To All My Fans, With Love, from Sylvie by Ellen Conford
While the modern phenomenon that is young adult publishing coalesced into its current third stage evolution during the mid-aughts, there has always been fiction written for and about adolescents. (I’m avoiding the word teenager, since teenagers were invented in either the 1890s, if you follow Jon Savage, or the 1950s, if you follow Back to the Future.) With the sheer number of young adult books being published every year, however, it’s easy to for the young adult novels of the twenty-first century to bury the young adult novels of the twentieth century.
Enter Lizzie Skurnick Books, an imprint of Ig Publishing specifically devoted to reissuing young adult novels from before the current boom. We carry a handful of their titles at the bookstore, and these books are hard to miss. In a sea of beautifully (if occasionally identically) designed hardbacks, these deftly designed little paperbacks stand out. They’re vaguely retro without being too specific, allowing the same formula to read whatever decade the novel is set in. And they look touchable, which is a huge plus as young adult publishers tend towards more luxe packaging for their wares. It makes people want to pick them up and explore them, if they, for some reason, are not as enamored as I am with yellowed pages and dated artwork.
Thus To All My Fans, With Love, from Sylvie’s inclusion on my reading list. (I keep a notebook on me at all times when I work at the bookstore for precisely this reason.) Although the first installation in this series, Debutante Hill, also caught my eye, classic Hollywood is sneaking up as one of my latest obsessions, thanks to the sheer amount of Anne Helen Petersen that I read. (Her Scandals of Classic Hollywood comes out in September. September! How I am supposed to wait that long?)
But Sylvie never makes it to Hollywood, despite her best efforts. Written in the early eighties but set in the fifties, fifteen-year-old foster child Sylvie Krail spends her time planning for her big break in Hollywood and dodging the unwanted sexual advances of her foster father. But when Sylvie finally does run away from home, her hard-earned money is stolen on the bus, forcing her to accept the help of a pushy Bible salesman named Walter if she wants to go out West.
To All My Fans, With Love, from Sylvie is much less about films and Hollywood—although Conford’s comfortable handle on the importance of Photoplay and how manipulative old school Hollywood gossip rags were makes me swoon—and more about Sylvie processing what has happened to her. And what has happened to her isn’t just narrowly avoiding being abused by the men who supposedly have her best interest at heart; she’s also trying to grow up while all of that is happening. While Sylvie brags and capitalizes on the fact that she looks of age with impeccably applied make-up in her best Teena Paige dress, she’s still pretty befuddled by the real world around her. Although, delightfully, Sylvie is not a wide-eyed innocent when it comes to Hollywood; she’s very cognizant of the narrative she has to construct for herself as an actress and the fact that she will have to work an awful job in Los Angeles before getting any cinematic work. What confuses Sylvie is her nascent sexuality, especially in the context of being an abuse survivor.
And therein lies the reason that this novel deserves reissuing: it actually takes Sylvie’s sexuality seriously. The novel is obviously on her side when it comes to consent, which is thrilling enough nowadays (I still hiss at Hush Hush whenever I see it on the shelf), but the climax finds Sylvie coming across a young man named Vic who doesn’t want to take advantage of her. (It comes off as a deus ex machina, but I’ll take it.) Confused by his actual altruism, Sylvie immediately starts wanting to reciprocate the only way she knows how, but they actually stop and unpack that.
Let me repeat that, because it bears repeating: the climax of this novel is a teenage girl and her friend unpacking not only her sexual abuse, but how it has shaped her thinking. Vic doesn’t for a second suggest that Sylvie’s dream of stardom is silly, but that she shouldn’t pursue it while it functions as an escape for her. And he reassures her that her sexual desires, now so tangled in her need for approval, are totally natural. She’ll need time to detangle them, but ultimately, Sylvie is okay. And, in the parlace of young adult fiction, that means you, the reader, are okay, for having sexual desires, for surviving abuse, or anything along those lines.
And that’s why, even though it was a pretty light read for me, I’m so glad it’s back on the shelves.
Fun fact: publisher Lizzie Skurnick actually reviewed this book for Jezebel six years ago! I love being able to follow a digital trail.
Bottom line: To All My Fans, With Love, from Sylvie’s depiction of fifties America is a hoot, but its longevity is due to the fact that it treats consent and sexual agency almost better than most young adult books nowadays. A lovely trifle with a hearty message.
I rented this book from the public library.