Take a nostalgic look back at some of the most popular children's book series published in the '80s and '90s. First, we interview Gabrielle Moss, author of Paperback Crush. Then we talk with Destinee Sutton, a children's librarian at the King County Library System (KCLS). We chat about school book fairs, free pizza, and the books that made us lifelong readers. Spoiler alert: We all wanted to be as cool as Babysitter's Club member and style icon Claudia Kishi.
A transcript of this episode is available at the end of our show notes.
First, a quick correction: the author of The Rainbow Fish is Swiss, not German as stated in the episode.
In addition to the books below, which we discussed on the episode, you can check out Emily's favorite children's books, Britta's favorite children's books, and Destinee's list of children's books adults will love.
Need help finding the title of a childhood favorite? Ask your local librarian, or check out this post from the New York Public Library.
If you'd like to get in touch, send an email to email@example.com.
The Desk Set is brought to you by the King County Library System. Most of the audio heard on the podcast was recorded at the Makerspace at the Bellevue Library. The show is hosted by librarians Britta Barrett and Emily Calkins, and produced by Britta Barrett. Our theme song is "I Know What I Want" by Math and Physics Club. Other music provided by Chad Crouch, from the Free Music Archive.
Emily Calkins: You are listening to the Desk Set.
Britta Barrett: A bookish podcast for reading broadly.
Emily Calkins: We're your hosts, Emily Calkins ...
Britta Barrett: ... and Britta Barrett.
Emily Calkins: On this episode, we're talking about children's books.
Britta Barrett: We interview author Gabrielle Moss, who created Paperback Crush, which takes a look back at some of our favorite series from the '80s and '90s.
Emily Calkins: And, we talked to KCLS Children's Librarian Destinee Sutton about some of our childhood favorites and what's happening in the world of picture books now.
Britta Barrett: Before we get started, we just wanted to make a note that we experienced some sound issues while recording this episode.
Emily Calkins: There's a chirping sound that occurs throughout the segment. We're sorry about that. It's us, not you. So don't pull your car over to the side of the road, and we promise we'll fix it for next time.
Gabrielle Moss: My name is Gabrielle Moss, and I'm the author of Paperback Crush, which is half historical analysis and half nostalgia trip about these series teen books of the '80s and '90s, sort of examining the period of time after Judy Blume but before Harry Potter.
Britta Barrett: How did you decide to go back and reread these?
Gabrielle Moss: The honest answer is that I was just kind of a little bummed out a few years ago, and I thought, "Oh, God, I'll just ... You know what I will do? I'll treat myself to buying a giant box of Sweet Valley High books on eBay," because Sweet Valley High had been my favorite as a tween. I thought, "I'll check out from reality for a little while, get lost in just this swirl of 80s nonsense, and it'll put me in a better mood."
Gabrielle Moss: I did start doing that, but after I read a few of these books, I thought, "This is actually really sociologically interesting." I had been a huge consumer of teen fiction when I was elementary and middle school age in the late '80s, early '90s, and I'd always kind of assumed those books were so frivolous and so light that they had not impacted me in any way. But as I started to revisit more and more of these books, I saw that there was more and more of an impact there, and more and more of a cultural history worth examining that had kind of been dismissed.
Gabrielle Moss: I don't think I was the only person who had been remembering these books as, "Oh, it's just kind of a silly thing that didn't matter." It seemed like they actually mattered a lot when I went back to them.
Emily Calkins: Yeah, you float this idea that these books, which include Sweet Valley High, and the Baby-Sitters Club, and many, many others, helped shape the idea, for probably a whole generation that includes all of us, that girls and women could have it all: a career, a romance, and family. Can you tell us more about where that idea shows up in the books?
Gabrielle Moss: Yeah, I think it shows up in a lot of your series books, especially ones oriented around groups of girls or female friend groups like Sweet Valley High, like Baby-Sitters Club. It sort of showed up parallel to when that idea was starting to go into mainstream women's culture in the 80s as well when women were going to work, and there was kind of the idea of you're a supermom. You're doing it all. You're in the board room. You're also the only person taking care of your kids. Men are still doing nothing.
Gabrielle Moss: That does show up a bit in the book, say in Baby-Sitters Club, where they're 12-years-old, but they're running their own business. They're working out personal issues, and they're kind of managing a lot. One of the notable things, I think, about these books is that they don't imply that you have to make a lot of sacrifices. You can have a boyfriend or girlfriend. You can run your business. You could have your friends. You don't have to sacrifice anything. Whereas maybe earlier novels, say romance novels, might've implied to have a boyfriend, you have to give everything else up and focus on that.
