The best midcentury novels about groovy girls & freedom to read when tired of the masculine posturing of On the Road

Who am I?

As a feminist and cultural historian, I'm interested in recovering aspects of the past that we have forgotten, especially when the past turns out to challenge our taken-for-granted views. We often have a nostalgic vision of the fifties that portrays our mothers and grandmothers as innocent and naïve. In contrast, we attribute notions of freedom and authenticity to masculine figures like the Beats. When doing research on the film Gidget, and the novel that inspired it, I found myself re-reading these books, all of which suggest in different ways that, long before the sexual revolution, girls were curious, sexually aware, and desiring freedom. These books make me remember how hip those girls could be.   

I wrote...

Gidget: Origins of a Teen Girl Transmedia Franchise

By Pamela Robertson Wojcik,

Book cover of Gidget: Origins of a Teen Girl Transmedia Franchise

What is my book about?

Gidget: Origins of a Teen Girl Media Franchise examines multiple books, films, TV shows, and merchandise that make up the Gidget-verse from the 1950s to the 1980s, arguing that Gidget is an important early transmedia franchise for girls. The book examines how the real-life experience of surfer Kathy Kohner gets turned into first a novel, then a series of feature films, TV series, and made-for-TV movies. The book considers Gidget in various historical contexts, including the rise of surf culture; the rise of California as symbol of middle-class white teen culture; the annexation of Hawaii; the invention of Barbie; and Hollywood’s reluctant shift to making movies for teens. Each Gidget text is also considered in relation to other books, films, and TV shows to show how Gidget shapes the cultural landscape.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Gidget

Pamela Robertson Wojcik Why did I love this book?

This novel started it all, creating the character of Gidget who would ultimately appear in three feature films, two TV series, three made-for-TV movies, four more novels, and two novelizations of movies, plus kid cartoons, parodies, songs, and more. Gidget: The Little Girl with Big Ideas is based on the real-life experiences of screenwriter Kohner’s daughter Kathy, who found herself one of very few girls surfing in Malibu. The story is told in the voice of Gidget, nicknamed that because she is a diminutive girl. To be sure, the novel deals with her crush on Jeff, nicknamed Moondoggie, and her burgeoning sexual desire, but the novel does more than titillate. More importantly, the novel emphasizes Gidget’s passion for surfing, and especially the feeling of freedom that surfing provides. In the end, Gidget says her romance with Jeff may have been “a dream” but her romance with surfing is “for real:” “Maybe I was just a woman in love with a surfboard.” This emphasis on surfing marks Gidget as a countercultural and even feminist novel.  

By Frederick Kohner,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Gidget as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A surfing, boy-crazy teenager comes of age in the summer of 1957 in this classic novel that inspired both movies and television and created an American pop culture icon.

"My English comp teacher Mr. Glicksberg says if you want to be a writer you have to-quote-sit on a window sill and get all pensive and stuff and jot down descriptions. Unquote Glicksberg! I don't know what kind of things he writes but I found my inspiration in Malibu with a radio, my best girlfriends, and absolutely zillions of boys for miles. I absolutely had to write everything down because I…

Book cover of Bonjour Tristesse: A Novel

Pamela Robertson Wojcik Why did I love this book?

Bonjour Tristesse is an important precursor to Gidget and creates a market for girl-centered books. Françoise Sagan wrote the novel when she was only eighteen years old and the book became a bestseller in both France and America. A first-person narration by a world-weary yet youthful character named Cécile, the story is set in a decadent milieu and engages existential questions of free will and freedom. Cécile and her widowed father are both pleasure seekers who engage in sexual conquests at their summer house. But when Cécile’s father begins a serious relationship with a serious and intelligent woman, Anne, Cécile becomes jealous and conspires to break them up, leading Anne to commit suicide. At novel’s end, Cécile and her father are back to their old ways but she feels a pervasive sadness. 

By Françoise Sagan,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Bonjour Tristesse as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A sensational 1954 French novel that has become a contemporary classic

Set against the translucent beauty of France in summer, Bonjour Tristesse is a bittersweet tale narrated by Cecile, a seventeen-year-old girl on the brink of womanhood, whose meddling in her father's love life leads to tragic consequences.

Endearing, self-absorbed, seventeen-year-old Cécile is the very essence of untroubled amorality. Freed from the stifling constraints of boarding school, she joins her father—a handsome, still-young widower with a wandering eye—for a carefree, two-month summer vacation in a beautiful villa outside of Paris with his latest mistress. Cécile cherishes the free-spirited moments she…

Book cover of Chocolates for Breakfast: A Novel

Pamela Robertson Wojcik Why did I love this book?

