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Capturing the essence of real-world girls

By Don Aucoin
Globe Staff / July 11, 2009
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Amy Boesky has a wide-angle perspective on adolescent girls, and in particular on how the lives they actually lead have - or have not - been captured in fiction, from “Little Women’’ to “Twilight.’’

Then again, she’s got a deeper resume in this department than most.

Boesky, 50, is the mother of two teenage girls and an associate professor of English at Boston College, where she teaches courses on, among other things, adolescent fiction. She recently completed a scholarly essay on the Nancy Drew novels, and is at work on a book about girlhood and the rise of adolescence from the middle of the 19th century to the middle of the 20th century.

But what gives Boesky a unique vantage point is the fact that she has written a fair amount of fiction for adolescents herself. At times, she has played two contrasting roles: academic by day, pseudonymous novelist by night.

The first time was in 1984, when she was in her early 20s and studying for a PhD in English at Harvard. An unusual offer suddenly came her way: Would she like to try her hand at writing an installment of “Sweet Valley High,’’ a hugely popular teen-lit series? (Boesky had met the series’ creator the previous year, while working at a New York publishing house).

Up to that point, Boesky’s training could scarcely have been more highbrow. She had gotten her BA at Harvard and then gone on to earn a master’s degree in Renaissance English at Oxford. Yet the doctoral student leaped at the chance to ghost-write yarns about twin teenage sisters Elizabeth and Jessica Wakefield as they coped with family, friendship, school, and romance in a high school set in a fictional California community.

“I loved it,’’ recalls Boesky, beaming at the memory in a coffee shop near her Chestnut Hill home. “It was my first experience writing for girls. I felt I was tapping into, going back to, experiences I had as a girl. This was a new voice for me, and I found it very freeing. They asked me to do another, and another, and another.’’

For the next five years, in her spare time, Boesky worked as a principal writer on the series, cranking out a bunch of “Sweet Valley High’’ books under the pseudonym Kate Williams (which she shared with several other principal writers). “I would put in all sorts of references to Shakespeare and Milton. It was a lot of fun,’’ she says. “And it helped pay for graduate school.’’

When she landed a job as an assistant professor at Georgetown in 1989, Boesky said goodbye to Sweet Valley High and focused on building her teaching credentials and writing on weighty topics for academic journals. By 1992, she had been hired at BC, where she established herself as an expert on 17th-century literature while publishing essays with titles like “Milton, Galileo and Sunspots: Optics and Certainty in Paradise Lost’’ and a book called “Founding Fictions: Utopias in Early Modern England’’ (1996).

In 2003, however, Addie Swartz, the head of a new publishing company, asked Boesky to help with the launch of “Beacon Street Girls,’’ a book series about five seventh-grade girls from Brookline. It seemed more important than ever to write about what Boesky calls “the not-yet of adolescence, the potential, the becoming,’’ and to engage girls in reading, which had been so crucial to the formation of her own identity at that age.

So Boesky helped revise the first book in the series, wrote books 2 and 3 (“Bad News/Good News’’ and “Letters From the Heart’’) under the series’ pseudonym, Annie Bryant, and sketched plot outlines for books 4, 5, and 6. From the beginning, the Beacon Street Girls represented a refreshing change from the usual tripe. They have insecurities, sure, but they confront adolescence with smarts, gumption, and ambition. In other words, they are like a lot of real-world girls.

Boesky is no longer involved with the series, opting to focus on teaching, research, and writing - under her own name. While heartened by the “vibrancy’’ of much adolescent fiction, she is troubled by what she calls a “tragic paradigm of looking at female adolescence’’ shaped by such influential works as Carol Gilligan’s “In a Different Voice’’ and Mary Pipher’s “Reviving Ophelia.’’

“I think it’s more complicated than that,’’ she says. “Like all narrative paradigms, it has a story it wants to tell, at the expense of other stories.’’

Boesky clearly see it as her job, one way or another, to tell those other stories.

Don Aucoin can be reached at aucoin@globe.com.

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