If you follow me on Twitter, you might have seen me happily tweeting about the Ally’s World books a few nights ago. The editions being published these days look like this:
Though when I was 12, they looked like this:
I loved them when I was ten or eleven. For the most part, I deeply disliked all the “preteen girl books” that were being advertised and promoted to me at that age. I had grown up on a diet of adventure stories rather than fairy tales, so books which mostly featured girls sitting around worrying about boys and excitedly discussing dresses were rather alien to me. (Nancy Blackett never would have stood for it, for a start).
It was also concerning: was this what I was meant to be doing? Those girls had friendship groups; they were excited about starting their periods; they shoved things in their training bras to make it look like they had breasts. This was all extremely foreign to me. I wanted to a) swim in the sea quite a bit, b) be a scientist and/or writer, and c) read as many books as possible. I was highly ambivalent about everything to do with the looming onslaught of puberty, but especially the breasts/periods bit. I was definitely not as excited as all those girls in the books. I did not have any friends, which is something I was already self-conscious about, without all the books telling me I should be a social butterfly. I carried on picking up those preteen girl books anyway, for ages, because I thought it was what I was meant to like reading, and then I felt guilty the whole way through.
At last, I came across some that I really, truly enjoyed. The Ally’s World books are about a 13-year-old girl, Ally Love, who lives with her dad and an assortment of siblings/pets in Crouch End in London. The conceit of the novels is that she is writing to her mum, who walked out on the family when Ally was nine, so that if one day she comes back she can catch up quickly. Ally has two close friends, and also several who are much more hassle than they’re worth; she has a helpless crush on a much older boy, which never really comes to fruition; she does okay at school and likes some of her teachers, but still grumbles about her homework. The new covers for the books are very feminine, but the originals just look like a depiction of a fairly average girl. One of her two close friends is a boy of her own age, and that’s never really a thing*. Nobody minds. She’s just allowed by the narrator to have a close friend who is a boy. In short, she was much closer to reality for me than the girls in those other books who had many friends, and sleepovers, and were all extremely interested in fashion**.
The stories tended to take the format of a challenge or conflict that Ally is facing. She will make some bad decisions, followed by a good one. For example, in the first book, she’s asked to show a rather difficult new girl around her school. She starts off by grumbling a bit and doing it reluctantly–then she loses her temper within the hearing of the new girl and says some rather heated things–lastly, there is some degree of resolution, as they collaborate on a school project together. The books were published by Scholastic, so they do have an element of Ally Learns a Lesson in them–but snuck in at the sides, so you don’t even notice. The situations she faces get tougher as the books go on and she grows up. For example, in a later book, she realises that one of her older sisters is being bullied and has taken to shoplifting in an attempt to make herself feel better. She has to figure out how to help her sister without being a grass. That’s a really difficult situation, and I remember it being dealt with sensitively in the book.
Anyway, I loved them so much, but by the time the last few were released, I was older, and the covers looked like this:
That is a) targeted at people a lot younger than I was, and b) targeted at people a lot more girly than I have ever been. In addition to that, I’d discovered the whole “Sad Victorian Novels About Being A Misunderstood Intellectual” genre, which was much more my speed. So I skipped the last few Ally’s World books, and reread Wuthering Heights a dozen times instead. I listened to a lot of melancholy jazz and skulked awkwardly in corners at social events.
These days, I have aged out of Book Shame, though. I always wondered how the series ended. Ally and her peers were characters I encountered at the tail end of that magical age, when the children I met in books were ones who would grow up with me. I’ve written extensively elsewhere about the fact that, for a long time, the only friends I had were found in books–including Ally and her family. Even in the midst of my teenage pretension, I didn’t forget that, and I used to feel a little pang when I saw the books being advertised and forced myself to pass them by.
I was wondering about Ally and her family the other day, and initially I tried to find a boxed set of the series online (with their original covers, thank you very much). That was unsuccessful, but then I remembered that libraries exist, so I immediately went to the local library and picked the first one up.
Well, I read it in an hour, and it is just as joyful and fun and friendly as I remember. It is full of cats and nice dads and bikes and efficient older sisters and bad cooking. Everything ends relatively happily. I am going to reread them all (the whole way through, this time!), and buy them so that I have them on hand for emergencies, and I feel very good about it indeed.
*I suspect they might get together in the final book, but that’s after fourteen books of it not really being a thing, so I’ll allow it. Both of Ally’s sisters also have friends who are boys, and again it’s not really a thing.
**When I was younger, the Babysitters’ Club also showed me a more interesting picture of teenage girlhood than those other books. Sorry, I know everyone else loves Judy Blume, but I would always have several weeks’ worth of identity crises after I read one of her books. Ditto Jacqueline Wilson.