I don’t remember for sure what would set her off; it might have been the fact that I owned one of the books in question. But one of my friends in high school could sing the “Especially for Girls” jingle from memory. And would. She particularly liked the “my first period!” line, possibly because it made the freshman boys around us particularly uncomfortable. Candace was like that. But if you mention “Especially For Girls” to women my age, you’re likely to get a certain far-away look as we remember the series.
It doesn’t have a Wikipedia page. You can find the commercial on YouTube, but it turns out you can find lots of old commercials on YouTube, if that’s your idea of fun. (Heck, not long ago, my son and I went wandering through a collection of vintage screen savers.) You can also track down the names of most of the books in the series. There are pictures of the journal—a copy of which is probably in my possessions somewhere to this day. It was the “free gift” that hooked a lot of us into asking for a series of young adult novels aimed directly at us.
I think the idea of “thing for girls” is a double-edged sword a lot of the time, honestly. Because it suggests that, yes, girls are allowed to have interests that aren’t Things That Boys Like. What it means is that if something is deemed Not Something Boys Like, it can in theory be inaccessible to girls as well. On the other hand, it ghettoizes the product. Stuff For Girls is given less support. Further, while girls are expected to like boys’ things, boys are expected to dislike girls’ things.
As it happens, the Especially For Girls novel I’m sure I still own, I Am the Universe, by Barbara Corcoran, has a lot of universal themes to it. It’s the story of a twelve-year-old girl who is assigned a paper in English class about who she is; the novel is also titled Who Am I Anyway? Kit has an older brother, a younger brother, and a younger sister; she is generally “the normal one.” Then her mother is diagnosed with brain cancer. Kit is left having to deal with keeping her family going, with no one noticing how much work she has to do for it.
Another of the books I got, Ghosts Beneath Our Feet, by Betty Ren Wright, is a ghost story set in the former mining town of Newquay—the state is never mentioned. Katie Blaine, another girl of the approximate age of the target audience, goes there with her mother and stepbrother after her stepfather’s death. The town is basically collapsing into the mine and fading away and generally a place to come from. Also Katie is seeing a ghost, and she is convinced that, on top of the benign—maybe even friendly—ghost appearing to her in a series of warnings, there are dangerous ghosts out to harm the family.
We see Kit and Katie and the assorted other heroines deal with ordinary issues on top of whatever the plot of the book is about. Kit doesn’t like her brother’s girlfriend. Katie wants to get along with her stepbrother and doesn’t know how to handle his angry grief. Katie in particular is also alone—she’s just moved to a town where she doesn’t know anyone and doesn’t fit in. There aren’t even all that many people for her to fit in with, given how small and decrepit the town is. Jay is having the same problem, after all, on top of having lost his actual father. Katie liked her stepfather, but Jay is now living with a stepmother and stepsister. I don’t remember what happened to his mother.
But when you’re describing stories about girls to people—be it Kit and Katie or Mei and Mirabel—you have to explain how their stories aren’t “just about girls” in order to explain how they’re universal. Girls are expected to relate to boys; boys aren’t expected to relate to girls. It isn’t enough for these girls to be appealing and interesting while they live through the feminine experience in their time and place. You have to explain to people about how anyone can relate to their lives.
Arguably, the entire YA genre is strongly geared toward girls, and the Especially For Girls line just emphasized that. YA fiction is probably one of the genres with the most female protagonists—though of course it’s generally the male ones who get crossover success. And, yes, Especially For Girls was a marketing tool. However, it did acknowledge that girls were a market, which people don’t always do. Depressing that that’s where we are, yes, but it is where we are.
Sometimes, you can be nostalgic about something that you agree is a symptom of a larger problem. For one thing, my mother didn’t sign me up for these books and there were some issues there; they shouldn’t have allowed a minor to agree to get the series—which I don’t remember doing anyway. I feel as though that kind of thing doesn’t happen anymore, though goodness knows there are online issues enough that it doesn’t take selling kids books to create problems. Still, if I don’t remember any books I got other than I Am the Universe and Ghosts Beneath Our Feet, I can remember quite a lot of those two. And Candace singing the commercial.