Tuesday, June 5, 2012

The Rise and Fall of a Teen-age Wacko by Mary Anderson

As a general rule, I would not want to have the word "teen-age" used in one of my titles, unless I was clearly doing it ironically. Like if How to Get Suspended and Influence People had been I Was a Teen-age Smut Peddlar. I kinda like that.

I kinda like this book, too. In a way it sort of comes off as "Anastasia Krupnik lite," but it's funny and I got to liking Laura, the main character, even though she's a self-absorbed, fashion-obsessed nightmare. She also manages to be sort of charming. Though the book is from 1980, in many ways it seems, title and all, like a book from twenty years later. Except for that font on the cover, which calls to mind a novelization of an episode of That Girl or a poster for Contrabulous Fantraption of Professor Horatio Hufnagel. Mary Anderson was better known for mystery books; this is one of her forays into contemporary humor.

Now, is it just me, or did a LOT of kid lit characters seem to live in New York City in the 1970s and 80s?  Laura is one of those. She lives on the upper West side with her parents (a free lance writer and a free lance illustrator - parents are often writers, artists, or actors in these books) and her sister, who is six years old and going on 30. The parents and precocious sibling aren't as artfully drawn as Anastasia Krupnik, but I can't help but wonder if Anastasia would be more like Laura at 16. Sure, in her own books, she's sort of an academic geek in training, but what'll happen when she discovers Cosmo?  Plenty of weird kids become bland teenagers. And Laura's not as bland as she seems early on.

The Rise and Fall of a Teenage Wacko tells the story of one summer in Laura's life - the first third or so takes place during a crummy vacation to the Catskills that reads about like a Brady Bunch re-run (the father says so himself), and the next chunk takes place back in New York, where Laura explores the city while babysitting a British girl for a few chapters, then comically tries to get into a Woody Allen movie and becomes something of an upper west side wacko.

For most of the book I was amused at just how modern it seemed - it didn't have much of the grit or turmoil I'd normally expect from a book about a 16 year old from this era. She muses about sunbathing nude at one point, but that's about as edgy as this gets. It's much more a sitcom plot sort of book, in which Laura gets into comic misadventures. In fact, minus a couple of references to typewriters and the fact that she buys three drinks at Elaine's for only $7.50, I could easily imagine this as being one of those "pink books" about lovestruck girls from 2004.

One thing hit me: there's no love interest. At no point does Laura develop a crush on anyone, lament her lack of a love life, or chase after a guy. Last time I talked with one of my editors to pitch new ideas, her first question for every project was "Is there a love interest?" Certainly I can't imagine it fitting into the market this year in its current form, unless it was written by an a-lister with a built-in following.  But I'd say the same thing about just about all of those books from 2004. Can you imagine the hilarious Angus, Thongs and Full Frontal Snogging making a big splash if it had come out in 2009, instead?

Rise and Fall of a Teen-age Wacko is not as wildly creative or funny as the best of the field, but I still got a kick out of it. Of particular interest to me was the section in which Laura and her babysitting charge explore New York; they window shop on Madison Avenue, attend an auction, and wander around the old Morgan mansion. Later she crowds into a bar to see Woody Allen play the clarinet. A girl interested in fashion and "exclusive boutiques" might read it with the same wide-eyed wonder with which I read all those Daniel Pinkwater books about exploring Chicago bohemia.  I particularly liked that she never really learns a lesson - at the end of the summer, Laura is content just to feel nothing.

Mary Anderson wrote nearly 30 books, though her webpage doesn't seem to mention them. Getting concrete info about her is sort of difficult these days, as there are quite a few Mary Andersons out there, more than one of whom seems to write books.

1 comment:

  1. I love the idea of a female character who doesn't hook up with a boy and fails to learn a lesson. I'm really enjoying your blog! I'm glad to learn that there's someone else out there who enjoys reading "vintage" YA fiction.