(Please do not confuse the TEEN ANGELS book series with the single-season TGIF series “Teen Angel” that aired sometime around 1998, co-starring Ron Glass [Shepherd Book to you] as “Rod, God’s Cousin.” We will talk about “Teen Angel” [SINGULAR] at a later date.)
The time was 1996. I was ten, and allowed to rollerblade down to the branch library by the lake (the small one near Pat’s Pantry, half a mile away from the house, please do not imagine I was allowed to rollerblade to the main library at this time), weather permitting. I was responsible for my own library fines, which were enormous, and would spend several hours reading as much as I could before checking out with the ten-book limit.
I did not know how to brake with my rollerblades until I was fourteen, but I learned to rollerblade at about the age of eight, which leaves about six years of leaping off of the sidewalk onto the nearest patch of grass whenever I wanted to stop or slow down, which made for slow and bloody progress.
Anyhow. One of the series made available for young persons such as myself at the Hoffman Estates Lake Branch was Teen Angels, written by Cherie Bennett and her husband Jeff. I feel like this sort of off-brand, vaguely Christian book experienced a real Golden Age in the late 1990s, although I have absolutely zero evidence to back up this claim. Heaven is real, as is TEEN HEAVEN, obviously, and so is God (referred to as “The Big Guy” but never directly seen) and, kind of surprisingly, Hell and the Devil, but there’s no mention of Jesus or theology of any kind, and none of the Teen Angels express any sort of piety or religious worldview beyond “listen to your heart.” The books were primarily about three teenagers (Cisco, Nicole, and Melody) who died before their time *~*~*oN tHE SaME dAy*~*~* and they were relentlessly cheerful, except for the occasional moment when they took their own premise seriously:
“But I like little kids,” Melody said softly. “Someday I hope to have a whole bunch of kids of my own and –”
She stopped, realizing what she had just said. “I mean,” she finally continued, “I used to hope to have a whole bunch of kids…”
– Teen Angels #5, Nightmare In Heaven
“We had picked up a couple of six packs and I was totally wasted,” Spencer recalled. “I thought it would help take away the pain –”
“But it never does,” Cisco put in.
“Yeah,” Spencer agreed. “Anyway, these dudes dared me to dive into this lake from the bluffs. And I thought, ‘Yeah, I’ll show ’em I’m not a chicken..'”
“You didn’t make it?” Cisco asked softly.
“I’m here, aren’t I?” Spencer replied sharply. He brushed some loose hair off his face. “I broke my neck.”
“Hey, we all did idiot stuff,” Cisco said gently, touching his hand. “It’s just that most of the time we got away with it.”
“Yeah,” Spencer agreed. “You never think anything bad is going to happen to you when you’re alive…” He looked out into the distance again. “Well, it does. And then it’s too late. I’m never playing pro tennis now, that’s for sure.”
– Teen Angels #4, Heaven Help Us!
JD snapped his fingers, and the lights in the Earth Scope room went out. Suddenly, the screen glowed a deep purple, then it filled with a scene of bucolic wonder, at some small farm in some rural area, somewhere Down Below…
She sucked in her breath sharply.
Because right there, on the screen in front of her, was a teenaged girl — she looked to be around sixteen.
And she had just pulled a gun out of her canvas shoulder bag.
“What’s she doing?” Cisco exclaimed.
The girl walked towards one of the horses near the fence on this farm.
The big gray horse looked at the girl soulfully. Then, thinking that the girl was going to feed him an apple or maybe a carrot, the horse ambled slowly and innocently toward the girl.
“No!” Cisco cried, as if she could stop what was happening.
Just then the Earth Scope camera zoomed in for a close-up of the girl.
Holding the gun to the head of the horse.
“No, JD, you’ve got to stop her!” Cisco cried frantically, jumping up from her seat.
But JD didn’t move. And as Cisco watched the Earth Scope in horror, the girl pulled the trigger to the gun and shot the horse in the head.
It died instantly.
– Teen Angels #4, Heaven Help Us!
In series like this one — Sweet Valley High in particular comes to mind — each new installment comes with a handful of pages reminding readers of the original premise, which is weird enough when it’s describing what kind of car the Wakefield twins drove and their perfect size six figures, but transcends inanity and heads straight for the sublime when it’s about TEEN HEAVEN:
“You know, when I was alive,” Cisco began, “we had to drive all day and half the night to go to the beach in florida.”
“And here in Teen Heaven all JD has to do is snap his fingers, and we’re here!” melody pointed out.
“I still don’t get how he did that,” Nicole commented.
“There’s a lot I don’t get about this place,” Cisco surmised, stretching out in the warm sunshine. “But I say, hey, it’s a day at Teen Heaven beach. Enjoy it.”
“Pass me the sunscreen,” Nicole said to Cisco, who took the tube of Coppertone and tossed it to her friend. “I don’t want to get cancer.”
“You’re dead,” Cisco reminded her, “you can’t get cancer.”
– Teen Angels #5, Nightmare In Heaven
These were books wholly without irony; they had taglines like “Cisco has a new Earthly assignment – reform a horse killer” and “There’s a new girl in Teen Heaven, and she’s after Melody’s boyfriend!” They were also (much like Sweet Valley) somehow aggressively chaste and lustful at the same time, Teen Angels frequently refer to the desire to “jump [one another]’s bones” and make out passionately with one another, but they might as well not have bodies between the neck and the knees otherwise. These people talk and act like no teenager I have ever met, which might explain why I was so obsessed with them at the age of ten.
Someone brought four of the books to my housewarming party last week and I haven’t been able to put them down since. Not with lines like:
“The Street Divas are the toughest gang in Salt Lake City.”
“So TeenHeavenWorld is the hugest amusement park ever built, Melody read. It has all the rides from all the world’s greatest parks, plus some rides that don’t even exist Down Below. And it’s not just for our Teen Heaven, but for the Teen Heavens for French kids, and Russian kids, and Mexican kids, and —
As if to underscore this last point, a big group of Asian teens, although they were dressed in very cool, typically American clothes, barreled by, laughing and shouting…and talking happily and hurriedly in Japanese.”
Why is Teen Heaven segregated? Why are there language barriers in Teen Heaven? There’s a place, by the way, called “Ultimate Heaven,” where the Teens can ascend after they receive an unspecified number of points on their Angel Cards (they get points for their Angel Missions); is Ultimate Heaven also separated by national boundaries? And does the nations change in Heaven when their political boundaries shift on earth?
There’s a scene where Cisco secretly submits a film she made in Teen Heaven (I know) to the Sundance Film Festival (I know) and it gets accepted (I KNOW) and JD gives all the Teen Angels permission to attend the premiere (I KNOW), ONLY FOR THE FILM TO BURN OUT THE SECOND IT STARTS PLAYING BECAUSE CISCO “NEEDED TO BE REMINDED TO GIVE UP [HER] EARTHLY DREAMS NOW THAT [SHE’S] DEAD” (I KNOW).
At another point, Teen Angel Melody’s boyfriend Chaz is sent to earth to start dating her human charge and tells her “Just remember, this isn’t real life for us.”
Anyhow, in conclusion, the Teen Angels series: a land of contrasts. As far as I can tell, it ran for six books in an eight-month period and none of the Teen Angels ever got to move on. Now neither can I.
Mallory is an Editor of The Toast.