Gabrielle Moss: In these books, there was a lot more of sort of an expansiveness of what the female experience could be. Even though I feel like I should say there are a lot of problems with these books.
Britta Barrett: These books kind of formed our ideas of certain, I don't know, stereotypes or you're the something one of your friend group.
Gabrielle Moss: Yeah.
Britta Barrett: Did you identify most strongly with any one, let's say like Baby-Sitters Club, member?
Gabrielle Moss: That has been a funny thing. Growing up I always wanted to be a Claudia, and I think there's a lot of people who want to be Claudias, but we know we're not really Claudias because we're not cool enough. I spent a long time being like, "Well then what am I? Maybe I'm a Stacey or a Jessi," and only now in my 37th year of life can I finally admit I'm a Mallory. I've always been a Mallory. I just didn't want to deal with it, but I'm dealing with it now.
Emily Calkins: The other trope that I love that shows up a lot, especially as you're talking about these series in the books, is the one who used to live in the city, which is not a character trait at all, but it seemed like it was maybe one of the most common. Do you have any ideas about where that particular trope might come from?
Gabrielle Moss: My guess is, and these are not researched at all, just kind of off the top of my head, is so much media in the 80s really was about kids in the suburbs. I don't know, all your hit movies like your ETs and your Goonies. I feel like having someone be from the city was kind of a shorthand way to be like they've had an experience that's mysterious to you. They're not living the same way as you. They've been on those mean streets.
Gabrielle Moss: I think, yeah, also at that time, cities were certainly coded as, I don't know, more transgressive places than they are now. Stacey in the Baby-Sitters Club being from New York City was like, "She's so edgy. She's edgy for a 12-year-old."
Britta Barrett: I'm curious, for better or worse, what some of the lessons are that you felt like you've learned as a young reader about what it means to be a young lady.
Gabrielle Moss: Well, I think I learned some very good lessons. I think one of the things that comes across in a lot of these series books is the importance of female friendship. We might take that idea as a given now, but I feel like, in the 80s, it wasn't necessarily ... I don't remember being a little kid and having anyone be like, "Take good care of your friendships. These people might be with you for the rest of your lives."
Gabrielle Moss: But I did learn that in books like Baby-Sitters Club, and I feel like it impacted me. I would say a lot of our generation, people who have these kind of found families of friends, I think that's more common among our generation than it was in previous generations. I do feel like these books played a role in that.
Gabrielle Moss: On the negative side, I do think the extremely homogenous experiences going on in a lot of these books ... A lot of these books have little to no racial diversity, size diversity, class diversity. I think that is sort of a negative legacy to them, and I think had a negative impact probably on a lot of people who didn't fit into those boxes. I'm someone who's felt their family background was not necessarily being reflected in these books, and sometimes I'd feel a little weird about it. I'd be like, "Oh, everyone in Stoneybrook has parents that really seem to get along. How do I fit into this?"
Britta Barrett: Is there a series that you would love to see kind of rebooted with a maybe more diverse cast of characters?
Gabrielle Moss: I mean that is a great question. I think there is a lot of room for rebooting a lot of these and I ... If they're not already rebooting, doing a total reboot on Fear Street, I will eat my hat. That's money on the table. Somebody do it.
Gabrielle Moss: A theory that I discovered while researching this that I thought was ripe for reboot is this absurd beauty pageant series called All That Glitters that was very over-the-top Dynasty. I was just like, "Somebody reboot it. We're ready for it now. It wasn't a hit then. It'll be like Riverdale. Let's go all-in on it."
Gabrielle Moss: It's sacrilege to, say, reboot the Baby-Sitters Club, certainly, but I do think that if they were to write new volumes to revive any of these, it would be good to place them in a more diverse world, aka the real world. Like when they did the Sweet Valley High adulthood sequels a few years ago, I don't know if you all heard about them, but it is still just rich, white people still just hanging around each other. I thought that was a missed opportunity.
Britta Barrett: Let's say you could go back in time to your Scholastic Book Fair of dreams with infinite allowance money, just scoop up everything you loved. What would you be putting in your basket?
