how sassy changed my life book cover

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I was a Sassy girl. Though I was a wee bit young for the demographic, being only nine or ten when the magazine started publishing and sixteen or so when it stopped, I loved my every issue of Sassy. It spoke to me. It taught me. It understood my freaky teen aged self.

And, according to Kara Jesella and Marisa Meltzer, authors of How Sassy Changed My Life: A Love Letter to the Greatest Teen Magazine of All Time, I was very much not alone. They posit that there are a whole nation of us Sassy girls, including luminaries like Bitch founders Andi Zeisler and Lisa Jervis and Bust creator Debbie Stoller, all of whom credit Sassy as a major influence in their work. And the book, as much as being about Sassy, is about us.

As fair warning, this book is not an intellectual criticism of Sassy or the articles that ran in it. While there is certainly history here (Jesella and Meltzer talked to nearly everyone ever involved with the magazine), there is also a fair amount of nostalgia. And near hero-worship of Sassy's staff, particularly the indomitable Christina Kelly, who served first as Sassy's entertainment editor and then eventually as the managing editor. But the book never claims to be impartial--it says right in the title that it's a love letter--so I think that's OK.

Reading the book got me back into thinking about Sassy, and about how different it was to be a girl outside the mainstream in the late 80s and early 90s compared to now. Before Sassy, and the time period that spurred it (grunge and riot grrrl music, the advent of Generation X, etc.) there had for many years been very little commoditization of being "alternative", especially for girls. Sassy was, the book claims (and I agree), integral to making it hip to be weird by the mid-90s. And although that has certainly turned back on itself by now (emo?), I still think it was culturally positive. It certainly made it easier to be me going through high school.

When I did my undergrad thesis research on Ms. magazine in the 1970s, I was astounded at how much difference a magazine can make, especially to people in the middle of the country and outside cities, and especially before we all had the Internet to easily connect us to like-minded souls all over the place. Reading this book's account of Sassy readers, and remembering my own relationship with the magazine, I got the same feeling. Its major purpose wasn't entertaining me, or educating me, or introducing me to the cool new stuff, it was helping me realize that I wasn't alone.

Now that the Internet serves that purpose for many teens, I wonder if the heyday of magazines is really over? The book implies that it is, pointing out that the 90s zine revolution has been nearly completely replaced by blogs. Stupid as it may be, I'd never made this connection, but I think it's astute. And, again as the book points out, blogs are far more accessible to your average small town girl than zines, which had to be ordered through the postal service if you didn't have a hip local bookstore or coffee shop (which I certainly didn't). Which is good. But I still feel a pretty big pang of sadness to think of girls now not having the monthly mail thrill I got when my Sassy came.

So, if you are a teen magazine scholar of some sort, this book is probably going to bug you. However, if you're a nostalgic Sassy girl like me, you'll enjoy it. It's a quick easy read and gives a bit of behind-the-scenes dirt that is still exciting after all these years. And it will really make you wish you'd kept all those magazines, because you'll want to read them again and they are really expensive on Ebay.

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April 2012

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