I was an interesting child. If you ask my roommate (and bestie) Rachel, she will confirm. I was also an avid reader, and my mom used to get angry with me for refusing library books but speeding through purchased ones in a matter of hours. My mom bought all these books anyway, and she got so used to it that she would pick books out for me and knowing what series I was reading, would make sure I remained caught up with them. My bookshelves at home are still loaded with the remnants of my adolescent phases, a great deal of them belonging to the specific trend of very rich, very white teenage girls usually behaving questionably. Scrolling through Goodreads, I came across these books again. Find the main five below the cut.
Gossip Girl by Cecily von Ziegesar: Gossip Girl is what began my adolescent descent into teen novels about wealthy white teenagers who vacationed in St. Barts and the Hamptons. With try-hard titles like You Know I’m Worth It and I Like It Like That and glossy covers depicting pretty white girls in pretty clothes and, for some reason, lacking eyes, Gossip Girl is an exercise in wealthy white drama. Blair Waldorf and Serena Van Der Woodsen feud over modeling in fashion shows and the attention of so-called innovative artistes, to be the muse of some new fashion designer, or be noticed at gallery openings. About absurdly wealthy teenagers with profoundly uninterested parents, chapters are split with updates from Gossip Girl, another of the NYC elite (we assume) who keeps everyone up to speed on the activities of their peers, using crazy obvious aliases like “B” and “S” to create the illusion of anonymity. The series kicks off with Gossip Girl announcing Serena’s turn and lamenting the guarantee of her blond, breezy perfection shaking up their delicate social system, particularly that of her best/worst frenemy Blair. Their various gripes are lost to me over time, but there was always one big one: Nate Archibald, inexplicably dreamy weed smoker. As dopey and useless as is, he always has Blair and Serena to compete for his affection. The cast is rounded out by other undesirables, who are also way more boring, and it’s understood that Blair, Serena and Nate are the important ones anyway. Sex is sprinkled throughout, causing me to shield certain chapter titles from my curious mother’s eyes, a source of controversy that apparently evaded her. The sex hardly felt scandalous to me, but the first book has a pretty disturbing loss of virginity reference, calling it the “parting of the Red Sea” so….take that as you will. Eventually the series would be taken over by a ghostwriter (which may have contributed to my waning interest in it), and then would be adapted into a mediocre, though still slightly superior, TV series on the CW.
The It Girl by Cecily von Ziegesar: And Gossip Girl would also spawn a spin-off. Which I, of course, read. I’m not exactly sure why since I was alternately annoyed by and ambivalent to protagonist Jenny Humphrey in Gossip Girl. She arrives at Waverly Academy desperate for the chance to seamlessly slip into the elite group that shunned her so readily back in New York. Somehow The It Girl manages to be even more pretentious than Gossip Girl (though I’m at least saved the ruminations of the uber pretentious Dan Humphrey), with characters with names like Easy. Seriously, one of them is named Easy. It’s absurd, but damn if I didn’t love it. I loved it even more than Gossip Girl despite loathing its leading lady. Slightly less insufferable this time around, Jenny has to contend with Tinsley Carmichael, Waverly’s Serena-copy, who doesn’t take too kindly to Jenny coming in and usurping her friends and her throne. Along with frenemies (no one can actually be friends in these books) Callie and Brett, Jenny and Tinsley are constantly trying to prove their superiority. Like its sister series, it veers just so slightly to serious issues that it doesn’t bother to really address. Like Brett’s relationship with one of her teachers and a case of arson. But I approved much more heartily of these covers than Gossip Girl‘s, due to the models actually having eyes and foreheads.
Private by Kate Brian: Sometime after I stopped reading Private, witches showed up for some reason. I don’t know, I don’t know, I. Don’t. Know. But it did, and thank goodness I dropped it before it jumped that shark. Another boarding school fantasy, this one not revolving around a pretty blond girl but an “average” looking brunette (for some reason these books could not fathom just admitting their protagonists were actually quite attractive). Reed Brennan is the closest this list gets to being other. She’s at Easton Academy on scholarship, leaving behind some pretty substantial family issues. She will eventually fall in with the ladies of Billings Hall, who promise campus fame and seemingly unlimited privileges along with an unhealthy dose of secrets, and the series will trace Reed’s gradual rise in the Billings hierarchy. I give this series props for moving me outside of the relatively plot-lite pages of the other books on this list to mystery. They evolve throughout the series but begin with Reed’s hot boyfriend disappearing and eventually being found murdered. When that killer is revealed, another mystery will emerge. I dropped this series too (though not after trying out, and actually enjoying its spin-off Privilege). This series is also the first to put a black girl on one of its covers (to portray one of its main-ish characters). But then there are witches so….I don’t know about all that.
