Sunfire Romances and Scholarly Projects

Caroline - a Sunfire RomanceWere you a Sunfire romance reader? I totally was. And even after I cracked the code of the cover art – whomever the heroine was pictured with in the cover art was usually NOT the dude she ended up with – I still read them.  

Roxanne - Long blond hair, bright pink sweater... wow!

I loved Caroline, and read that book so many times I looked up the author, which led me to one of my msot favorite YA reads ever, The Girl with the Silver Eyes.

And I had a particularly love for Jennie, which was about the Johnstown Flood, one the greatest clusterfucks of a natural disaster in American history.

I remember searching for more of these in the library and the bookstore when I was in middle school. I thought Roxanne was the most glamorous woman on a cover I'd ever seen – I think it was the bedazzled “R” on her sweater. 

It seems I'm not the only one with fond memories of the Sunfire series.

Victoria Wu is a graduate student in history, and she contacted me because she's writing her thesis on the Sunfire series. She's hoping to talk to anyone who was a fan – and I think there are many of us who found the Sunfire series a gateway drug into romance. For me it was the one-two combination of Sunfire and then Sweet Valley High which ultimately led me to Midsummer Magic.

I asked her about her project, and this is her narrative sketch of her thesis: 

My thesis is partially historical (where I situate the text within context of 80s teen fiction, romance fiction, and Reagan conservatism) and partially literary (where I analyze the texts themselves). I have the texts, I have contemporary reactions to the texts, I even have one of the authors kindly providing me with information on how the series came about.


Scholarly literature both from the 80s as well as the present focus on the notion that 80s romance series for girls was a step back from the “problem” fiction of the seventies, as well as a step back for feminism (see Linda Christian-Smith in particular), because these books were about girls falling in love with boys and not much else (yep, same argument leveled against adult romance).



However, the Sunfire series was really markedly different. It always featured a girl “daring to be different,” seeking careers, and choosing men who valued them for their independence and not their ability to be homemakers. These books were also really progressive, especially in context of the 80s Reagan conservatism that did permeate much of romantic fiction of this time.

For example, one protagonist is arrested for being a suffragette, and another participates in a labor strike at the Lowell Mills, and so on. They also always featured girls playing prominent roles in important historical moments–persuading Jean LaFitte to help out in the Battle of New Orleans, for example, or working as a reporter during a major flood to get the news out.

The crucial piece of information I'm missing is on readership. I would be interested in talking to members of the Bitchery who may have read these books, and hearing about their experiences: Where did they buy these books/who bought these books for them? Did their friends read them?  What did the appreciate most about the Sunfires? What other books were they reading? Did Sunfires affect their later reading habits?

Who was reading these books when they first came out? How old were they? How did they get hold of the books? Were they spending their own money, borrowing from friends or siblings, receiving them as gifts from parents? How did the Sunfire compare to other books they were reading? And of course, what did they see in the Sunfires that compelled them to read the books–was it the historical setting, the heroine, the hero, the romance, etc.?

I was a bit late on the scene, since I grew up in the nineties and the Sunfire was out of print by then. Being a reader of endless voracity, my mom always took me to buy books at the used book stores (cheaper to feed the habit than at Barnes and Noble), and I could always find a Sunfire or two. My two favorites were Candice Ransom's Sabrina and Jane Claypool Miner's Margaret.

Sabrina was set during the Revolutionary War, about a Patriot girl torn between a Loyalist and a Patriot spy. For one, I thought the spy was incredibly hawt and deliciously arrogant, but I also remember loving the heroine, because she was brave and she seemed so powerful to me. She was only sixteen, but here she was changing the course of a war–playing a significant role in American history! It was thrilling to my 12 year old self. “Girls being important” was a major requirement in the fiction I read at the time, probably because I always felt so unimportant in my own life (sixth grade was a bleak time).

Margaret was a Nebraska schoolteacher, and I loved the frontier setting, the rawness of it, and I really felt her excitement of being on her own. I loved that she was smart and that her smartness was admired. Also, for some reason, it seemed incredibly romantic to me that she taught her manly but illiterate love interest how to read and write. Dunno what that says about me.

