The Girls I Grew Up With

Before there was Twilight, before there was The Hunger Games, before we even really knew to call this particular genre YA… there were series of books for pre-teen girls, starring other pre-teen girls, and I was obsessed. I could write forever about all the books I loved as a kid (and I have, here) but right now I’m thinking only about entire series devoted to the stories of one girl heroine. Three of my favorites:

The Anastasia Books

Written by Lois Lowry, the Anastasia books were about a girl “just trying to grow up”. In the first book of the series, she’s ten and in the most recent book, she’s thirteen and I’m pretty sure she’s not going to age again from there. These books were brilliant for a few different reasons: Anastasia – and the other characters – were completely real. Anastasia is a smart, slightly nerdy, regular girl who loves her family even when they drive her nuts, gets into trouble and hangs out with her best friends. If that sounds boring – it isn’t! Whether she’s answering the personal ad of a much older man (somehow uncreepily AND unromantically), misguidedly becoming a “companion” to an elderly lady or engaging in an emotionally intimate relationship with a plaster bust of Freud’s head, she does so with equal parts humor and charm. There’s something wonderfully offbeat about Anastasia, her genius baby brother and her academic-bohemian parents and I always wished I could lock myself into her tower room (her brilliant demand when her parents started house-hunting in the country) and hang out with her for a few hours.

Cam Jansen

These books skewed slightly younger but there were so many of them and they were such a treat to read, I had to include them. David A. Adler created this charming creature, Cam Jansen, whose main attribute was a photographic memory. Throughout the stories, she would close her eyes and say “Click” (this is so not how a photographic memory works, but at the time it made sense to me), freezing a memory of whatever she saw before her. This came in handy since she happened to live in a town where THERE WERE ALWAYS MYSTERIES TO BE SOLVED. So, yes, this was more of a mystery series than a coming-of-age epic but cheers to Adler for imagining such a spunky, independent, smart little girl heroine for other less-spunky, less-independent girls to look up to.

The Alice Books

This is a very special series, penned by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, because Alice actually grows up over the course of the 26-and-counting books about her. Rumor has it in the final book of the series (due May 2013), Alice will age from 18 to 60. Just thinking about this gives me chills because, like so many other girls, I grew up along with Alice. I started reading her when I was about eleven, and like clockwork, a new book would appear each year with her one year older. But that’s not the only thing that makes these books so incredible – it’s how honest they are. While not quite as sexually frank as, say, Judy Blume, Phyllis Reynolds Naylor does not shy away from extremely controversial issues for such young readers: hooking up, death of a family member, drugs, drinking, masturbation, homosexuality, racial issues, suicide and on and on and on – without EVER veering into after-school special territory. Alice navigates middle school and high school with the help of her two best friends, her on-and-off boyfriend (the gorgeous and sophisticated Patrick) and her dad and brother. I know that I’ll devour the remaining two books and then start over again from the beginning, so I can grow up with Alice one more time.

The Freaky Friday books

This is a bit of a stretch because only the first book expressly starred Annabel Andrews, but there were two others and she was still around, if not the main attraction. Written by Mary Rodgers (daughter of Richard Rodgers of Rodgers & Hammerstein and a total genius herself), these books are so hilarious, so witty and such a perfect combination of unbelievable-yet-totally-believable… and yet everyone seems only to remember the movie versions. To me, Annabel was a perfect heroine because there was nothing perfect about her. She was messy, mean to her little brother, sulky with her parents, a tomboy… and yes, she grows up over the course of the books but she never loses her ferocity. I loved how relateable she was, even in a completely unrelateable situation (switching bodies with her own mother) and also how funny and frank the writing was. There was a decided lack of sugar-coating to these books, which could so easily have been silly little trifles with a cute gimmick.

There are many other series about girls I didn’t mention, including some by these very authors – Lois Lowry wrote three books starring Caroline Tate that are well worth a read. And I have read everything Paula Danziger ever wrote at least five times each – among many others, The Divorce Express, The Cat Ate My Gymsuit, and Remember Me To Harold Square. They all featured bright, curious, flawed girls with a sense of humor and a pleasing over-use of puns. What were some of your favorite girl series growing up?

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