Gabrielle Moss: Oh, my God. I would be putting every Sweet Valley High and Sweet Valley Twins book I could find in my basket. Certainly, every Baby-Sitters Club book I could find in my basket, every Mary Downing Hahn book. I felt like I only got to talk about her a little bit in Paperback Crush, but she is my favorite. She is amazing, and I tried really hard to get an interview with her for this and I couldn't track her down. So if anyone who knows Mary Downing Hahn is listening to this, please put her in touch with me.
Britta Barrett: Was she the author of the one with Helen?
Emily Calkins: Yeah, Wait Till Helen Comes.
Britta Barrett: Oh, so spooky.
Gabrielle Moss: I read it 10 years ago, and it's still so scary and so good.
Britta Barrett: Could you talk a little bit about maybe horror for kids?
Gabrielle Moss: Something unique about horror for kids in the era that I discuss in this book is that I feel like a lot of it revolved around kidnappings in a way it doesn't anymore. You can really see, if you look through sort of the hit thriller books for tweens from the late '80s and early '90s, there was sort of panic in the country, an idea that children were being just kidnapped off the streets constantly, which turned out to not be that factually accurate, but it is all over these books.
Gabrielle Moss: The Face on The Milk Carton or a book called The Girl in the Box, which is the number one book that people have brought up to me while discussing this book and just in terms of something that's traumatized them well into their 40s.
Emily Calkins: Oh, my God. I remember this book, and I didn't know that was the name, but I still think about it sometimes. I cannot use on this podcast the language that I would like to use to describe that book because it is dark.
Gabrielle Moss: It's so nihilistic. There's no reason anything happens. It's just like the world has no order. Bad things happen to good people. Goodnight. I feel like if a book like that came out now, it would be more of a thing. Maybe it would be like high YA literary fiction, but at the time, it just kind of got lumped in with this week's batch of new books on the shelves at Walden Books, which is really wild.
Gabrielle Moss: Some extreme stuff or very literary and well-written stuff would end up kind of just getting shuffled in the mix because it had the same cover as everything else.
Britta Barrett: Can we talk about the cover art for a second?
Emily Calkins: It's so good.
Britta Barrett: I feel like from the Sweet Valley High, which is so iconic and pastel and candy-colored, to the Fear Street series with its creepy, blood-dripping fonts that they're just such an iconic part of this moment in teen lit.
Gabrielle Moss: Yeah, and I learned while researching this that actually most of the series styles that jump into your mind when you're thinking of these books, most of them were all handled by a single artist. All of the Baby-Sitters Club covers were drawn by ... Almost all of them were drawn by a single artist. Almost every Sweet Valley High was done by a different artist.
Gabrielle Moss: There was a primary artist that they worked with on the R.L. Stine books whose name is slipping my mind, but these things seem liked such a specific thing because they were auteurs of children's cover illustrations.
Britta Barrett: One of my favorite parts of your book discusses the clothing that was brought to set for Claudia Kishi, a style icon for an entire generation, that there would be some notes about maybe what she would wear, but it was often like "model's own, mish-mash."
Gabrielle Moss: Yeah, for something that's, I think, impacted so many women in our generation about what we thought was a cool look, it was just almost random. That was honestly the most disheartening thing I learned researching this, but I had thought it was so intentional that Claudia Kishi was a fashion icon. Really people were just kind of pointing at a pile of clothes and being like, "She wears that."
Emily Calkins: One of the fun little Easter eggs for me in this book is how many well-known authors got their start writing these series titles. Like Rhys Bowen, who writes historical mysteries now, and is really well-known and a bestseller, used to write for Wildfire, which is one of the romance series. I wonder how many of her current readers read those 80s romances and don't even know that it's the same author.
Gabrielle Moss: Oh, my gosh. I'm so sure.
Emily Calkins: What was your favorite little Easter egg? Right? They didn't have their names associated on them. It was just sort of like the Wildfire books, but what was your favorite discovery?
Gabrielle Moss: Oh, my favorite discovery was that Tom Perrotta of Election and Little Children fame, this highbrow, literary author now, had gotten started writing some Fear Street books.
Britta Barrett: Amazing.
Emily Calkins: I did not know that. That's so great.
Britta Barrett: Are there any other authors that you wish you could have talked to for the book?