The A List by Zoey Dean: The A-List is best described as Gossip Girl for the West Coast. It drops the relatively gritty sheen of New York City and replaces it with the gleam of Hollywood red carpets. All these books have some pretty blond we’re meant to fixate on, and this one has Anna Percy who I remember distinctly as being described as Grace Kelly-esque multiple times throughout the series (sigh). She’s sensible, practical and hails from New York. And my god if I didn’t ship her with her chauffeur. But I digress. Anna’s supposed to be our window into the wonders of Hollywood, though her references to the Big Book of WASPS (she calls it something dumber) isn’t exactly relatable. She’s joined by more young women, like Sam Sharpe whose size ten frame is lamented throughout most of the series until she finds love with some guy who loves her as she is. Its drama includes people claiming to be pregnant with so and so’s baby (when they aren’t), being checked into posh rehab facilities and of course, fighting over unworthy boys. I will say that this series did a much better job with characterization than many of the books on this list did. Reed Brennan is the only consistently characterized one in her series, and von Ziegesar’s characters are more constantly perpetuating types than actual people. Meanwhile The A-List goes out of its way to make everyone a bit more understandable than they first were, including “villainess” Cammie Sheppard who I grew to enjoy as the series progressed. I think I may have actually finished this series, or at least gotten close to it though I can barely remember its conclusion now.
The Clique by Lisi Harrison: These books were terrible. Absolutely. Terrible. None of the books on this list are going to be listed alongside any literary masterpieces, but these were the worst. Though I dropped all the books on this list at some point, I put these down even before I’d grown out of the others because they were just horrible. They sought to emulate Gossip Girl and The A-List, but subtracted too many years to really do it. With a cast of seventh graders (who call themselves the Pretty Committee I kid you not), everything treated as life or death was too low stakes even for a fellow seventh grader like me. Give me Anna Percy finding out her boyfriend fathered some girl’s baby (he didn’t), or Blair Waldorf horrified at Serena and Nate already having lost their virginity to each other. But The Clique has people hoping for invites to tepid weekend outings and three-way conversations. Claire Lyons moves from Orlando to Westchester and falls in with Massie Block (ugh, I still hate her name), the Regina George to her Cady Heron. What follows is a struggle to usurp Massie, shrug off her stupid influence and, I don’t know, be your own person or something? I stopped reading if before I could get that far, too annoyed by them obsessing over boys named Cam and wondering what the eighth grade would be like.
I didn’t finish any of these series. Maybe I simply grew out of them. They caught me at the time right before high school, and once I got there, I think my interest waned distinctly. They all chugged out spin-offs of some sort, most of which I never bothered to pick up despite passing them on my weekly trips to Barnes & Noble. Gossip Girl not only gave birth to The It Girl but to The Carlyles. The A-List was followed by The A-List: Royalty, Private by Privilege and The Clique by Alphas. Maybe these series’ time had simply come, as I don’t think any of their followups ascended to the heights of their predecessors, all of which could be found on the New York Times Bestsellers’ List. I can only conclude that I’d grown out of them, though I’m surprised reading them didn’t have a more lasting effect on me. Maybe because I was reading a lot of things, and their effects manifested not in my behavior but in what I was writing myself. My interest in fiction writing spiked in middle school. I wrote in class and had notebooks confiscated by teachers because I wasn’t paying adequate attention. I tried to emulate the stories I was reading, boarding school sagas (though my characters were black at least) and frothy dramas that had long interludes at makeup counters trying out the latest eyeliner. I imagine that if I were to pick up one of these series’ now, I’d find it boring. But I am feeling mighty compelled to pick these books up again and see what a difference all this time has made.
Let me know if you read any of these in the comments (I know at least some of you did) and tell me what you thought.