When I was 12, I found a book hidden in the shelves of a summer cabin my family was renting. It was called The Fly Girls by Bernard Glemser and featured bubbly 1960s print and girls in short skirts on the cover. Long since out of print, the book was about stewardesses in the ‘60s and the plot followed one specific girl as she went through a rigorous airline training program, had to learn the arts of makeup and airplane mechanics, and secretly fell in love with one of her instructors. It was lurid, over-the-top, and exactly what my 12-year-old self was looking for in a book.
My mom caught me with it, took one look at the title and told me to throw it away. I agreed, then secretly cut the cover off one of a Babysitter Club book and glued it over the top. I was almost a teenager and reading about sexual relationships was my new drug of choice: no way was I giving up The Fly Girls.
We’re always encouraging young kids to read—as we obviously should—but we don’t always think about the effect books can have on us at certain ages. As a young girl, books became my way of discovering sexuality, awakening strange feelings and of answering a lot of questions I was too embarrassed to ask my mother. So in honor of those all-important preteen moments, here are the three books (other than The Fly Girls) that pretty much launched me into puberty.
The Valley of Horses: A Clan of the Cave Bears Novel by Jean M. Auel (Crown Publishers, 1982)
If you’re looking for historical accuracy, this series is not for you. But if you’d like an epically long, slightly pornographic take on Neanderthals, then look no farther. I read the first book and was slightly intrigued. But it was the second one that really hooked me. By which I mean there was sex. A super lot of it, and dirtier/more specific than anything I had ever read up to that point. Cro-Magnon Ayla has been kicked out of her Neanderthal clan for not being one of them (i.e., advancing too much on the evolutionary track). She lives and hunts alone until she meets up with Jondalar, a hottie who’s just like her and on a “Great Journey” to discover himself. It doesn’t take long for them to shack up. It’s hot. And, during my preteen years, extraordinarily instructive.
Flowers in the Attic by V.C. Andrews (Simon & Schuster, 1979)
Every ‘90s girl remembers Flowers in the Attic. This was the book we quietly passed around the locker room whispering, “They’re brother and sister!” in hushed tones. It was like a secret we had all collectively found. And sure, the book is pretty gross—a family is torn apart, the four blond children sent to live with their evil grandmother. They’re locked up out of sight, and as they grow up, so do their… feelings. As an adult, I cringe at the incest content, the child abuse, and the forced sex. But as a kid, there was just something so exciting, creepy, and I-can’t-look-away about the taboo love affair between Cathy and Chris. It might not have been the healthiest outlet, but it was definitely intriguing.
The Wind Blows Backward by Mary Downing Hahn (Clarion Books, 1993)
We’re in a Golden Age of young adult literature now with more books written for teens than ever. The variety is great, but oh, man, do I miss those standalone, contemporary YA novels from the ‘90s. They were shorter and generally less meaty than modern novels, but they also pushed the envelope in a way that newer books often shy away from. Case in point: The Wind Blows Backward, which I bought at a Scholastic Book Fair as a preteen. This novel had it all: sex, drugs, suicide, bad boys, etc. There was no question that the main teens, Lauren and Spencer, wouldn’t explore each other’s bodies—and 12-year-old Rachel was not complaining. This book may have kicked off a love of bad boys that has never truly gone away.