Gabrielle Moss: Oh, God. Yeah, I wish I could've talked to the heavies. I wish I could've talked to Ann M. Martin. I wish I could have talked to Francine Pascal. I was super excited that I got to talk to Christopher Pike, which I didn't think was going to happen until the last second, and he was a total, total delight to work with and everything you'd hope the architect of your childhood nightmares would be, just a very nice, cool, non-nightmarish guy.
Emily Calkins: I met R.L. Stine last year and had the same experience. He was just so lovely and generous and sort of quiet and retiring. I was like, "Man, you gave me a lot of nightmares as a child." A lot of cheerleaders being pushed off of decks or in super hot showers ...
Britta Barrett: Prom night car crashes.
Emily Calkins: Yeah.
Gabrielle Moss: Stalkers, so many stalkers. How was he thinking of all the stalkers? Stuff happened, and then Harry Potter came, and we forgot all this stuff happen. But could Harry Potter have come without the groundwork that these books laid? Probably not. We think of something like Harry Potter as like this totally discrete phenomenon that came out of nowhere, but really with your blockbuster series like Sweet Valley High being the first YA [young adult] series to get on the New York Times bestseller list, that did lay the groundwork for then this excellently written YA series to just explode into space.
Emily Calkins: Well, and all of those series made a whole generation of kids used to devouring books and reading these long series. So it was like, "Oh, Harry Potter is going to be seven books." It's like, "Okay, fine. Sure. We're here for that."
Britta Barrett: 500 pages. No big deal.
Emily Calkins: No problem. We've been reading three Baby-Sitters Clubs a week since second grade.
Gabrielle Moss: I think it totally primed us, and also got us ready for that mish-mash of the sort of teen emotional YA and the high fantasy stuff.
Emily Calkins: Right. I think one of the draws of Harry Potter is the friendships and the relationships between the characters. That's where I first learned about shipping and fan fiction. We cared about those relationships, and I think it's sort of the same thing. That felt real just like the friendships in the Baby-Sitters Club or these romances or whatever. Kids want to read about relationships as much as adults do.
Gabrielle Moss: The book that really, in my personal journey, I think switched on the light bulb for me in terms of being a reader was a Sweet Valley High book. It was The New Jessica, which is a book where one of the horrible Sweet Valley High twins decides to dye her hair black and pretend that she's French or something. For some reason, at age seven, it was like opening the door to Narnia, just this teenage world of forbidden, amazing things that I couldn't get enough of. Then, I read a bunch more in a month, and then I was like, "Oh, I love reading now," because I had had some delays with my ability to read.
Gabrielle Moss: I'd transferred from Montessori School to public school, and I was like, "I only know about playing with sand when I feel like it, and now we're supposed to do math?" Really the more low-brow, teen books at that moment really were the thing that put me on the path to being like, "Oh, no. Actually, I can read, and I love reading."
Britta Barrett: That makeover trope is so strong throughout so much young adult fiction, this very seductive idea that with the right outfit or a new hairstyle, you too could be the most popular ones.
Gabrielle Moss: I feel like I was waiting for someone to give me a makeover and make me the most popular girl in school until I was like 30.
Britta Barrett: Maybe this is the year. After summer break, you're going to come back, and everyone will love you.
Emily Calkins: People won't even recognize you.
Gabrielle Moss: Be like, "Do you like my highlights? I'm cool now, aren't I?"
Emily Calkins: We always ask people, what are you reading now? Whether it's series YA fiction from the 80s or something new.
Gabrielle Moss: A true sign of my actual age, I'm reading Brené Brown's Daring Greatly which is a real, I feel like, peak women in their mid-30s book right now. If you want to start getting into '80s and '90s YA, I do feel like a really well-written thriller like Wait Till Helen Comes might be a thing to get you hooked. If you are looking to just kick back and maybe kill a few brain cells, I do think a Sweet Valley High. Just pick whichever one has the most absurd cover to you, and just pop it open and see how you feel.
Britta Barrett: I feel like if it's good enough for Roxane Gay, it's good enough for us all.
Emily Calkins: Well, thank you so much for chatting with us.
Gabrielle Moss: Thank you so much for having me.
Destinee Sutton: My name is Destinee. I am the Children's Librarian at the White Center Library and also at the Greenbridge Library.
Emily Calkins: I thought we could start since we're talking about children's books today by talking about books that we loved as kids.
Destinee Sutton: I made a list.
Emily Calkins: All right. Hit us.
