefully left out books that were part of a franchise — we’ll get there soon, I promise. There are some real gems of the era.
Ready? Set? Let’s enjoy these gnarly ’90s teen book series. True joy in writing about these books is in how few words are necessary to give you the entire series plot arc and how outstanding the cover art is — masterpieces, truly.
Oh, and if this post brings you back to A Place, you’ll want to also make sure you add the book Paperback Crush to your to-read, as it, too, will give you All Those Feels.
I’m a Big Kid Now: ’90s Teen Book Series
The Boyfriend Club Series by Janet Quin-Harkin
Starting with Ginger’s First Kiss, this series follows two girls who are best friends and leave their small town middle school to attend high school in the “big city” (in this case, Phoenix). Of course, it’s a story about changes in friendship and, well, lots of boys.
@Cafe Series by Elizabeth Craft
A brief interlude to note that Elizabeth Craft is cohost of the Happier podcast with her sister Gretchen Rubin, and she’s been writing YA off and on for a while.
Could the title of this series, which began with Love Bytes, be any more late ’90s, the-internet-is-so-hip? Anyway, the staff at the @cafe are good buds but stuff gets complicated when they break the work place’s only rule: don’t fall in love.
Camp Counselors Series by Diane Ames
Being a camp counselor was so romanticized in the ’90s, and I suspect part of it was the freedom, as well as because of the smash hits Hey Dude and Salute Your Shorts on Nickelodeon. In Summer Fling, despite making a promise to her boyfriend not to chase any boys while being a counselor during the summer, Annie begins to fall for the cutie tennis coach.
Cassandra Mysteries Series by Jennifer Austin
Who doesn’t want a mystery series about a a “glamorous” and “smart” teen sleuth? In the first of the short-lived series, Ticket to Danger, Cassandra visits her pen pal Alex in England, only to be forced to play Sherlock Holmes when her friend gets kidnapped.
The BLAZER though.
Cassie Perkins Series by Angela Ewell Hunt
No More Broken Promises is the first in this Christian themed teen series. The series was re-released in the 2010s, so it might sound fairly familiar.
In the introductory title, Cassie tries out and earns the lead role in her high school musical, which surprises her and everyone else. But she’s unable to focus fully, since there’s a change in her family at home.
A moment to enjoy the montage, jazz cup cover design.
Cousins Series by Colleen O’Shaughnessy McKenna
Groups of kids was a common set up in ’90s series books, as is pretty evident here: some work together, some play together, and others are related enough to use that thread of connection to build an entire arc around.
Not Quite Sisters is the first in this series about close-knit cousins. Following Callie, the oldest of the bunch, the story is about when two other cousins move back to Sweetwater, Texas, and she decides to throw them a party.
Apple Paperbacks had a real design theme to them, and this one is a great example.
Ghost Twins Series by Dian Curtis Regan
So 50 years ago, a twin brother and sister died in a boating accident, but they’re still haunting the place as 11-year-olds. The home, which is now a vacation rental, is being occupied by Kim, and when she finds herself in trouble — and I quote directly from the book description — “the twins brush up their ghost skills.”
The dog is already dead, y’all. It’s a ghost.
The Mystery at Kickingbird Lake is the first in the series.
The Gymnasts Series by Elizabeth Levy
This was my personal favorite growing up as a tweenager obsessed with all things gymnastics — the series launched in the very late ’80s, but I’m including it here.
Four girls are so excited to be on the gymnastics team and know they’re going to be BFFS4E&E. Their coach even told them they’d be in a real meet.
Too bad being a team is what trips them up.
The Beginners is the launch of the series, which spanned 22 books and tackled topics like anorexia, parental job loss, the Olympics, and more.
Hope Hospital by Cherie Bennett
Get Well Soon, Little Sister begins this series, and in it, Cindy finds herself racked with guilt about about the accident that left her little sister injured. Naturally, she finds comfort by helping out in the hospital’s pediatric ward.
