BBAW: A current-events-inspired YA-literature flashback

She’s 17 and pregnant. But with her parents’ support – or is it at their demand? – she’s going to marry her high-school jock-star boyfriend, and they’re going to have that baby. It ordinarily wouldn’t be big news outside of her family, but when your mother is running for Vice President, well…family business becomes the world’s business.

The Bristol Palin story sounds a lot like the plotline of some of the young-adult (YA) novels I read back in my own YA years. My adolescence, which chronologically spanned the period from 1977-1983, coincided with a “golden age” in young-adult fiction:

The modern classification of young-adult fiction originated during the 1950s and 1960s, especially after the publication of S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders (1967). This book focused on a group of teens not yet represented and instead of having the nostalgic tone that was typical in young adult books written by adults, it displayed a truer, darker side of young adult life because it was written by a young adult.

As publishers began to focus on the emerging adolescent market, booksellers and libraries, in turn, began creating YA sections distinct from either children’s literature or novels written for adults. The 1970s to the mid-1980s have been described as the golden age of young-adult fiction – when challenging novels began speaking directly to the interests of the identified adolescent market.

From its very beginning, young-adult fiction has portrayed teens confronting situations and social issues that have pushed the edge of then-acceptable content. Such novels and their content are sometimes referred to as “edgy.”

Novels about teenage relationships, particularly if they were in that contemporary, topical YA vein, at least included discussion (not necessarily graphic description) of sex between their teenage characters. Novels that involved teenage sex often quickly became novels that involved teenage pregnancy, and what followed after that was nearly always a cautionary tale in one way or another. These are some of the books in that vein that I remember – do you?

Mr. and Mrs. Bo Jo Jones, by Ann Head (1968)

Football hero Bo Jo Jones and his girlfriend July are in love. On the night of the prom, they do what so many couples in love do. Soon, July finds out that she is pregnant with Bo Jo’s baby and suddenly the life they once knew is over. Now Mr. and Mrs. Bo Jo Jones must come to grips with the very adult decision that they must make. It’s a situation that holds more possibilities and challenges than they ever bargained for. It could bring them closer-or drive them apart. And as the baby grows and changes, so will they.

This one is still in print, and although it’s now forty years old, sounds a lot like the story of Bristol Palin and her boyfriend, although I think he’s a hockey player and not a football star. If I recall this story correctly, something happens to the baby, and after that, there’s really nothing to keep July and Bo Jo together. I’m not sure that “a baby is no reason to get married” is the intended lesson to take away from this, but I do tend to feel that if a couple had never considered marriage without a baby in the picture, this may not be the ideal situation in which to start.

My Darling, My Hamburger, by Paul Zindel (1969 – reprinted 2005)

As senior year rolls around, two unlikely couples find themselves caught between desire and the fear of intimacy. Liz and Sean, misunderstood by their parents, confused but certain they are in love, have an affair that ends shatteringly. Maggie and Dennis, just as confused, take their first steps toward understanding the demands life makes on everyone. Faced with real-life dilemmas that have no easy answers, Maggie, Dennis, Liz, and Sean must make choices that will affect the rest of their lives.

Jezebel remembers with a fairly thorough recap of the book. This one sticks with me for a couple of reasons. When Sean and Liz are faced with her unplanned pregnancy, they do talk about getting married, and Liz, for one, is thrilled. At least one set of parents is absolutely not thrilled, however, and Sean’s father refuses to allow a wedding, labeling Liz as a tramp who is trying to trap his son. Once Sean withdraws from Liz, she sees getting an abortion as her only recourse, and corrals her friend Maggie into accompanying her to the private doctor who will perform it, illegally and under questionable conditions – the experience doesn’t go well. I fear this slice of the past returning in our future if Roe v. Wade is overturned by the Supreme Court.

For All the Wrong Reasons, by John Neufeld (1974)

Tish and Peter are very much children of today, a high school couple hip to sex, drugs, abortion, and the hypocrisy of their parents. Then, suddenly , they find they are going to be parents themselves. And they make make a very square decision…they get married.

This book is currently out of print, but according to the author’s website, which is where I found this summary, it’s coming back soon – hopefully with some updated back-cover copy, because I think I recall this very description, including the terms “hip” and “square,” on the copy that I read way back in the day. As I remember, Peter’s Catholicism was a big factor in his and Tish’s “square” decision, and the fact that he was able to continue his daily high-school-student life while she had to drop out because of the baby was one source of stress between them. I can’t quite recall how this one ended up, but I think Tish and Peter may have fared better than July and Bo Jo, at least for awhile.

Love Is One of the Choices, by Norma Klein (1978 – reprinted 1987)

Senior year in high school brings emotional turmoil, sexual awakening, and some painful decisions for Maggie and Caroline; one an ardent feminist and the other a shy dreamer in a fantasy world.