I have the same memories about my favorite Sunfires, and am surprised at how much I remember about some of them. I recall scenes from Jennie, who had to report about something horrifying and tragic that was happening to her home, her town, and people she knew. And Caroline clearly had an impact on my reading because cross dressing! I love me some cross-dressing heroines, even if I don't believe for one minute an 18 year old can fit in a 12 year old boy's trousers.

I feel a bit of hesitation about introducing y'all to people who are doing studies of reader groups, because I don't ever want you to feel obligated to participate. You're absolutely not obligated! Please do not feel as if you are! But if you'd like to contact Victoria, you can email her.

Either way, if you have many fond memories of the Sunfire series, please tell me which is your favorite. 

I'm so wishing they were digitized because I would re-read the hell out of them. Time for a trip to the used bookstore, I think! 


Random Musings

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  1. 1
    Kadiya says:

    I’d totally talk to her about reading them.  They were awesome books.  I still remember the one I liked best and exactly why I loved it so much.  lol

  2. 2
    Kadiya says:

    lol and ofc, I don’t say which one was my fav.  Cassie, hands down.  I was impressed with her willingness to try and more importantly her willingness to take the consequences of her actions.  Her Mom though, I adored her! I mean, that was the most amazing thing a Mom could do – love her daughter so much and accept her as she was.

  3. 3
    Elizabeth Houston says:

    I’ve never read them, but I have read The Girl with the Silver Eyes, and Don’t Hurt Laurie. Love Willo Davis Roberts’ kids books!

  4. 4

    Ooohhhhh!!! I was reading them!  I still have some of them!!  I kept my favorites… Marilee and Susannah were my favorites… I think the first was given to me to me as a gift from a teacher when I was in an advanced class. It was Amanda Other than that one, I think I probably used money from my paper route (we were broke, so that’s how I earned my book $$) and bought them used.  A few might have been gifts.  I had quite a few at once.

  5. 5
    Jennifer says:

    O-M-G, I vaguely remember these from my youth- My 12-year-old self checked out these books along with the Dana Fuller Ross “state!”-titled books from my local library. As this was 25 years ago, I don’t remember much except the junkie-like joy of checking the books out and marking down which ones I’d read. :)

  6. 6
    Kimberly Mears says:

    Caroline was my absolute favorite!!  My mother wouldn’t let me read any kind of romance, ever.  The librarian told her these weren’t romances, they were “historical fiction” and very good for teaching history.  My mom let me check them out at the library (she still would never have let me buy one). I loved that librarian!  She made sure that she had all of them. She always kept one behind the counter that I hadn’t read so that I could check it out!  I still love historical romances.  I have thought about going back and rereading a few, but I am worried that they will lose that specialness (like so many movies I loved as a kid).

  7. 7
    Laura says:

    I loved these.  I read all of them I could find – luckily, my local library had most of them and I would get a different one each time I went. 

    Recently, I was at the local thrift store and I came across one.  Not only that…it was “Laura”.  I snapped that right up. 

    I remember reading Roxanne, but it wasn’t my favorite.  I think I remember liking the one on the Titanic and the Oregon Trail one.  I want to say Emily was my favorite – she was the New York Society girl that went on to work in a hospital, but I loved it for the scene in the dress shop where she faints because she suddenly realizes that the birds are dying to make her hats.

  8. 8
    Jennifer in GA says:

    I loved these books so much! I just sent her an email.

  9. 9
    cayenne says:

    I loved, loved, loved this series – they got me thoroughly hooked on history and historical fiction. Mostly I got them as gifts or from UBSs, and the biggest issue I had was keeping my sister from appropriating them. I think I managed to hold on to about 6 of them, and took them with me when I moved out – and still have them, after a number of shelf purges. The ones I recall the most strongly were Susannah, Marilee, Caroline, Amanda, Elizabeth, and Sabrina, and Marilee was my fave.

  10. 10
    Holly says:

    So hard to pick a favorite.  I read them throughout late 80s, early 90s, I think?  Jennie was my first and I was obsessed with finding MORE because of it, but I know Laura and Caroline really stuck with me. Laura was amazing – volunteering to support the cause in WWI, a sufragette, worried about her brother dying in a war fought far away, pissing off her family and friends for believing women should have rights, being arrested and force fed, flirting and dealing with too many boys thinking she’s nifty, and hey, she gets both the right to vote and a cute supportive boy in the end.  Yay happy endings! I don’t think that was a spoiler because as stated, one glance at the cover and you know that she’s totally ending up with the other guy. And hopefully you already knew how that whole voting thing turned out.