This series feels like it was custom-made for the Lurlene McDaniel crowd. Bennett, though, didn’t stop with one series. She also penned long-lost series of the ’80s and ’90s like Surviving Sixteen, Sunset Island, Teen Angels, Trash, Wild Hearts, and more.
Lost Girls Series by Linda Williams Aber
A group of teens are supposed to spend a week sailing in the Bahamas, but things go terribly wrong on boat when a storm ruins their ride.
Six girls are now left alone, trying to survive. Does it go Lord of the Flies or have these girls been socialized to work together? (That’s not in the description, by the way).
Adrift kickstarts this duology.
Making Out Series by Katherine Applegate
You know the name Katherine Applegate because she’s a PROLIFIC series writer, particularly of books during this era. She’s also a more recent award-winning author with her book The One and Only Ivan.
Zooey Fools Around is the first in this series about, well, making out. A bunch of teens who grew up together on a small island think they know everything about one another until it’s clear, uh, they don’t. Friendship, enemyship, makeout ship, it’s all here.
NEATE Series by Deborah M. Newton Chocolate
Naimah’s mom is running for city council, but “dirty politics” mean the campaign is anything but easy. Naturally, Naimah and her friends step in to help out in the first book of the series, NEATE To The Rescue.
We’ve got a friend gang here, and it’s worth noting that all of the teens are of color. It might be the only series I could dredge up from the depths of ’90s teen book series that has ’em. Bluford High didn’t launch until 2002. There may be more, but they sure are lost to the sands of Internet Time.
The Party Line Series by Carrie Austen
Allie’s Wild Surprise is the first in this series which also utilizes the jazz cup aesthetic for the cover design. In this series, we see Baby-Sitters Club inspiration, as Allie and her rag-tag team of friends build their own party planning business. Plans for her little brother’s party fell through and they planned a new one, so, naturally they had the skills to launch a business.
But Allie’s over enthusiasm for money may cause the business the fail before it even begins.
There are more books in the series, so we know that doesn’t happen.
The Pink Parrots Series by Kathilyn Solomon Proboz, Lucy Ellis, and Leah Jerome
A League of Their Own, anyone? This series with an utterly fantastic name begins with The Girls Strike Back. It follows a group of 7th grade girls who, in protest of unfair and discriminatory practices in their local baseball league, launch their own all-girls team.
Badassery, thy name is Pink Parrots. The book was part of a line of books from Sports Illustrated for Kids.
Red Hair Series by Charlotte St. John
Emily’s backstory is a tragic one, wherein her mother and twin sister were killed in a car wreck when she was a baby. So when Emily begins to see a girl about town who looks exactly like she does, well, now there are questions.
The same…red hair.
Unicorn Series by Tanith Lee
There weren’t as many series gems outside of realistic fiction, but there were some, including Lee’s Unicorn series. This one follows a girl, daughter of a sorceress, who discovers the bones of a unicorn. When she puts them together, puzzle-like, that unicorn springs back to life. They get to adventure together through the series.
Black Unicorn is the first title.
Video High Series by Marilyn Kaye
Modern Love is the first book in this series that, by the end of the ’90s, was certainly no longer modern. A group of high schoolers decide they’re going to launch their own cable show and episode one — this book — is a debate about dating.
I can only imagine how Sharon and her pals would feel about dating in the ’20s…and cable TV.
The Whitney Cousins Series by Jean Thesman
I’m not entirely sure what the fascination was with cousins in this era, but here we have another series about a family of ’em. Each title centers a different one, and the first, Heather, dives into blended families. Heather is the hero in this one, saving her stepsister from a plot to steal a scholarship away from her.
The cover here isn’t the first title, but instead, Erin’s story. The internet doesn’t have a solid enough version of Heather’s so you can see just how perfect a time capsule of design the series was.
If this trip back in time to ’90s teen book series leaves you wanting more, then you’re going to eat up this look at nostalgic teen magazines.