Chocolates for Breakfast was frequently compared to Bonjour Tristesse and Moore was called “the American Sagan.” Like Sagan, Moore was only eighteen when she wrote the bestselling novel. Written in the third person, it tells the story of a young woman’s sexual exploration and her feelings of depression. Courtney, a child of divorce, moves from her posh Connecticut boarding school to Beverly Hills when her depression keeps her from performing at school. She grapples with her mother, a down-on-her-heels alcoholic actress; explores her sexuality with both a gay male actor and an older straight manager in Hollywood; then relocates to New York where she drifts through cocktail parties, having affairs, until her best friend Janet commits suicide. Like Bonjour Tristesse, the novel flirts with existentialism but ultimately adopts a more hopeful tone as Courtney matures and aims to create meaning in her life.

By Pamela Moore,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Chocolates for Breakfast as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Precocious and shocking when first published in 1956, Chocolates for Breakfast is a candid coming-of-age story of a young girl's sudden awakening to love and desire written by 18-year-old Pamela Moore. Disaffected, sexually precocious 15-year-old Courtney Farrell splits her time between her parents' homes in New York and Los Angeles. When a crush on a female teacher in boarding school ends badly, Courtney sets out to know everything fast-from tasting dry martinis to engaging in a passionate love affair with an older man. Considered an American response to French sensation Bonjour Tristesse, Chocolates for Breakfast is also a tale of…

Book cover of My Lovely Mamá!

Pamela Robertson Wojcik Why did I love this book?

My Lovely Mamá! parodies the decadence and ennui of Bonjour Tristesse. The narrative toys with the sort of decadence Sagan captures, by having Mathilde believe her mother is having an affair and hence attempt, unsuccessfully, to seduce her mother’s lover. The very funny novel hyperbolizes the world-weariness of Sagan’s characters. “I was terribly immature last September,” Mathilde writes, “I’ve aged a lot since then. Inwardly I’m an old, old woman now.” While it parodies certain tropes of teen girl fiction, My Lovely Mamá! nonetheless gives voice to authentic adolescent feelings, especially about sexual desire. When Mathilde receives a marriage proposal, she opts to keep things open-ended, maintaining her freedom: “I was only seventeen and everything was only just beginning, after all.” 

By Mathilde,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked My Lovely Mamá! as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

First U.S. edition. A near fine copy in a VG- dust jacket. Sticker pull to the jacket's front panel near the upper right corner. Chips/frays to the spine tips and corners. Creasing and some tears to the panels' edges.

Book cover of Harriet the Spy

Pamela Robertson Wojcik Why did I love this book?

Louise Fitzhugh’s book Harriet the Spy was published in 1964, a little later than the others on my list. It has a younger protagonist but she is a model of proto-feminist girlhood for me. Harriet is an urban kid from an upper-class milieu with sophisticated taste. She has an imperious nanny who takes her on the subway to an art museum. Her parents are checked-out intellectuals so that Harriet is neglected in the best way, free to roam city streets. She is a tomboy and would-be writer who observes city life and people’s habits, not only in public spaces but by peeping into windows and even sneaking into homes. The narrative punishes her by having her friends discover all the terrible things she writes about them and shaming her.  But she remains a likely writer. 

By Louise Fitzhugh,

Why should I read it?

11 authors picked Harriet the Spy as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it. This book is for kids age 8, 9, 10, and 11.

What is this book about?

First published in 1974, a title in which Harriet M. Welsch, aspiring author, keeps a secret journal in which she records her thoughts about strangers and friends alike, but when her friends find the notebook with all its revelations, Harriet becomes the victim of a hate campaign.

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By Bruce Tate,

Book cover of Currently Away: How Two Disenchanted People Traveled the Great Loop for Nine Months and Returned to the Start, Energized and Optimistic

Bruce Tate

New book alert!

What is my book about?

The plan was insane. The trap seemed to snap shut on Bruce and Maggie Tate, an isolation forced on them by the pandemic and America's growing political factionalism. Something had to change.

Maggie's surprising answer: buy a boat, learn to pilot it, and embark on the Great Loop. With no experience, and knowing little about seafaring, diesel motors, or navigation, Maggie, Bruce, and the family dog decided to take on the six-thousand-mile journey down inland rivers, around the Gulf and Atlantic coasts, and across the Great Lakes. They would have to navigate canals, rivers, seas, and locks. But along the way, they made new lifelong friends and were forever changed.

For nine months, Bruce and Maggie navigated shallow rivers, bottomless lakes, joy, and loss. Against all odds, they conquered the Great Loop, and along the way, found common cause across political divides with new friends while blowing the walls off their world.

Currently Away: How Two Disenchanted People Traveled the Great Loop for Nine Months and Returned to the Start, Energized and Optimistic

By Bruce Tate,

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