Teen classics paired with their contemporary YA soulmates

Inspired by Paperback Crush: The Totally Radical History of ‘80s and ‘90s Teen Fiction, I’ve been reflecting on my own favourite teen reads. Here’s my best attempt at pairing some of these retro delights with their contemporary YA fiction counterparts.

Read the teen classic! (In some cases, find it at the op shop.) Read the new book! Or best of all, read both!


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If you loved the Sweet Valley High series by Francine Pascal…

…try Amelia Westlake by Erin Gough

For me, the spiritual heart of the Sweet Valley books (all 181 of them) lies in the Elizabeth-Jessica/good girl-bad girl binary. As we are reminded slavishly at the start of every book, identical twins Elizabeth and Jessica Wakefield are both five-foot-six with wide-set blue-green eyes, but their personalities couldn’t be more different. Elizabeth is studious and conscientious and devoted to her boyfriend Todd, and Jessica is a Machiavellian, serial-dating sorority sister.

May I humbly suggest that all Sweet Valley fans check out the very satisfying good-girl bad-girl binary in Erin Gough’s Amelia Westlake and then watch it getting blown apart, not least because the good girl and the bad girl fall for each other. Harriet and Will are two very different students at prestigious Rosemead Grammar. Harriet is an ambitious and over-achieving follower of rules, and Will is an opinionated and politicised natural rebel. But when their sexist PE teacher goes too far, the two girls invent a fake student, Amelia Westlake, to carry out a series of protests against the conservatism and injustice at their school. Spoiler alert: it turns out that the real baddie is patriarchy.

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If you loved Go Ask Alice by Anonymous

…try Clean by Juno Dawson

Go Ask Alice was an eye-opening read for me during my sheltered early teens. This 1971 novel is the purported diary of a fifteen-year-old runaway who gets tangled up with the wrong crowd and spirals into drug use, sex, addiction, hospital stays and, eventually, death. The confessional format, the relatable teenage isolation and the salacious subject matter were catnip to thirteen-year-old me. Published under the name 'Anonymous’, the real author of was exposed in the early Eighties as therapist Beatrice Sparks, a revelation that gave a whole new spin to this heavy-handed (and some would say moralistic) cautionary tale.

For a much more nuanced exploration of addiction, turn to Juno Dawson’s excellent Clean, which sees a teen socialite bundled off to a private rehabilitation facility on a British island. Lexi has burnt herself out with endless partying, and is in denial about her addictions to heroin and other recreational drugs. Privileged, smart and mouthy, Lexi is hard to like at first, but her vulnerable side soon emerges through the intense combination of therapy, group living and withdrawal. Dawson uses extraordinary empathy and sensitivity to examine family dysfunction, grief and mental health.

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If you loved The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton

…try Far From the Tree by Robin Benway

I must urge you to read The Outsiders again, because it’s still incredible. But I must also insist that you read Far From the Tree, which delves into similar issues of class and family in America. After sixteen-year-old Grace gives up her baby up for adoption, she’s compelled to finally seek out her own birth mother. Instead her search results in two siblings: older half-brother Joaquin and younger sister Maya, who were placed into separate families.

Told from the alternating perspectives of Grace, Maya and Joaquin, this thoughtful novel speaks of three very different experiences and outcomes of the fostering and adoption system, highlighting gender, racial and socioeconomic inequalities. Grace has been raised in a loving family but is grappling with the loss of her baby, Maya has never felt as if she truly belongs in her rich and dysfunctional family, and Latino Joaquin, a less desirable candidate for adoption than a white girl, has bounced from foster family to foster family. Ultimately hopeful and heartwarming, this is a realistic depiction of three teens undertaking the delicate and fraught process of making a new family.

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If you loved Came Back to Show You I Could Fly by Robin Klein

…try Promise Me Happy by Robert Newton

I know Hating Alison Ashley is everyone’s favourite Robin Klein book, but my heart belongs to Came Back to Show You I Could Fly, which just confirms my early taste for reading about young people struggling with big life challenges. It features a friendship between eleven-year-old Seymour (caught in the middle of a bitter custody struggle) and his beautiful, troubled neighbour, twenty-year-old Angie.

If inter-generational friendships and characters who turn their lives around are also your thing, you should pick up Robert Newton’s latest YA novel, Promise Me Happy. Nick has just been released from juvenile detention and is sent to stay in the small coastal town of Oyster Bay with his reluctant Uncle Mick. After a slow start, Nick warms up to his new surroundings, forming new friendships with Mick and indomitable 8-year-old Henry, and starts planning for the future with his first love Gemma. The path isn’t smooth for Nick or any of the other characters; everyone it seems is carrying their own load of loss and pain. But this is a hopeful read, where new-found family and connection help Nick find strength and resilience.

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If you loved Forever by Judy Blume

…try It Sounded Better In My Head by Nina Kenwood

So there was the official school sex education classes (minimal, baffling and light on useful information) and then there was Forever, which was secretly passed around an entire class and scanned for sex scenes. I would also like to hand It Sounded Better In My Head around to all the teens I know, and some of the adults too, as it is a masterclass in the agonies and joys of a first relationship.

It’s the summer between finishing high school and what comes after, and Natalie is experiencing more uncertainty than most. Her parents have just announced that they are getting (very amicably, it must be said) divorced, and she doesn’t know how her friendship triangle with Zach and Lucy is about to change. Natalie is more surprised than anyone when a crush and first relationship zooms in from left field to complicate her life further. This smart, thoughtful and funny romance is a reminder that emotional intimacy is just as scary as physical intimacy; that physical intimacy can unfold slowly in stages; and that first love, any love, can bring up our deepest vulnerabilities. Better than any sex ed class I ever had!


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If you loved anything by Christopher Pike…

…try One Of Us Is Lying by Karen M. McManus

Christopher Pike’s massive oeuvre – written largely during the 80s and 90s – rambles through a few interrelated genres, but my favourite novels were the teen thrillers, especially the iconic Final Friends trilogy. Final Friends is a lurid tale of a wild teen party that ends in a maybe-murder with a broad cast of suspects.

I’m very confident in recommending One Of Us Is Lying to give you that Pike-like high. When five teenagers end up in detention, only four of them survive. With a closed room and a dead body, the survivors are all under suspicion. Naturally all are concealing some fairly hefty secrets – the victim, Simon, was the creator of a ruthless gossip app that was poised to expose Bronwyn, Nate, Addy, and Cooper in various ways. Told from the alternating perspectives of the four suspects, McManus does a great job of drip-feeding clues and information, while slowly deconstructing stereotypes of the jock, the bad boy, the homecoming princess and the A-grade student.

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Leanne Hall is a children’s and YA specialist at Readings Kids. She also writes books for children and young adults.

Forever

Forever

Judy Blume

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