Book Review: Two Titles Take Loving Looks Back at Late 20th Century Kids’ Culture

Book Review: Two Titles Take Loving Looks Back at Late 20th Century Kids’ Culture

When computers failed to bring the world to an end at the dawn of 2000, everyone decided that Y2K fears had been overblown. They were, in a technical sense, but it’s also true that the turn of the century proved pivotal to the way technology mediated our experience.

Napster brought the entire record industry to its knees just as Amazon was tearing into brick-and-mortar bookstores and digital film piracy became the bane of the movie business. It was clear, fairly suddenly, that the future was going to look very different from the past. Eventually we struggled into a streaming era, and now everything is at our fingertips. It’s a brave new world, and it’s understandable that those of us who remember the old one are keen to drift back every now and then.

Two new books chronicle the consumer landscape facing young viewers and readers from the ’60s to the ’90s, the era after kid culture had reached full flower but before tweens could make their own web series or Google their choice of fanfic. If you grew up as a member of gen X or the first wave of millennials, you had to take what the corporations gave you, and you learned to love it.

The lighter, though farther-reaching, of the two is called It’s Saturday Morning! A Look Back at Four Decades of Animation, Pop Culture, and Tradition. The title promises a lot, and the book delivers enough that most readers probably won’t be disappointed.

Joe Garner and Michael Ashley breezily survey the heyday of Saturday morning cartoons, when that block was must-see TV for the grade-school set. Appropriately, they live by the Winnie-the-Pooh motto: if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all. Craptacular Hanna-Barbera products like Space Ghost “struck a special chord with young viewers.” The Transformers, perhaps the most blatantly product-driven major Reagan-era cartoon, is full of “richly conceived characters” and “thrilling story lines.” I mean, sure, thought so…but I was like nine. What did I know?

For all its breeziness and the superficiality of its scholarship, It’s Saturday Morning! both hits the nostalgia button and suggests a clear progression: from shows that essentially paid tribute to established TV tropes (The FlintstonesThe Jetsons) to shows that commented on them ironically, even if kids weren’t always in on the joke (Teenage Mutant Ninja TurtlesBobby’s World). Of course, adult TV was following a similar trajectory (from Gunsmoke to Seinfeld), but you’ll have to connect those dots yourself.

Gabrielle Moss takes a deeper dive into a smaller pop-culture pool with Paperback Crush: The Totally Radical History of ’80s and ’90s Teen Fiction. Based on the number of friends who’ve added this to their Goodreads list just after seeing it cross my feed, Moss has a blockbuster on her hands. It only makes sense: people have feelings about series like The Baby-Sitters Club (above) and authors like Lurlene McDaniel.

Surveying the era between Judy Blume and J.K. Rowling (as Moss points out, for all her ubiquity in the ’80s, Blume had published most of her iconic books by the end of the ’70s), the author strikes just the right note of affectionate tribute and clear-eyed skepticism regarding the books’ often rote plots and rampant stereotypes. At the same time, Moss traces progressive threads through the era; you wouldn’t call it woke, but the many thousands of teen titles published in the last two decades of the 20th century encompassed a richer variety of experiences than you might remember.

Despite its gender-neutral title, the cover of Moss’s volume tips its hand: Paperback Crush largely covers books aimed at female readers, featuring girls as leading characters. As a boy bookworm born in 1975, I certainly read a lot of those books, but I also scored some boy-forward teen titles, and if you were, like me, a fan of the Not Quite Human series (about an adolescent male android) or William Sleator’s strange science fiction, be aware that Paperback Crush is not going to go there. Sequel?

Jay Gabler