All of Klein’s books are out of print (she died in 1989), but I read many of them in my teen years. The “shy dreamer” is Caroline, whose crush on one of her teachers leads to a relationship (not a smart choice on anyone’s part, but especially not the teacher’s), which leads to pregnancy and marriage, in that order. Her friend Maggie is much more of a realist than a romantic. Both girls make different choices in their lives, which lead to different outcomes…in that respect, the book is “pro-choice.”

Forever, by Judy Blume (1975)

I think most women in their 30’s and 40’s remember the story of Kath and Michael (and Ralph) pretty well, and this book continues to be controversial today, still popping up on “banned books” lists. Blume wrote the novel for her then-14-year-old daughter:

My daughter Randy asked for a story about two nice kids who have sex without either of them having to die. She had read several novels about teenagers in love. If they had sex the girl was always punished—an unplanned pregnancy, a hasty trip to a relative in another state, a grisly abortion (illegal in the U.S. until the 1970’s), sometimes even death [sound like any of the books I’ve already mentioned?]…Girls in these books had no sexual feelings and boys had no feelings other than sexual. Neither took responsibility for their actions. I wanted to present another kind of story—one in which two seniors in high school fall in love, decide together to have sex, and act responsibly.
The seventies were a time when sexual responsibility meant preventing unwanted pregnancy. Today, sexual responsibility also means preventing sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV/AIDS. In this book Katherine visits a clinic and is given a prescription for The Pill. Today,she would be told it is essential to use a condom along with any other method of birth control. If you’re going to become sexually active, then you have to take responsibility for your own actions. So get the facts first.

I think part of what made – and keeps – this book controversial is the characters’ “acting responsibly.” It acknowledges that teens not only do have sex, they are capable of planning for it – and that they absolutely should plan, if they’re going to do it. Denying this reality is where “abstinence-only” sex education comes in. We seem to be backing away from Forever, and in the worst-case scenario, heading toward Hamburger…or the return of Mr. and Mrs. Jones, at least.

But truth frequently is stranger, or at least more unpredictable, than fiction, and the next chapters of Bristol Palin’s story haven’t been written yet – we’ll have to see if they turn out to be a cautionary tale in themselves.

I’d love your comments on these, or other books in a similar vein.

*** Side note: One reason I started blogging was to help me remember more about the books I read. It was striking to me, while writing this post, how well I still remembered these books 30 years or so after first reading them. I’m pretty sure that this kind of brain clutter has a lot to do with why, without my blog’s help, I can barely remember what I read 3 months ago! Do you have that problem too?
***Don’t forget to enter my giveaway to win a personally-autographed copy of the paperback edition of Joshua Henkin’s novel Matrimony – the deadline is Sunday 9/21, and the details are here!****

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  1. Wonderful post! Two of the books you mentioned I believe to be very important for YA’s to read. I read them as a teen and my oldest son also read them and said they were great. When I asked his opinions on whether he thought they were too dated, he said they still represented important ideas for todays teens.
    The books are The Outsiders and Forever. My son and I both agree that The Outsiders is an excellent way to examine acceptance of others and respect for the different people in society. For teens today the rich/poor is still relevant but we decided that the prep/greaser translated into today’s emo/hip-hop/jock/brain etc.
    My son wasn’t pleased when I asked him to read Forever (too girly) but he ended up liking it and said he rather liked hearing about a responsible couple.
    I love these books and I love that they have withstood the test of time. Both have invaluable lessons for YA readers.

  2. I am all for the reality of teens making informed decisions regarding sex, and am much more likely to encourage the kids to read something like that rather than the others. It is a fact of life that teens are going to have sex; it is our job as parents to teach them how to go about it responsibly. I love books that explore ALL of the options, regardless of what MY personal beliefs are.

  3. Wow–I remembered Forever and the Outsiders very clearly, but I had forgotten about My Darling, My Hamburger–a book I also loved as a young teen. Thanks for the great post and the great reminder.

    Memory? What memory? I forget EVERYTHING. Except random bits of gossip that serve no purpose and can do me no good. Go figure.

  4. Book Zombie – I agree; it’s the IDEAS it expresses that make a book hold up over time, especially in YA. The details may reference a specific time – I noticed that when I read The Outsiders for the first time, and I think it was only about ten years old then – but the story is still relevant. Congrats on getting your son to read Forever.

    Kori – Yeah, it is a fact of life (no pun intended) that teens are going to have sex, or at least want to, which is one reason that “abstinence-only sex education” is an utter crock.

    Karen – It really is the abortion sequence in MDMH that has stuck with me, unfortunately. And I have the same problem with remembering useless trivia and forgetting…wait, what was I saying?

  5. What a great post! S.E. Hinton is a name from the past I doubt I’ll ever forget! I loved her books and read all the ones I could get my hands on. I am very familiar with The Outsiders and Forever, but I’m afraid the other titles are completely unknown to me.

    It’s interesting, isn’t it, what sets our memories off sometimes?