Destinee Sutton: When I was a kid, I had every single Baby-Sitters Club book, over a hundred. They took up almost all the wall, all the Super Specials, all the Little Sisters, when they were detectives, all of them. I would seriously consider if I was Claudia or Mary Anne or Dawn or Kristy or Stacey.
Britta Barrett: You've got to tell us. Who do you think you most identified with, and who do you want to be?
Destinee Sutton: It's still a thing I struggle with today because they all had ... That's what made them so great. It was proto-Sex in the City. It was like you saw yourself in all of them in ways. You wanted to be different types of girl on different days, but I super wanted to be Claudia who's like clearly the coolest.
Emily Calkins: Yes.
Britta Barrett: 100%.
Destinee Sutton: Hiding candy in her room and dressing so awesome. Honestly, I think I'm so bossy, I'm mostly a Kristy day in, day out. When you become a librarian, you have to see the Mary Anne in yourself because it's like a very Mary Anne profession.
Emily Calkins: I too believe that deep down, I am a Mary Anne.
Britta Barrett: Same.
Destinee Sutton: I love rules.
Emily Calkins: Yes!
Destinee Sutton: It's like, "I now know what's expected of me, and I know how to do it." I'm not enough of a leader to really be a Kristy.
Emily Calkins: I liked that you brought up the Super Specials because when I was getting ready for this episode, I was like, "Oh, my God. The Super Specials, I love them so much." So for listeners who don't remember, tell us what a super special is.
Destinee Sutton: It was super long. It was probably three times longer than a normal book, and I think they usually took place in the summer or in a special location like they go on a cruise or they're at summer camp. The adventure is just ... I don't know. I think the best word is epic. Oh, my God. I would read the Super Specials over and over again because really the regular books didn't satisfy me as much as the super specials because I do love big books. I love getting lost in long stories.
Emily Calkins: I remember that the Super Specials change ... The chapters change which character they're following, and they had the characters' names written in different cursives.
Destinee Sutton: Their handwriting.
Emily Calkins: Yeah, their handwriting at the top of each chapter, which made a very big impression on me as a young reader. I was like, "Oh, my God."
Destinee Sutton: How you dot your I is like "Who are you?"
Emily Calkins: Yes! Yeah, open circle or dot-
Destinee Sutton: Heart.
Emily Calkins: ... heart. Big decisions to be made.
Britta Barrett: I may not remember all of the details, but I remember loving the Super Special where they go to New York.
Emily Calkins: Yes! Me too!
Britta Barrett: Was Jessi in the ballet? Someone visits the Cloisters. I think what was so seductive and alluring about them is all of this autonomy the children had running around, exploring. Love you, mom and dad, but both my parents are teachers, and my summers were all spent as a family. There was never boredom or anything, or that sense of like, "Ah, freedom at last."
Destinee Sutton: Yes. So many children's books are based on unsupervised kids because that's when you have the most fun. That's why so many are orphans, or they have this kind of independence, or they run away from home.
Emily Calkins: Boarding school.
Destinee Sutton: Yeah, boarding school. Because if you have caring, attentive, maybe over-protective parents, what kind of adventures could really ensue? Nothing exciting.
Britta Barrett: A very modest one.
Destinee Sutton: Yeah.
Emily Calkins: It makes me laugh that you said it was like a proto-Sex in the City because I also loved the New York one so much, and I feel like a whole generation of young women were primed to love Sex in the City because it really was like, "Oh, four friends."
Britta Barrett: And then, Girls.
Emily Calkins: Yes!
Destinee Sutton: Yeah.
Emily Calkins: Just a long tradition of groups of female friends with these very distinct characters.
Britta Barrett: Being the something one.
Emily Calkins: Yeah.
Destinee Sutton: Yeah.
Emily Calkins: Yeah, exactly.
Britta Barrett: I actually got into a fight with one of my ex-boyfriends about the American Girl series, about whether I was more of a Samantha or a Molly.
Destinee Sutton: Different Samantha.
Britta Barrett: Yeah. Do you even know me?
Destinee Sutton: I'm impressed that your ex-boyfriend knew of American Girls.
Emily Calkins: Right. I'm was going to say that takes a lot of context.
Destinee Sutton: Yeah, that's really great. Yeah.
Britta Barrett: He's a very special person.
Destinee Sutton: Yeah, that's great because the other thing about when I was growing up is there were definitely ... There were books boys did not read. They would have been teased mercilessly if they were caught reading those books, but imagine how much a boy who read them would get.
