I can trace my love of Sci-fi and Fantasy back to Ray Bradbury, Roald Dahl and Madeleine L’Engle. Spaceships, scary monsters, brave kids having adventures and solving mysteries – these were my building blocks to Murakami, Atwood, Michel Faber and David Mitchell. My lifelong affair with Historical Romance, heck Romance novels in general, can be directly linked to the Sunfire Romance series I read as a kid.
While my friends were obsessed with Sweet Valley High and The Babysitters Club, I was devouring historical romance novels aimed at teen girls. And they were awesome. Each book was named for the heroine: Jessica, Veronica, Susannah, Cassandra, Roxie. She was showcased on the cover in period clothes from the time, (I particularly loved the glamorous Roxie, and the sassy suffragette Laura) and behind her would be the two hot guys she would eventually have to choose from. One part history and one part Romance. Perfection! And, unlike the aforementioned series, you didn’t have to read these “in order”. This was a “series” of stand-alone titles. LOVE!
The formula for each book was simple: A teenaged girl experiences an historical event in American history, first hand. At the same time, with very few exceptions, she is torn between two potential lovers. A bad boy, and a nice boy. And while “Romance” was a big part of it, it was not the only part. I actually learned things while reading these books. And not just how to snare a boyfriend or double-cross my twin.
The Sunfire Girl was strong, smart and sassy. She wanted to learn! She wanted to travel! She wanted to work! These girls were seeking careers, looking for adventure, and choosing men who liked them not in spite of their spirit, but because of it. She often ended up the guy who valued her for her independence rather than her ability to be a good little wife and mother. Consider that this series was published in the 80’s during the rise of Conservatism, and you’ll find them to be pretty dang progressive. Sunfire Romance was diverse, feminist and inclusive long before those words became hashtags.
The challenges that the Sunfire Girl faces are big, real world problems. In Jennie, the heroine faces life or death as she struggles to survive The Johnstown Flood of 1889. And she doesn’t just “survive”. Jennie becomes a journalist and covers the horrid disaster which killed over 2,000 people. Total badass. In Laura, the title character chooses to work for Women’s Rights rather than pursue a more suitable career, like being a nurse. This decision ultimately gets her arrested, and she loses the respect of friends and family. Other Sunfire Girls faced challenges and found love during The Revolutionary War, The Salem Witch Trials, The Boston Potato Famine, Pearl Harbor, Labor Strikes, and even Pirates… the real pirate Jean Lafitte has a cameo!
As a young girl I noticed that “boy” books often had more action than “girl” books. There were no shortage of books about boys having adventures and changing history. Boys were inventors and detectives. Boys were stranded on islands. Boys fought dragons and journeyed to the far reaches of space. I never saw a series of books about twin boys who liked dating and clothes. Boys did things. Girls on the other hand were obsessive about boys and rarely had the same kind of adventures. At least not without consequence. Girls escaped from orphanages and found lost pets. Alice and Pipi, even Laura Ingalls were labeled as girls who misbehaved. Their actions often got them into trouble. And, most of these books were written for, and about little girls, not young women. Sunfire Romance set the stage for young women to star in their own adventures. Sunfire Girls didn’t care about what the world thought, they were going to have an impact on it. And get the guy along the way.
Sadly Sunfire Romance are out of print, but in their place are dozens upon dozens of YA books featuring strong, badass, FEMALE characters. I like to think that the Sunfire Romance paved the way for The Hunger Games, and other books showcasing young women kicking ass, and taking names. Young women who did more than find the right dress for Prom. They saved the world.