Giving Your Kids a 1970s Summer? This Is What They Should Be Reading

With the surprising success of a little blog post I wrote about how I  spent my summers as a child in the 1970s, I figured I would ride the viral wave a bit longer, and simultaneously resurrect some of the best children’s and young adult fiction that was ever published. In my post, Top Ten Ways To Give Your Kids A 1970s Summer,  I proposed that this summer, we all let our kids “play outside, like all day long, and possibly read under a tree.”  No brainer, right? But the sentence following that is truly my favorite suggestion of the article. “I hear this lady Judy Blume writes some good stuff.” Oh Judy,  little do you know, but you are most assuredly the reason I became a librarian, and also the sole reason I made it out of puberty sane and alive. And then, in a great twist of irony,  after spending years devouring stories about the nutty antics of young boys, I ended up giving birth to my own  ‘Peter Hatcher,’ and subsequently  three ‘Fudges,’ for a grand total of four mischievous little boys. Super. Just Fudgin’ Super. Along with Blume, I should have included in the post all the other wonderful authors who penned some of the most memorable chapter books of that era.  Books and stories that I am certain, if you were one of the thousands who enjoyed the original article and the trip down memory lane it gave you, will remember with great fondness. It was these books, a selection of which I will share with you, that kept me reading under shade trees well into the 80s,  and ushered in an unprecedented popularity of young adult (YA) fiction that had not been seen before. 

In the last decade, YA fiction has evolved with the times, as it should. Themes reflect what our young adults are experiencing today; cyberspace issues, cultural diversity, adolescent sexual identity, and the changing face of what we now define as a ‘family.’  We have also enjoyed a resurgence in YA fantasy, science fiction, and the highly popular dystopian genre. I am not ashamed to declare here that I can one day appreciate Jonathan Franzen, and the next day fancy some good old fashioned teen vampire love, and then the next, revel in some bow and arrow wielding girls trying to kill each other in speculative fiction. (Just call it librarian occupational hazard, or book schizophrenia, but bibliophiles tend to swing a lot of ways.) When I am now asked what I read as a child, there is absolutely no hesitation, no “Oh, well, uh…. I can’t remember back that far.”  Rather,  I recall those books quickly, and very vividly. I may not be able to remember the title of a novel I read last month, but I can recall the entire plot of a book I read in 1979, and that is really saying something. It is saying they were really amazing books. Just amazing. So this summer, between hose drinking, fried bologna eating, and fort building afternoons, hit your local library, or maybe unpack that box of childhood books sitting in your attic. Then grab your kid, a spot under a shade tree, and share some 70s book love.  You never know. In 30 years, your kids may thank you. 

The Cat Ate My Gymsuit by Paula Danziger

Remember when just the sheer thought of having to unrobe in front of your peers for gym glass sent shivers down your very underdeveloped bust line? Yea, me too. Nothing seemed worse than having the groping eyes of your classmates on your 13 year old bod, even if it was for like, only three seconds. Oh how I admired Marcy’s gumption, but what I adored most about her is how in the end, she became interested in bibliotherapy. No wonder I loved this book. Go figure.

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E. L. Konigsburg

I can happily read this over and over again, and dream about someday pulling a Claudia and running away to go live at the Met, or more appropriately for me,  the Library of Congress. This Newberry Award winner, first published in 1967 (and set in a time before Google, since the kids could have just Googled the mystery statue…duh!) is still a classic story of tween independence. Claudia and Jamie are the original free-range kids. And oddly enough, it made me  really want to live in Connecticut. Huh. 

Killing Mr. Griffin, I Know What You Did Last Summer, They Never Came Home 
all by Lois Duncan

I would like to personally thank Mrs. Duncan for keeping me up into the wee hours of the morning, curled into a ball, hiding under my sheets with a flashlight, and frantically flipping pages  to see whodunit. Also, for being my personal gateway author to the likes of  Patricia Cornwell and John LeCarre, and many other suspense and thriller writers that I now frequently devour. Late at night. Under the sheets. With the Kindle backlight on. Whew.  

Homecoming, Dicey’s Song by Cynthia Voigt

Oh how I wanted to be as strong and courageous as Dicey, who when faced with abandonment and the task of taking care of her three younger siblings,  stands up to the challenge. Both books in this drama series rely heavily on the importance of families (especially non-traditional,) belonging and acceptance, and child/grandparent relationships.  Dicey’s trials still haunt me, but in a good way.

Then Again, Maybe I Wont, Deenie, Forever, Starring Sally J. Freedman As Herself, Blubber, Otherwise Known As Sheila the Great, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret  all by Judy Blume

All of the above need to be on every young girl’s required reading list. They just should. Toss out the vampires, and pick up these. Blume speaks the language of teen girl angst like nobody’s business. Her novels, coined contemporary fiction in the mid 1970s, are still, 30 plus years later, relevant. Very relevant actually, even without the included conventions of today. Imagine, stories with real person to person dialogue not exchanged via electronics? Yes. Please. 

I read Blume’s books over and over and over again. Sadly, as a mom to four boys, I will not be able to share Jill, Sally, Deenie, Sheila, and Margaret with my sons. But that’s ok, as my adventures with Fudge and Peter more than duly prepared me for what I am dealing with today. Dear Judy, I never  took the time to send a fan letter to you, to tell you how your words, your books, the pages, all of it, kept me entranced in my favorite place in the world, the library.  Today, it is still my favorite place.  Hey, maybe I  actually just sent you a fan letter. Who would have thought it would be called a blog post?


Lauren Boyd said...

Bravo Mel! These bring back rich memories. Ride on girl!!

Jen said...

The Summer of 1980 - I discovered at the library Nancy Drew.. my best friend and I read all 56 book the library had - so then we started on - yes you guessed it The Hardy Boys.. thanks for the memories.. oh yes - my youngest daughter did a book report this year -- Sheila the Great! I also loved Judy Blume!

Brea said...

I have detailed memories of reading Basil E. Frankwieler out loud as a family when I was 9 or 10. I bought a copy when I was pregnant with my first born so that I could read it to him when he got older. Only a couple more years to wait.

Sæhildr said...

I was surprised you didn't include some of my favorite books (but then I am an 80s kid, so you may not have read them.):

The Girl Who Owned a City by O.T. Nelson (published 1975) A great dystopian story. Kids under 12 are the only survivors of a deadly virus and a smart ten year old girl comes up with a plan to save her neighborhood.

Me, My Goat and My Sister's Wedding by Stella Pevsner (obviously not on your list because it was published in 1985)- A boy agrees to keep his buddy's goat in his clubhouse for the summer and thinks it can stay a secret. Hilarity ensues when he discovers a goat is more trouble than expected.

The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin (1979) - A really intriguing mystery novel (I think it was a Newberry Honor book - I read almost exclusively Newberry Award and Honor books one summer)

and everything by E.B. White

KJ said...

I hope one day you will choose to share Judy's girls with your boys. If they can help us girls understand ourselves better, they'd surely help any boy understand girls, and grow to be better men.

Rebecca Dula said...

Love them all!!! I was also way into Ann M. Martin. Not just BSC but her other books like A Summer to Die. That book still makes me cry. Huge fan of Lois Lowry as well. All of her Anastasia Krupnik books were great!! My favorite Lois Duncan book was Locked in Time. SOOOO GOOD!

robin kall said...

i LOVE this!! so many of my very very favorites!! thank you for wrapping this up so well!! robin

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Tina Rosen said...

Spot on, my friend. Spot on!

Tom said...

Maybe for a younger audience than Judy Blume's books, but lest we forget the great Beverly Cleary, still alive at 98 as of this comment, by the way.