Emily Calkins: Yeah, the social capital that would come from being well-versed in Baby-Sitters Club.
Destinee Sutton: Oh, my gosh. Yes.
Britta Barrett: He has a sticker collection.
Destinee Sutton: How's your Lisa Frank game?
Emily Calkins: Oh, my God. It's so good, so many file folders, which I really needed as a second-grader.
Destinee Sutton: Absolutely.
Emily Calkins: Just covered in ...
Destinee Sutton: Organized.
Emily Calkins: Yeah, yeah.
Britta Barrett: Besides the Lisa Frank Trapper Keepers, there's also a tradition many of our listeners probably encountered, the Scholastic Book Fair.
Destinee Sutton: Yes, which still continues today. I visit book fairs at some of my schools to do reader's advisory. Someone gave me the idea to just invite myself and just be there helping kids find, you know, connect with books because often the school librarian is super busy, and the parents who are there don't necessarily know because they're all fairly new books.
Destinee Sutton: I was just last year at a Scholastic Book Fair and hit with so much nostalgia because it's very similar. All the things on top of the books, and it's a real struggle to even get the kids to look at the books because there's so many cool things.
Britta Barrett: The posters.
Destinee Sutton: The posters, the erasers.
Britta Barrett: Pencil erasers.
Destinee Sutton: Oh, my God. They sell out of certain books so fast like the Jeff Kinney and the Captain Underpants. Those go so fast. The Raina Telgemeier's gone day one, and then the kids who had to go later in the week are like, "What's left for me?" But there's a lot of good stuff.
Emily Calkins: Can you tell us - part of your job is staying up on new children's literature, so what are some of your new favorites?
Destinee Sutton: Yeah, there's a new picture book that I just keep thinking about all the time. It is called The Empty House and the Full House. Have you seen this?
Emily Calkins: Uh-uh (negative).
Destinee Sutton: It is very weird, but the fact that it stayed on my mind so much to me says there's something special about it. It's by L. K. James. It's called The Full House and the Empty House. It is a picture book that does not have a clear plot. It's just like a house that's full of furniture and very nice. It also has arms and legs, and it's like an anthropomorphic house. Then there's a house that has almost nothing inside of it again with like arms and legs. They're friends, and they dance together. They're just happy, and the full one's happy being full, and the empty one's happy being empty. That's kind of how the book ends.
Destinee Sutton: I read it to my daughter, and she was like, "That's it?" I realize it's like a meditation almost more than a traditional story, but I feel like I want to read it again and again because I feel like it offers so many chances to ask questions and think about what it means to be full, what it means to be empty, what it means to dance with or be friends or have a relationship with someone who is so different from you. I don't know. I just love it. It's probably my favorite book I've read this year, and it's probably under 100 words. That's kind of my thing. I really like deep picture books.
Emily Calkins: I agree with you. I have a little person in my house, and so I read a lot of picture books. I get excited when there's something that's unusual or just not ... I mean, God bless Lucy Cousins, but I have read all a lot of Maisy books, and it's nice to encounter something that's a little kind of off-kilter.
Emily Calkins: There's one from our best books list last year that I think you really like that I really liked.
Destinee Sutton: I Just Ate My Friend.
Emily Calkins: Yes.
Destinee Sutton: Yes! I love that. I go in bookstores and sometimes face it out prominently.
Emily Calkins: Because it is. It just ends a little bit weird, like a little dark, a little off.
Destinee Sutton: Yeah, it's unexpected.
Emily Calkins: Yes.
Destinee Sutton: I think as someone who reads hundreds of kids' books every year, my personal taste is just going to trend towards novelty.
Britta Barrett: And repetition's so important to developing minds, but as the adult around children who want to read the same book over and over and over again, I'm sure it can be a little exhausting.
Destinee Sutton: Yeah. Yeah. I have a list that I keep in BiblioCommons of children's books that I would recommend to adults, and that the thing I look for is the book that can bear multiple readings or holds up to ... Whether it's the art or the language, picture books now are often so beautiful, and so much craft is put into them. Well, there were good books when we were kids, but really you can't compare the books being published in the last 10 years to what was published in the '80s and '90s. It's a different world.
Emily Calkins: There's just so many of them too to choose from. I think when we were kids, it was the Stinky Cheese Man, and everybody loves the Stinky Cheese Man.
Britta Barrett: Rainbow Fish.
