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book review - kids in america: a gen x reckoning

Updated: Apr 17, 2022

An engaging book and revealing look at Generation X that goes behind the nostalgia and makes us wonder... how did we turn out so well?

Liz Prato’s collection of essays truly reflects the culture and issues of our generation, and hindsight is 20/20. The book sheds some light on some not-so-nice realities often lost in the more frequent “bubble gum” nostalgia of the 80s. I found this book to be an eye-opening look back, leading readers like me – a Gen X girl – to take a more thoughtful look at the people, issues, and times that shaped our generation.

Some of these scenarios raise serious stuff that was just sprinkled all over society in our growing up years, but rarely talked about – racial injustice, rape culture, drug addiction, and mental illness. Some of her stories do spotlight pop culture, like the movies and television shows we consumed and loved – not to mention some of the characters we looked up to. But it’s more than a look. It’s an eye-opening examination to what we were exposed. To show the impact of it all, Prato sprinkles in her real life former classmates and family members with people like 90210’s “Dylan McKay” and General Hospital’s “Luke and Laura.” Put under the microscope of today’s 2022 lens, and our midlife perspectives, these stories are almost surprising in showing just how much all these people, real or not, impacted our lives and shaped our perceptions. If that wasn’t all clear then, it surely is now, when you read this book.

One of my favorite essays is titled “That Long, Weird Essay That’s Entirely About Beverly Hills, 90210.” Prato conveys that Gen X still “needed and wanted the fantasy of a moral universe.”

“Despite the financial crisis of the late eighties (and the morality play of Oliver Stone’s Wall Street), we were still captivated by the aspirational lifestyles of the rich and famous, by the (mostly) privileged teens of John Hughes movies, and the eternal youth of MTV. Beverly Hills, 90210 fused all these concepts in a glossy depiction of the lives of American teenagers.”

Though I’ve seen every episode many times, the way Prato calls out what the show dealt with under all that gloss – how they dealt with it (which will make readers cringe now) and how much we likely absorbed - is pretty striking – date rape, car crashes, drug dealings, expulsions, cults, overdoses, abuse, virginity, cheating at school, cheating on boyfriends/girlfriends, racism and more.

Prato’s prep school stories will resonate with readers, too. It did even for me, a kid who grew up in the Chicago public school system and, later, at a Midwest suburban high school. Because we all knew people like Prato did. Those who looked different or felt different. But no one talked about it then (look at Gen Z today!). And maybe we didn’t see things under the surface at the time - prejudice, pressures, discrimination, abuse, bullying, mental health struggles - because we didn’t try looking very hard. It was all around us, but we were latchkey kids letting ourselves in after school, and trying to learn about love and sexuality and right vs. wrong from television.

Kids in America (Santa Fe Writers Project, June 2022) puts a microscope on our generation with spot-on observations that will have you nodding in agreement on one page and shaking your head at the way the world was then on the next. This book is such a great walk down memory lane, but it’s way more than that – it’s a critical look at a society and time that shaped us, and just might make readers feel almost relieved that we turned out so well! Don’t miss it!

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