The 1980s and ’90s kids books series with the most longevity, The Baby-Sitters Club, is a great example of the form. These long-running series were painfully earnest and well-meaning, introducing kids to concepts like divorce, bullying, and disability. Also, duh, they totally promoted happier concepts too, like friendship, achieving your goals, and saving the earth from alien slugs. These stories provided escapism from regular life, which is definitely what we all need midway through 2020. So, to help with that, I’ve compiled a list of the best kids book series from the ’80s and ’90s.
Everyone’s talking about the new BSC series on Netflix, and I’d bet that a lot of us are digging the throwback to our simpler, neon-tinted childhoods. If you are in your 30s, you definitely remember aspects of being a kid in the ’80s and ’90s. What a time it was! We wore baggy pants and tie dye, drank Snapple Elements and Hi-C, took out library books with stamped due dates, and sat through TV commercials. The internet was but a distant twinkle in our collective eyes.
Before I started writing this post, I asked Facebook what ’80s–’90s kids book series they most fondly remembered. That got more engagement than anything else I’ve ever posted. People really want to reminisce about their beloved childhood books, especially because books were so formative to us pre-internet kids.
Often authored by ghostwriters, it’s impossible to know every author who worked on these books. However, in terms of the authors associated by name with each series, they are all white. In the ’80s and ’90s, the publishing industry was not prioritizing kids book series by authors of color. On Book Riot, we do our best to actively promote diversity in books and publishing so here is a link to some recent middle grade books by Black authors. The industry has begun changing, and hopefully those changes will continue.
Now, for some ’80s–’90s kids book series classics:
The Baby-Sitters Club by Ann M. Martin
Let me begin by saying: initially, I remembered the BSC characters as being so old (even Mallory and Jessi). In my late teens, though, I reread a few of the books and was blown away by the fact that they were all between the ages of 10 and 13. I honestly assumed that Kristy, Claudia, Mary Anne, Stacy and Dawn were 15. They were fashionable, independent, had jobs and some had boyfriends—all at 12! I was still an awkward, big-haired nerd who wore whatever baggy clothes I got from my older brother. Anyway, the joy of these books was that the characters were varied in style and somewhat multiracial, so regardless of whether you were a tomboy (Kristy) or an eccentric artistic (Claudia), there was someone to relate to. Plus, there were the occasional Super Specials and Mysteries, which tended to ramp up the drama. BSC gave us a happier world that celebrated female friendship and empowerment.
Sweet Valley Twins by Francine Pascal and Jamie Suzanne
Published in 1986, this series was a spin-off from Pascal’s Sweet Valley High series and followed the same characters but at an earlier age. Jessica and Elizabeth Wakefield are blond identical twins living in Sweet Valley, a suburb of Los Angeles. Positioned as opposites, Jessica is obsessed with boys and popularity, while Elizabeth toils away at school. There is a meaner edge to these stories than BSC (raise your hand if you think that Jessica is probably a sociopath), and the transgressive behavior was part of the draw. When you are a kid and everything you read and watch gives you nice people who learn a lesson and then live happily ever after, a twist of evil can be an antidote. Bim Adewunmi wrote about the twins’ continuing appeal, saying “I knew all sorts of Jessicas and Elizabeths of different doses…an escape to a destination that I already knew my way around.”
Choose Your Own Adventure by Various Authors
Who wasn’t obsessed with this series? In our youth, we had so little agency (go to school, clean your room, no TV on school nights, ugh as if); yet in the pages of these short, weird books, the world was our oyster. The stories are like little games that can be carried with us—plus, no specific gender is ever detailed, so readers can easily put themselves in the story. They still make new titles now. About a year ago, I read Kyandreia Jones’s Choose Your Own Adventure (Spies): James Armistead Lafayette. It was really fun and also slightly, pleasantly bonkers. There was a whole bit with a general that had a squirrel on his head, and I laughed very hard. These books are the ultimate escapist literature.
Sleepover Friends by Susan Saunders
This 1987 series was about BFFs Stephanie, Patti, Lauren, and Kate. Every Friday night, the girls have sleepovers and tackle life complications (including a ruined play audition, surprise party foibles, and an awkward night of camping). While the characterization might not have won any awards, its Publishers Weekly review shows that the book cost $2.50 at the time. For that price, who needs strong characterizations? The book gives you the experience of a sleepover with friends, but you don’t need to sleep on a friend’s floor—perfect. Also, there seems to be no Wikipedia for this series, so if you are a fan with some free time, this might be your moment.
Sideways Stories by Louis Sachar
I was a whimsical kid (and am a whimsical adult), so this is my fave ’80s–’90s kids book series. Wayside School was built with one classroom on top of another, and absurd things have a tendency to happen there—especially in the class on the 13th floor. This is not your average realistic tween fiction, as situations are unusual (a child who can only read upside down, grumpy new students who turn out to actually be dead rats in raincoats) and Sachar uses puns and wordplay to delightfully strange effect. It is sort of like The Princess Bride for kids, in that the narrator becomes an essential part of the book. For instance, this dryly delivered quote: “Dana had four beautiful eyes. She wore glasses. But her eyes were so beautiful that the glasses only made her prettier. With two eyes she was pretty. With four eyes she was beautiful. With six eyes she would have been even more beautiful. And if she had a hundred eyes, why, she would have been the most beautiful creature in the world.”
Animorphs by K.A. Applegate (Katherine Applegate and Michael Grant)
This is another kids book series that my Facebook went bananas for. Three separate people nominated this one, and one enthusiastically wrote: “ANIMORPHS, I know it’s been said but it needed to be yelled.” Published in 1996 (so I was slightly too old for it), these sci-fi novels followed the adventures of Jake, Marco, Cassie, Rachel, Tobias, and an alien named Ax. The six of them develop the ability to morph into any animal that they lay their hands on, and those powers are used to battle an alien slug species called Yeerks.
The Saddle Club by Bonnie Bryant
Though I never read this one myself (maybe the horse aspect kept me away—I had a very unfortunate experience when I was 12), it came highly recommended. To quote a friend of mine: “I was OBSESSED with The Saddle Club…Still think about those books.” I can’t say I still think about some of the award-winning books I read a month ago, so that is high praise. Debuting in 1988, the series is about buds Carole Hanson, Stevie Lake, and Lisa Atwood. The three girls are united by their crazy love of horses, and each book follows the usual format of problem + friends + horses = happy ending. The girls also learn facts about horses in each book, so also educational!
Many of these ’80s and ’90s kids book series are still available in libraries and book stores today, so slip on your hot pink leggings and matching scrunchy, grab your Skip-It and a vintage paperback, and settle in for an afternoon of blissful nostalgia.