Emily Calkins: Right.
Destinee Sutton: Oh, my God. I just reread Rainbow Fish and found it really disturbing.
Emily Calkins: Yes! It's in translation. Did you know that? It's German or something originally.
Destinee Sutton: Okay, that checks out. Yeah.
Emily Calkins: Yeah, it's like, "Oh, Rainbow Fish has to share his specialness with everyone else."
Destinee Sutton: You think it's his literal body? Does it hurt to take your shiny scales off?
Emily Calkins: It's like The Giving Tree-
Destinee Sutton: It is like The Giving Tree.
Emily Calkins: ... which is also so horrifying.
Destinee Sutton: Yeah, and like Love You Forever, which is very upsetting about the mom who breaks into her adult son's house and holds him in her arms.
Emily Calkins: Yes. Two books my child loves, by the way.
Britta Barrett: If we're going to talk about upsetting and disturbing, I feel like we can't not mention ... Do you happen to read the collection Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark?
Destinee Sutton: Oh, yeah. Alvin Schwartz. Kids still read that.
Britta Barrett: Which has just the most terrifying pencil drawings. They look sort of like Czechoslovakian film posters.
Destinee Sutton: Yes!
Britta Barrett: So, already starting off strong. The stories, I recently checked out a bunch of them to take to a Halloween party to sit around and share stories over the campfire and was just shocked that these were given to very small people including me who grew up to be a great big horror fan. They're very disturbing, and you sort of see this connective thread between the girl with the green ribbon around her neck to Carmen Maria Machado.
Destinee Sutton: I will never forget the one where someone has a lump on their face.
Emily Calkins: The spiders.
Destinee Sutton: Yeah, and it turned out to be a sack of baby spiders.
Emily Calkins: Yeah.
Britta Barrett: I feel like they traumatized an entire generation.
Emily Calkins: They re-released them with different illustrations-
Destinee Sutton: With different illustrations. Yep.
Emily Calkins: ... because they were frequently banned and challenged, but what is the point of them without those illustrations, which are like ...
Destinee Sutton: I know, right?
Emily Calkins: I think I read somewhere that they're doing a TV series of them based on the illustrations.
Britta Barrett: I think Guillermo del Toro-
Emily Calkins: Yes!
Destinee Sutton: Perfect.
Britta Barrett: ... is directing a movie version. I saw the trailer recently, and I'm tentatively, hesitantly excited.
Emily Calkins: Yeah!
Destinee Sutton: That sounds amazing.
Britta Barrett: Yeah. Was also a huge Goosebumps fan, and eventually a Fear Street reader.
Destinee Sutton: Absolutely. Me too. I'm big into Mary Downing Hahn.
Emily Calkins: Yes! Wait Till Helen Comes.
Destinee Sutton: Yes, and those are still popular, still in print, still get questions about them. I'm like, "Read them with a flashlight at night. You won't sleep all night. It'll be worth it."
Britta Barrett: Totally.
Emily Calkins: I feel like a lot of things when I go back and reread things that I read as a child and enjoyed and reread them as an adult, I'm like, "They give this to children? How can they handle it?" I recently reread Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry.
Destinee Sutton: Yes! It is scary.
Emily Calkins: So scary. If listeners haven't read it, it's set in the South in the Civil Rights Era, and it's about a black family and ...
Destinee Sutton: The Logans.
Emily Calkins: Yeah, the Logans, and it's wonderful. It's got all this great family relationships and sibling stuff, but there is a constant threat of violence on these children, and it is terrifying. I couldn't believe how anxious I felt reading it as a grownup. I think kids, in some ways, have a higher ... It doesn't feel as real to them, maybe.
Destinee Sutton: Yeah, the difference between reading a book that's scary and watching a movie that's scary is huge because the scary movies like putting these horrible images in your mind. When you're reading a book and something feels uncomfortable or scary, I think a lot of kids and maybe adults too just find themselves reading a little bit faster, or just skipping ahead and making sure who's alive at the end and just only picturing it to the extent that they can process it.
Destinee Sutton: Yeah, that's why when you go back read it as an adult, it's more horrific because you have a better understanding of the world and you can picture what's at stake. For kids, it's like, "I'm just going to see here. Okay, yeah. Still alive on the next page," so you can have a calm feeling to get through it.
