Making lists had always had a calming effect on me during my chaotic teenage years, whether it was recounting the “Top 5 Moments Taylor Looked at Me Today” or “Sexy Books to Hide from Mum.” Back then, there was an unbridled intensity when I chanced upon an amazing book that moved me — it had to be dissected in list form for its best and worst qualities in my diaries.
It has been rather hilarious to look back at my old notebooks, filled with scented pen doodles and handwritten lists of books that struck a chord in that boy-crazy teenager. At the back of every notebook, there was an ongoing and redrafted list of what made up my dream boyfriend.
He was a composite of all the right traits: the bluntness of Mr. Darcy, the luscious hair of Robert from The Princess Diaries, the musical talents of Robbie from the Georgia Nicholson series and the broodiness of a Mr. Rochester. In short, your average entitled rock god.
As I saw my friends experiencing first crushes and tentative dating, teenage romance novels and classic literature became a refuge to escape into. I could envision myself as the hormonal (and often white) heroine who struggles through all the drama, the breakups, and still wins over the rugged bad boy at the end.
Yet, what’s most recurring is how educational these four books were for a late-bloomer, books that prompted lists like “Top Flirting Ideas When You Have Glasses.” I laugh now, but these books were guidebooks in which I acted out similar situations. Whether it was applying mascara that stuck to my glasses or dropping all my pens from my pencil case near my crush, these things never seemed to work out accordingly.
As some means of closure, I decided to look back at the seminal four books that were as instructional as they were impactful. Naturally, it comes in list form:
1. First Wish-Fulfillment Book
To me, Meg Cabot was my Charles Dickens. While she wasn’t releasing The Princess Diaries in instalments like Dickens, she released a book almost every year throughout my teenage years on Princess Mia Thermopolis’s chaotic life, which kept me hooked for life. After finishing the first novel over one day, my list of that day recounted how similar I was to Mia:
b) Curly hair
c) Big glasses
d) Crush on musician
e) Awkward all the time
It was gratifying to see such a blundering heroine who was navigating the same high school snobbery as I was. I knew how removed this series was from my reality, but it helped to take my mind off chasing the clearly uninterested musician in my social studies class. I could just transport off to this wonderful fairy tale at lunch and swoon over Michael Moscovitz, the older brother of Mia’s friend Lily, but also a witty and thoughtful soul who tolerated Mia and all her bumbling. Coupled with the eponymous film that turned into a promptly worn down DVD, Michael was the first dreamy guy that I wished existed in school. This minor obsession was intensified when Robert Schwartzman embodied him in the film, with his adorable swishy hair and thick eyebrows. Much like Cabot was my Dickens, Schwartzman was forever etched as my Michael.
2. First Overwhelmingly Relatable Book
Born Confused by Tanuja Desai Hidier
Most teen books I’d read featured white heroines who I could identify with on a superficial level of shared personality traits, but as an South Asian teenager my experiences were vastly different in terms of dating and insecurities. That all changed when I read at Tanuja Desai Hidier’s resonant novel, Born Confused, which spoke to all the issues I was dealing with. Dimple Lala was the first brown girl in a teen novel that was dealing with hybridity and identity issues in a way that was authentic and bracingly honest. Whether she was dealing with overprotective parents or keeping her dating life private, it was gratifying to see a protagonist deal with real issues that weren’t glossed over or exoticized. My list of praise for this book went on for five pages with reams of gushing appreciation that an author dealt with my dichotomous feelings about belonging and highlighting that neither Dimple nor I had to choose one culture to adopt while navigating our adolescence. Reading it again at 24 hasn’t dulled its impact because Hidier captured that eternal yearning to fit in as a minority teenager in all its cultural confusion.
3. First Lessons in Flirting
The Confessions of Georgia Nicholson Series by Louise Rennison
With bizarre but hilarious titles like Angus, Thongs, and Full Frontal Snogging and Dancing in My Nuddy Pants, Louise Rennison understood the hormonal and horny teenage girl like no other author could. Her famous character, Georgia Nicholson, was your average flirty teenager but one with an extensive vocabulary that even had its own glossary in the back of every book. While I didn’t pick up any of these maddening phrases, I did copy down Georgia’s scale of romance from:
- holding hands
2. arm around
3. good-night kiss
4. kiss lasting over three minutes without a breath
5. open mouth kissing
7. upper body-fondling-outdoors
8. upper body fondling-indoors (in bed)
9. below waist activity
10. the full monty
Since I wouldn’t get into too many of these things until much later in high school, I devised my own list of flirting success with the bar set dramatically low:
- Smiling from afar…
- “Hi” in the hallway
- Sitting next to me…in class…on a bleacher…in public…anywhere
- Borrowing pen/pencil/notebook/my heart
- Asking for notes
- Talking for longer than 5 minutes on not school stuff
- Walking same way home together(!)
I ended it on an odd number because kissing and fondling were something for the distant future. I can’t help but laugh when reading these novels again because Georgia was embarrassingly blunt in most situations with boys, which gave her a Bridget Jones-esque ability to come off as charming rather than bonkers. If I ventured to be as frank as she was, it never worked out. I’d tumble over my words or say the wrong thing and earn a withering look. While the books have aged quite a bit, they were a perfect window into my own boy-crazy times, of which nothing much has changed!
4. First Scandalously Sexy Book
Once Is Not Enough by Jacqueline Susann
While many of my friends started with Jackie Collins or Danielle Steel for their first spicy books, I was always the contrarian and ventured back into the historic trash fiction. I started with Peyton Place by Grace Metalious, which didn’t scandalize me far enough, and then I landed on the gold mine of trash: Once is Not Enough by Jacqueline Susann. Susann was one of best-selling authors of the ‘60s and ‘70s with her novels Valley of the Dolls, The Love Machine, and this novel, which were all huge hits. Susann is actually a pretty sterling writer with her engrossing characters that are basically blind items of famous stars from the time, the lurid melodrama of pills and booze addictions and the dangers of too much sex! Unlike the clinical blandness of EL James’ 50 Shades of Grey, Susann is great employer of the ellipsis during her sex scenes where January Wayne is losing her virginity, seducing her impotent lover or engaging in a fantastical orgy at the end (where she screams out her father’s name). I forgot to mention that part — along with the multiple sub-plots of lesbian film stars, rich heiresses, gay hustlers, oversexed magazine editors and scary hippies. This was the only book I read that had a “Top 3 ‘What the Hell’ Bits” list, which included:
- Did January get abducted by an alien?
- Should I take a break from dirty books?
- Does a semen mask actually repair the skin?
Rereading these books and going through my lists was both a hilarious and insightful window into my teenage years because when I loved something, I really loved it without shame. I was never going to be Mia or Georgia, but vicariously acting out their blunders and milestones allowed me to try out new personalities that sometimes worked and sometimes ended up embarrassing me. Identity is something that’s constantly in flux, and reading these books made me feel that teenage-hood is as awkward and hormonal for literary characters as it was for me. But, for the record “Top Cool Things About Being A Glasses Girl” has always served me well.