Book Angel Booktopia welcomes Robin Talley today as part of the Lies We Tell Ourselves Blog Tour to share her favorite retro YA reads.
The Best of Retro YA
When I started writing my first novel, Lies We Tell Ourselves, set in 1959 Virginia, I knew I was going to have to do a ton of research.
I started at the library. Lies We Tell Ourselves focuses on school desegregation, so I read everything I could get my hands on about that process ― the lawsuits, the political wars, and, most importantly, the memoirs and oral histories from the students who’d been on the front lines of the desegregation efforts in their schools.
After that, though, I turned to my eReader. I didn’t just need to know about the big picture of the history of that time. I needed to know the little things, too.
So I looked for young adult books written during the 1950s and 1960s. What had the characters I was writing about been reading? What did these books have to say about how teenagers in the 1950s talked to each other, how they dressed, what they did after school, what the etiquette was on a first date?
One of the first things I learned was that a lot of these books weren’t available in ebook form. I had to scour the Internet for secondhand copies. A friend sent me one old library book she found at a flea market. I even stole books off my sister’s old bookshelf ― 1980s reprints of classics from earlier decades.
Here are some of my favorites from what I found:
Fifteen (1956) by Beverly Cleary
Yes, that Beverly Cleary, of Ramona Quimby fame. This novel is a combination coming-of-age story/dating how-to manual for respectable girls in the 1950s who’d never been kissed. The big climax hinges on whether Stan, “a very nice boy,” will give 15-year-old Jane his ID bracelet. It’s actually pretty funny.
Ransom (1966) by Lois Duncan
Yes, that Lois Duncan, the one who wrote I Know What You Did Last Summer and other 80s classics. Lois Duncan has been writing YA books for a LONG time. This story is an addictive thriller about five high school students who are kidnapped off their school bus. It’s an interesting social study, told from rotating points of view between all five teenagers. It’s also delightfully old-school ― the kidnapped boys are locked in a freezing cold basement all night; the girls are allowed to sleep in a bedroom in bunk beds because the kidnappers assume the girls are timid and won’t possibly try to escape.
Mr. and Mrs. Bo Jo Jones (1967) by Ann Head
This is a book I’d recommend for more than just its historical value. It takes place in 1963 and focuses on 16-year-old girl named July who gets pregnant on prom night, and her boyfriend, the titular 17-year-old Bo Jo. They immediately get married and drop out of high school (it’s implied that dropping out of high school is a legal necessity if you get married at 16, though I wasn’t able to find proof of that). They move into a tiny apartment together and realize that, despite having hung out at school and dated for a while, the truth is, they barely even know each other. And now here they are, trying to start a family. July’s voice sucks you in, and the story keeps you riveted.
Reach for a Star (1957) by Florence Crannell Means
Eighteen-year-old Toni is unceremoniously dumped by her boyfriend immediately after her high school graduation. Distraught, she decides to change her college plans and sets off for Fisk University in Tennessee, far from her home in Colorado and far from her ex. Not to worry, though; her freshman year includes a pack of awesome new friends and a far superior boyfriend who’s willing to overlook Toni’s incredibly annoying personality. This was the only YA book from the 1950s I could get my hands on that focused on characters who weren’t white. This story, like the others, is delightfully retro; apparently, Fisk used to have a policy that freshman girls weren’t allowed to ride in cars for any reason, and when Toni gets a ride with a friend to get out of a rainstorm, she has to go before a student disciplinary committee ensure that she wasn’t up to any nefarious activities.
The Cheerleader (1973) by Ruth Doan MacDougall
This one is cheating a bit ― it was published in the 1970s, and was written from the author’s memories of her own high school days in the 50s. Like Fifteen, it partly functions as a dating how-to guide, but its characters do things Fifteen’s Jane would definitely have felt she ought to save for marriage. Which is to say ― this is a book that aims for realism. It also features characters who are named “Snowy” and “Puddles” without a hint of irony. Realism in the 1950s was its own very peculiar thing.
Spring Fire (1952) by Marijane Meaker writing as Vin Packer
This one is cheating too, because this book wasn’t published as YA; in fact the idea of teenagers reading Spring Fire probably would’ve been enough to get the flimsy paperback banned from the bus stations where it was sold back in the 50s. This book, written by future mega-award winner Marijane Meaker (who also wrote YA under the name M.E. Kerr), told a tragic love story between two college students and is credited with starting the lesbian pulp fiction publishing movement. Soon, a series of paperbacks featured young women who loved other women. Those women usually wound up dead, crazy, or repentant for their lesbian ways. Spring Fire is now considered a classic, although Meaker has spoken out in protest of the sad ending her publisher forced her to include so that the book would pass the censors at the Postal Service.
I’ve got to admit ― I loved having an excuse to read these books. Sure, today’s YA books tackle a wider range of subject matter and feature a far more diverse cast of characters (though we’ve still got work to do on that front), but the 1950s and 60s were a delightfully weird time. It’s a fascinating world to immerse oneself in. I’d recommend giving some of these a read!