My Guilty Pleasure
12:08 pm
Tue April 17, 2012

The Wrong Crowd: A Tale Of Teens Behaving Badly

Originally published on Wed April 18, 2012 7:26 am

Meg Wolitzer is the author of a book for young readers, The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman.

In reality, I may be a middle-aged woman with two nearly grown sons, but in my heart I am a teenage girl who has found herself pregnant and doesn't know what to do. For if you came of age, as I did, reading Paul Zindel's My Darling, My Hamburger, then you probably still feel that you know what it's like to be a high school student whose life almost derails.

I sometimes take out my old copy of this book and have a look; not because it's a cautionary tale (the writing is too subtle) or because it speaks to today's young readers (in some important aspects it seems dated), but because it reminds me of who I was when I first picked it up.

I turn the first page and recall my goofy adolescent self with the Keith Partridge shag haircut and the Huk-a-Poo blouse and the orange-tinted lotion supposedly hiding — but really highlighting — a breakout on my chin. I was pretty nerdy, and I didn't have to worry that I would get pregnant like one of the novel's main characters, Liz, who is popular and beautiful and has sex with her boyfriend, Sean, then gets an illegal abortion.

The character I could most relate to was Liz's less popular friend, Maggie. Like her, I enjoyed the excitement of being around someone cool — and I made friends with a group of kids who were definitely cooler than I was. Sometimes I would hang out at their houses, and we would order pizzas to be delivered to the house across the street. Occasionally, we made prank phone calls. When I did these dumb things, I was both mortified and thrilled — scared to be seen as a bad girl, but desperate not to be entirely good, either. I liked the idea of being in the neighborhood of bad — not the one who makes the call to the pizza place, but the one who listens in on the other extension. Not the one who sleeps with her boyfriend — which of course isn't in and of itself "bad," though in my view back then, pretty daring — but the one who's sophisticated enough to offer advice to the girl who does.

My adolescence coincided with a golden era in young-adult fiction that allowed slightly nerdy girls to imagine the excitement and catastrophes that might befall other more adventurous (or sometimes just unlucky) girls. While My Darling, My Hamburger is, for me, the best entry in this category, there are related books about teen pregnancy, mental illness and even LSD that I occasionally re-read, not because they are classics, but because they bring me back to my long-outgrown self. These were the subjects I wanted to read about, because they kept me wondering: What if it had been me?

But they also kept me safely knowing: It would probably never be me.

Now, thank God, it's way too late for me to be teenage and pregnant, or teenage and emotionally disturbed, or teenage and falling in with a rough crowd. One of the fringe benefits of middle age is never having to think about being a teenager again. But some part of me likes to think about it.

And when I do, I know exactly what to read.

My Guilty Pleasure is edited and produced by Ellen Silva with production assistance from Rose Friedman and Sophie Adelman.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

Being a teenager is tough. There's pressure to fit in, along with pressure to standout. And then, of course, there are those changing bodies. Well, writer Meg Wolitzer remembers one book that helped her endure those confusing years, and she's a little embarrassed to recommend it to us. But here it is. It's part of our series, My Guilty Pleasure.

MEG WOLITZER: In reality, I may be a middle-aged woman with two nearly grown sons, but in my heart, I am a teenage girl who has found herself pregnant and doesn't know what to do. For if you came of age, as I did, reading Paul Zindel's "My Darling, My Hamburger," then you probably still feel that you know what it's like to be a high school student whose life almost derails.

I sometimes take out my old copy of this book and have a look, not because it's a cautionary tale - the writing is too subtle - or because it speaks to today's young readers - in some important aspects, it seems dated - but because it reminds me of who I was when I first picked it up.

I turn the first page and recall my goofy adolescent self with the Keith Partridge shag haircut and the Huk-A-Poo blouse and the orange-tinted lotion supposedly hiding - but really highlighting - a breakout on my chin. I was pretty nerdy, and I didn't have to worry that I would get pregnant like one of the novel's main characters, Liz, who is popular and beautiful and has sex with her boyfriend, Sean, then gets an illegal abortion.

The character I could most relate to was Liz's less popular friend, Maggie. Like her, I enjoyed the excitement of being around someone cool, and I made friends with a group of kids who were definitely cooler than I was. Sometimes I would hang out at their houses, and we would order pizzas to be delivered to the house across the street. Occasionally, we made prank phone calls. When I did these dumb things, I was both mortified and thrilled, scared to be seen as a bad girl, but desperate not to be entirely good either. I liked the idea of being in the neighborhood of bad, not the one who makes the call to the pizza place, but the one who listens in on the other extension.

My adolescence coincided with a golden era in young-adult fiction. It allowed slightly nerdy girls to imagine the excitement and catastrophes that might befall other girls who are more adventurous or just unlucky. While "My Darling, My Hamburger" is, for me, the best entry in this category, there are related books about teen pregnancy, mental illness and even LSD that I occasionally reread, not because they are classics, but because they bring me back to my long-outgrown self. These were the subjects I wanted to read about because they kept me wondering: What if it had been me? But they also kept me safely knowing: It probably never would be.

Now, thank God, it's way too late for me to be teenage and pregnant, or teenage and falling in with a rough crowd. One of the fringe benefits of middle age is never having to think about being a teenager again. But some part of me likes to think about it. And when I do, I know exactly what to read.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: Meg Wolitzer recommending the book "My Darling, My Hamburger" by Paul Zindel. Wolitzer is also the author of a book for young readers. It's called "The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman." And you can find more reading recommendations in our My Guilty Pleasure series at nprbooks.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.