Kids have been back in school more than a month now and hopefully you and your family are starting to feel back in the groove. The start of the academic year got me thinking about the old book series I used to read as a kid in the ’80s and ’90s, and whether any of them would be recommended reading to children today. Some, like “Little House on the Prairie,” (which was just recently condemned for problematic representation of Native Americans) don’t really hold up with time; some, like the Harry Potter series, are still wonderful reads. (OK, I wasn’t a kid when Harry Potter was first published, but c’mon — it’s eternal and good for all ages.)
Here are some of the popular kid series of the 1980s and 1990s that could still be read today. If any strike a nostalgic cord for you, consider gifting them to your kiddos or even reading aloud with them as a sweet way to bridge the generations.
First published in 1983 and churning out books and spinoffs (and a TV show) well into the ‘90s, the Sweet Valley High series follows twins Jessica and Elizabeth Wakefield in a fictional town in California. While they are physically identical, they have polar opposite personalities: Jessica is outgoing and superficial; Elizabeth is quiet and studious — the nerd archetype. Their town of Sweet Valley isn’t short on drama, both at the high school where Jessica and Elizabeth use their identical appearance to swap places and help each other out, and among the parents who do their share of cheating, corrupt business-dealing, and drinking.
Ann M. Martin
This series was gospel to me as a girl of the early 1990s. Kristy, Claudia, Mary Anne, and Stacey are the founding members of a babysitting enterprise called, you guessed it, the Baby-Sitters Club. Each novel takes place from the point of view of one of the girls (all around 13 years old), and as the series expanded and increased in popularity, more members of the club were added (and later, a boy too!). In each book, the chosen narrator has to both babysit a challenging child and deal with a personal issue (illness, sibling rivalry, step-sibling conflicts, etc.).
Carolyn Keene (a pseudonym for multiple authors)
Great for the budding mystery enthusiast in your life, this series, naturally, follows a teenage Nancy Drew as she solves various mysteries that crop up in her hometown. The first novel, “The Secret of the Old Clock,” was published in 1930, and the 78th and last novel of this original series came out in 1985. With its numerous spinoff series, however, the Nancy Drew books number in the several hundred. The series was republished beginning in 1959, with serious editing to make the stories shorter and to make Nancy more “palatable,” i.e., less sassy and independent. It would be worth finding the original, unabridged novels with the feistier Nancy except that the 1960s versions were also edited to be less racist (and I shudder to think about how racist a book has to be for mid-century America to think it needs editing).
Beatrice “Beezus” Quimby has a problem: her 4-year-old sister, Ramona. As a much older girl, Beezus is saddled with keeping Ramona out of trouble, and Ramona’s antics are far from normal little-kid stuff. Though originally written in the 1950s, “Beezus and Ramona,” the first book of the series, rings true for any child who’s stuck babysitting a younger sibling. Poor Beezus, the narrator of the first book, even gets edged out for the rest of the eight-book series, as all remaining books are from Ramona’s point of view. Bonus: Beverly Cleary’s autobiography, “A Girl from Yamhill,” is just as well-written and entertaining as her novels.
Originating in 1986 with the eponymous “Redwall” novel, this series follows a group of woodland creatures who live in and around Redwall Abbey, in a fictional universe that largely resembles Scotland. All 22 books of the series, for the most part, follow the same formula: mice are the good guys, and some villain — often a rat or a snake or a fox, with a name like Slagar the Cruel — has some dastardly scheme up his sleeve that involves the downfall of the good guys. Good always prevails, but with the predictable plots, who wins in the end isn’t really the point. It’s about enjoying the rich characters along the way.
Though not all interrelated (with the exception of the Fudge series), the Judy Blume canon was crucial for kids growing up in the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s. Blume tackled sensitive topics like teenage sex, masturbation, divorce, and racism in a way that no other YA author was willing to do. She comes under fire a lot now for the frank conversations she includes in her books, but for preteens who struggle with feeling different, her books are incomparable.
Wayside School is pretty weird: It’s 30 stories tall, with only one classroom on each floor. The four novels in the series focus on the 30th floor, Ms. Jewls’ class. Directed at elementary-school kids, the stories are mostly silly with a touch of horrifying; like when the horrible substitute teacher, Mrs. Gorf, gets turned into an apple and eaten; or when Sammy, one of the students, turns out to just be a dead rat in a raincoat.
R. L. Stine
From 1993 to 1997, the Goosebumps series churned out a book on very single phobia you could possibly think of. Aimed at children, of course, the horror angle always stopped just short of being truly terrifying or violent. It is widely acknowledged (by my sixth-grade self, mostly) that two of the best books in the series are the inaugural “Welcome to Dead House” (a classic haunted-house tale where the ghosts are kids) and “Stay Out of the Basement” (book #60, about monsters and hallucinations with a *major* plot twist to top it all off).
Deborah and James Howe
This seven-book series started in the late ’70s and is told from the point of view of Harold, an old, lovable Russian wolfhound mix who belongs to the Monroe family. Toby Monroe, Harold’s favorite family member, finds a bunny one dark and stormy night and brings him home — much to the dismay of Chester, the Monroe’s orange tabby cat. Toby names the fanged bunny Bunnicula, who right away starts exhibiting odd behaviors such as draining the juice out of vegetables using his fangs. Fearful that Bunnicula will turn on the family and become carnivorous, Chester enlists Harold to help kill Bunnicula. The series is as close to “lighthearted horror” as you can possibly get — despite the almost morbid storyline, it’s primarily a comedy series as Harold, who finds Bunnicula perfectly harmless, tries to rein in Chester’s antics.
More from Make It Better:
- 5 Books to Add to Your Fall Reading List
- 8 of the Best STEM Toys to Help Kids Learn While They Play
- The Benefits of Family Dinner (and 5 Easy Ways to Make It a Priority)
Danielle McLimore is a Chicago-based writer and editor who has worked in book publishing since 2009. She lives with her husband, two sons, and a very misbehaved dog. She proudly supports the Center for Reproductive Rights.