Emily Calkins: There's an incredible post on the New York Public Libraries blog of people being like, "Help me find this book," that's full of questions like, "It's about a girl named Zoe, and there's a haunted house element." Then both librarians and other readers chiming in.
Destinee Sutton: That's one of my favorite parts of my job when someone comes in and is like, "I really want to find this book, and I can't remember very much about it." I'm like, "You came to the right person. We will find it. We will scour the internet, the knowledge of all of like the 100 librarians at KCLS."
Britta Barrett: If you're listening and you have an elusive book like this, please give us this mystery to solve.
Destinee Sutton: I love that.
Britta Barrett: Nothing would make us happier.
Emily Calkins: Yeah, absolutely.
Destinee Sutton: Yeah, it feels so good.
Emily Calkins: It does, and when you get it, and they're like, "Yes!"
Destinee Sutton: The thing I love the most is when I actually know it off the top of my head, which doesn't happen very often, but has happened before. When the title feels very unrelated or has a ton of words, like someone comes in and is like, "Oh, it's a book about kids who ... I don't know. They run away from home. They live in a museum." You're like, "The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler."
Emily Calkins: Great.
Destinee Sutton: They're like, "No way."
Emily Calkins: That is one I loved as a kid.
Destinee Sutton: Oh, yeah. It's so great.
Emily Calkins: Every time I go into museum bathrooms, still I'm like, "I can just stand on the toilet at closing, and they won't know I'm here."
Destinee Sutton: Yeah, you can bathe in the fountain.
Emily Calkins: Yeah, exactly.
Britta Barrett: The security is much better now. It couldn't happen.
Emily Calkins: Disappointing.
Britta Barrett: What museum would you want to stay the night in?
Destinee Sutton: Oh, what a good question. I think the Natural History Museum in New York, which has the dinosaurs and the big ...
Britta Barrett: Squid and the whale.
Destinee Sutton: Yeah, our theme for the summer coming up is going to be outer space, and I keep thinking about the Buckminster Fuller, the dome that's scales of the universe, and just how when I first went to that museum I felt like it really did what museums are supposed to do. It made me understand something that I really couldn't understand any other way. I keep wracking my brain on how to bring that kind of experience to kids who can't go to that museum of scales of the universe, like how big an atom is compared to the sun or whatever. Yeah.
Britta Barrett: Did either of you participate in Accelerated Reader programs?
Destinee Sutton: I'm too old.
Emily Calkins: Yeah, me too.
Britta Barrett: Or BOOK IT!?
Destinee Sutton: I know the Book-It Repertory Theater that's in Seattle.
Britta Barrett: Maybe it was just this brief period of time. I'm pretty sure it started during the Reagan administration. It was a very strange collaboration with Pizza Hut.
Destinee Sutton: Oh, we had Pizza Hut coupons.
Britta Barrett: That's what the BOOK IT! program is. You would read all these books and document your hours, and I feel like a whole generation of readers was encouraged by personal pan pizzas.
Destinee Sutton: But that was part of summer reading here.
Emily Calkins: Yeah, I wonder if that's partially an East Coast/West Coast thing because I don't think it was ... We definitely got the coupons, but it was definitely summer reading.
Destinee Sutton: Yeah, yeah.
Emily Calkins: Yes, very motivated by it because my parents were not going to get me a personal pan pizza otherwise.
Destinee Sutton: No.
Emily Calkins: But if I earned it.
Destinee Sutton: Yeah, I think when they went away, it was like there was an uproar of like, "What happened to the pizza?" We had tacos one year, and everyone was like, "Wait, no. We want pizza, a whole little pizza."
Emily Calkins: A whole summer, yeah, just a tiny ...
Destinee Sutton: It's more substantial than like one taco. Really.
Britta Barrett: What's funny is like now BOOK IT! shirts are at like Urban Outfitters.
Destinee Sutton: Oh, my gosh. I haven't noticed.
Britta Barrett: Yeah.
Destinee Sutton: Reading Rainbow I've seen that Urban Outfitters, like Reading Rainbow for sure lives on in people's hearts.
Emily Calkins: Thanks for listening.
Britta Barrett: You can find all the books mentioned in today's episodes in our show notes.
Emily Calkins: The Desk Set is hosted by librarians, Britta Barrett and Emily Calkins, produced by Britta Barrett, and brought to you by the King County Library System.
Britta Barrett: If you like the show, be sure to subscribe, rate, and review us on Apple Podcasts.