Buffalo Brenda, by Jill Pinkwater

No Logo author Naomi Wolf recently published an essay in The New York Times bemoaning the current state of YA literature for girls, specifically mentioning the popular Clique, A-List, and Gossip Girl series. Wolf is worried that well-meaning but clueless parents are buying their daughters these sexually suggestive, heavily commercialized books, unintentionally encouraging them to become mindless brand slaves with low self-esteem.

Look, I fully agree that those series are stupid. They’re shallow, silly stories, with heroines that are cookie-cutter versions of The O.C.’s rich, dim-witted Marissa Cooper. And I certainly agree that giving sexually explicit books to young teenagers is creepy. Unfortunately, I suspect that forbidding girls to read books like these will just increase their appeal, particularly for readers between the ages of 11 to 14. (I know this because I personally read every stupid teen novel I could get my hands on in middle school.) So if you’re genuinely concerned about the kind of novels your daughter is reading, I would try surrounding her with better books—the kind of stories that she’ll still find entertaining in ten years. There are plenty of awesome stories out there that celebrate intelligence and individuality. If girls are exposed to them they’ll eventually develop some taste, toss the crappy written-by-committee series books and start reading something that’s actually worthwhile.

And if you’re looking for a place to start, may I suggest my all-time favorite YA novel: Jill Pinkwater’s Buffalo Brenda? Because, seriously, it’s the best teen book ever.

Buffalo Brenda is the story of two best friends, Brenda Tuna and India Ink Teidelbaum, and their various adventures at an uptight, well-to-do high school in Florence, Long Island. Brenda’s primary goal in life is to make waves, and she executes a series of elaborate pranks to ensure that she—and India—will go down in Florence history. (India’s primary goal in life is to avoid getting expelled over one of Brenda’s schemes.) Brenda and India are a little too clever to be plausible—if the Gossip Girl heroines are just as idiotic as Marissa Cooper, then Pinkwater’s heroines are a little too much like the magnificently crafty Veronica Mars—but the partners-in-crime tone of their friendship rings true.

Like her characters, Pinkwater’s descriptive passages are full of offbeat charm. Check out this passage, where India describes meeting Brenda’s mother for the first time:

“The first thing that impressed me about Brenda’s mother was her size. She was and is a tall, shapely woman. By Florence standards, she is fat. I only mention this because, after boutiques and salad restaurants, the most popular type of business in town happens to be body reshaping establishments. There are three elegant exercise salons on Diedre Street, two plainer health clubs in the mall, and at least four similar places scattered around town. They are all busy all of the time.

Both country clubs have workout rooms, and for those shy, rich people unwilling to leave their homes to exercise in public, there is always Ira’s Shapemobile standing by—seven days a week. Ira guarantees that within twenty-four hours of your phone call to his special emergency number—OFF-FATT—he will have an exercise instructor and one of his fully equipped minigym trucks in your driveway.

Thinness is a way of life in Florence. It’s the only place I’ve ever been where you can buy bumper stickers that say, BETTER DEAD THAN FAT.”

Over the course of the novel, Pinkwater’s heroines start an underground newspaper, publish an exposé regarding unsavory practices in the school cafeteria, and adopt a live bison as their school mascot (without informing the school). Brenda and India start relationships with boys, complain about their families, and speculate on the reasons behind the cheerleading squad’s identical noses—all of the stuff that real girls do. And unlike the heroines of the books in Wolf’s article, they don’t carry E around in their designer purses, humiliate their dorkier classmates, or have sex with frat boys named Chad.

Tragically, Buffalo Brenda is out of print. I e-mailed Jill Pinkwater about a year ago about the possibility of a reprinting, and she said that the idea had been floated around but she hadn’t heard anything definite*. But while you’re waiting to get your hands on a copy of this most excellent book, you should check out some of the other novels for teenage girls that we've mentioned on the site: Wendelin Von Draanen’s Flipped, Susan Juby’s Alice, I Think series, Holly Black’s Goth-punk fairytales, Terry Pratchett’s Tiffany Aching books. All of these books are awesome, I promise—smart, entertaining, and 100% free of weird sex scenes and brand label name-dropping.

Naomi Wolf would approve.

*Apparently, Aladdin Books owns the rights to Buffalo Brenda. Reprint this novel, Aladdin Books! If Naomi Wolf is to be believed, then you owe it to the youth of America.
Posted by: Julia, Last edit by: Julianka


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