If you want to irritate me, state that YA fiction “didn’t exist” until about seven years ago. State, when referring to the 1970s and 80s, that “there was no YA then.” My personal reading experience from those years, the years when I was in middle and high school, says you’re wrong. Granted, this wasn’t YA the way we know it now. It was usually published in small, cheap paperbacks that fit easily into a purse or school bag, and it was rarely reviewed, read, or even noticed much outside its intended audience unless it was especially controversial or shocking (or turned into a TV movie). YA was mostly under the radar unless you were a “YA” yourself.
Shelf Discovery, a collection of essays on “classic” YA edited by Lizzie Skurnick, documents those formative years of YA and serves as an excellent introduction:
“Shelf Discovery is a thoroughly enjoyable trip back through the books you may have grown up with—and the ones that helped you grow up—especially if you were growing up during the 1970’s and ’80’s. The book is divided into ten genre/thematic sections, including tearjerkers, thrillers, romances, ‘issues’ literature, and the adult, ‘dirty’ books that we really were too young for; the essays themselves are called ‘book reports’ or, for less-remembered titles, ‘extra credit.’
In 2013, Skurnick spun her “shelf discoveries” into a publishing imprint:
Lizzie Skurnick Books, an imprint of Ig Publishing, is devoted to reissuing the very best in young adult literature, from the classics of the 1930s and 1940s to the social novels of the 1970s and 1980s. By putting these amazing classics back into print, Lizzie Skurnick Books gives lifelong fans the chance to re-stock their libraries with the beloved books of their childhoods, as well as introducing these amazing stories to a new generation of readers.
I’ve subscribed to Lizzie Skurnick Books since they rolled out their first series. It’s those “social novels” that are my YA, and that I’m most excited to re-encounter so many years later.
When Norma Klein’s Domestic Arrangements was originally published, my YA-reading years were essentially over. I’d read her novels It’s OK If You Don’t Love Me and Love Is One of the Choices during high school, and thought they were even more frank and progressive than Judy Blume’s…but I graduated from high school in 1982, and this one slipped right past me at the time.
The novel shares its title with a movie featuring its lead character/narrator, fourteen-year-old Tatiana “Rusty” Engelberger, and opens with Rusty’s father catching her and her sixteen-year-old boyfriend having sex in the bathroom—there’s your trademark 1970s “social novel” frankness, right off the bat, brandishing the flags of the pre-AIDS sexual revolution. That said, I wouldn’t call Domestic Arrangements particularly “sexy.” Sex in this novel is presented for discussion rather than titillation, and honestly, some of that discussion feels a little too frank to be convincing…although maybe I’ve just never known any fourteen-year-old girls and their fathers who felt comfortable discussing orgasms with each other. That said, I did appreciate that Rusty’s parents were significant to the story—parents are so often marginalized in YA—and that Klein’s teens were responsible and empowered about their sexuality, which I recalled as a hallmark of her other novels as well. I found Rusty’s narrative voice authentically adolescent—mercurial, sometimes wise, often impulsive—and I liked her; despite her sometimes overly adult behavior, she never struck me as being older than her years.
I don’t want to debate whether the YA fiction I grew up reading is “better” or “worse” than modern YA, and I cheerfully acknowledge that modern YA can be more ambitious, varied, and literary than “my” socially-oriented YA. But “my” YA did many things well in its time and place, and I want it to get the credit it deserves as an influence and a document of that time and place.
Domestic Arrangements is the story of fourteen-year-old Tatiana (nicknamed Rusty, for her long red hair), an unintentional ingénue who becomes notorious for filming a nude scene in a major movie. Rusty’s increasing fame—which climaxes with an appearance on the cover of People magazine—dovetails with her increasingly adult personal life, which includes a budding sexual relationship with her boyfriend, an older sister jealous of her looks, and her parents’ troubled marriage. Ultimately, Rusty must decide if fame—and sex—are all they’re cracked up to be.
A stunning example of Norma Klein’s fearless take on the complexities of adolescence, the new edition of this sexually frank novel features a brand new introduction by Norma’s longtime friend, renowned children’s author Judy Blume.