Book Review: I Was A Teenage Fairy

This post contains discussions of sexual abuse.

I feel like a lot of people are talking about Francesca Lia Block lately, especially her 1989 cult classic Weetzie Bat. Maybe people have been talking about it all along, or maybe the latest round of movie adaptation buzz has stirred up new interest. I notice two main camps: people who read Weetzie Bat as a teenager and will love it forever, and people who read Weetzie Bat as an adult and thought it was unbearable and a little racist.

I have a middle-of-the-road opinion. When I was fifteen, I bought it as a gift for a friend and read it before I wrapped it. I liked it, but not enough to buy myself a copy. Magical realism wasn’t my jam back then. I could only take so much drifting, dreamlike prose and characters with names like My Secret Agent Lover Man.

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There was another Francesca Lia Block novel that I loved, though. I read I Was A Teenage Fairy (pub. 1998) over and over again, bookmarking the best passages to come back to. My favorites were these interludes where Block describes different cities as people. Just read the opening:

“If Los Angeles is a woman reclining billboard model with collagen-puffed lips and silicone-inflated breasts, a woman in a magenta convertible with heart shaped sunglasses and cotton candy hair; if Los Angeles is this woman, then the San Fernando Valley is her teeny-bopper sister. The teenybopper sister snaps big stretchy pink bubbles over her tongue and checks her lip gloss in the rearview mirror, causing Sis to scream. Teeny plays the radio too loud and bites her nails, wondering if the glitter polish will poison her…”

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To steal from Block’s metaphor style, I Was a Teenage Fairy is like Weetzie Bat’s savvier, more cynical older cousin. It’s still magical realism, but there’s a lot more real here. If Weetzie Bat is a fairy tale about L.A., I Was A Teenage Fairy is a cautionary tale about knowing when to get out of L.A.

In the first part of the novel, Barbie Marks is a preteen girl living in the valley. Her mother is a former model and beauty pageant queen who wants Barbie to follow in her footsteps, and her father is mostly absent. One night after looking at a photo book that includes the Cottingly Fairies, Barbie goes outside and discovers Mab, a tiny pink-haired girl with wings.

I really like fairies, which is another reason I read this book so much. have mixed feelings about Peter Pan but Tinker Bell is fantastic. When I was in high school I loved all the Amy Brown merch at Hot Topic. I love the varied European traditions and legends of the fae and the Fair Folk.

Mab from I Was A Teenage Fairy is a combination of all these. She quotes Shakespeare and reads Vogue and Psychology Today. She dresses in flower petals and lives in a dollhouse. She likes to talk about sex and have her picture taken. She might be a figment of Barbie’s imagination, a symptom of her depression or PTSD, or she might be the actual deposed queen of the fairies, searching for her kingdom.

Either way, Mab becomes Barbie’s best friend and confidant when she most needs one. In the second part of the book, she’s sixteen, still a model, and still not-quite-dealing with being sexually abused by a photographer when she was eleven.

The book deals with Babie’s abuse openly, though never graphically. The effects of that experience, combined with the neglect and emotional abuse from her parents, have left Babie profoundly unhappy. What she really wants to do is escape the toxic modeling world she’s caught up in and create some art of her own, but she isn’t sure how to do that.

Barbie discovers her own talent for photography and falls in love with playboy movie star Todd. She also reconnects with Griffin, a former child model and another victim of Barbie’s abuser.

None of it’s subtle. Not everything needs to be. The language is dreamy but doesn’t mask or forgive the terrible things that happened to Barbie and Griffin. Mab meddles, but ultimately it’s up to them to reclaim their lives.

This was magical realism I could live with when I was in high school. And a moral: sometimes things are terrible, but they can get better, and fairies are probably real. I don’t know if I’ve convinced any of the Weetzie Bat haters, but this post has led me down a rabbit hole of searching for fairy-related merchandise on the internet. If you come visit and find me curled up under this blanket, blame Francesca Lia Block.

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