  11. 11
    Victoria says:

    Thank you SO much to everyone who responded here and through email. I appreciate it and am having so much fun reading your responses!

  12. 12
    Kaye Dacus says:

    My favorite was VICTORIA, with CAROLINE a close second. And those led me to MY favorite YA book of all time, WHITE JADE by WDR. Falling in love with these books and being disappointed when they ended is what got me started writing when I was a teenager—-and what made me fall in love with history so much that I minored in it in college!

  13. 13
    Rebecca says:

    I remember liking COREY about a girl who was an escaped slave in Boston during the Civil War.  I think I picked it up in elementary school (or maybe early junior high??) as part of the “Reading is Fundamental” program in the NYC schools.  There was some partnership with Scholastic Books where they contributed a range of novels to participating schools two or three times a year, and the books (all shiny and new and tempting) were set out on tables in a classroom or the library, and we each got to pick one and take it home and keep it.  The idea was to get brand-new books into the homes of children who might not otherwise afford to buy them.  (It was a lovely program, though I was not the target audience, and my copies of COREY and THE SCARLET LETTER and a few others probably could have gone to much more book-deprived kids.)  A quick google-search reveals that the program is still in existence in some form.  You could probably find out who selected the books, and if other Sunfires were part of the program.

    My one problem with COREY was that I didn’t think the love triangle was that convincing.  It seemed obvious to my pre-adolescent self that she should ditch the childhood sweetheart illiterate southerner who thought her reading and getting interested in politics was uppity, and go with the sensitive college-educated northern dude.  Because of that, I think I genuinely didn’t read it as a romance, but more as a “straight” historical novel about Boston and the abolitionists.  The romance seemed contrived to me.

    That said, I don’t think I knew that the Sunfire books were part of a series.  I would have read more of them if I’d known, because hey, historical novels with girls.  (I was raised on a steady diet of Geoffrey Trease and any other historical fiction I could get my hands on.)

  14. 14
    Black Dragon Mama says:

    I loved these soooooooooo much!  I checked out every one that my library had and re-read them constantly.  I remember really liking JENNIE, SUSANNAH, SABRINA, and EMILY.  I think I spent equal amounts of time reading and poring over the covers because I was so impressed by the depictions of the heroines, her beaux, and their respective fashion choices. Years ago, when I met my sister-in-law, she only had to say, “I have a huge collection of Sunfire books” for me to know that we were going to be best friends.

  15. 15
    Heather Greye says:

    I loved these too and Caroline was my favorite. It probably explains my love of the cross-dressing heroine too.
    Adored Girl With the Silver Eyes too…and didn’t know it was the same author. I’m trying to remember my other favorites in the series….hmmm
    I spent my own money on these. Couldn’t wait to get to the store to get the next one!

  16. 16

    I was all over these in Junior High. My guilty secret is that I still keep a few of them stashed in closets in my parents house for some late-night comfort reading when I’m home visiting. I probably have Roxanne memorized, but Emily (She turned her back on high society, because she wanted to become a nurse and open up a clinic for the poor in turn of the century New York!) and Heather (A bold free spirit in the New World, where she’s turn between a Dutch merchant and the son of an aristocrat, who is also a talented painter who’s painting her portrait!) really stand out in my memory.

  17. 17
    Ann Rose says:

    I loved these so hard, with Cassie (named Snow Flower by her adoptive NA mom), Jessica and Danielle taking the top spot in my esteem. Vivian Schurfranz, in retrpspect, was wildly formulaic, with the heroine overhearing some nefarious plot by page xyz and usually held captive or hiding out in a cave at some point in the book, but she was still my favorite author of the line. Mary Francis Shura was my second favorite author. When I stumbled upon a shrink-wrapped box set of Susannah, Laura and Joanna a few years ago in a thrift shop, I felt like I’d won the lottery of sweet nostalgia. i don’t recall when they cut down the page length later in the series’ run (Corey, Megan and Rachel were all shorter books than Laura, Emily and Victoria), but that was a big disappointment and i think I drifted away from them for longer reads in both romance and other genres.

  18. 18
    Aziza says:

    Same here. I remember the Sunfire books from library racks and B. Dalton, but historical fiction’s never been my thing. The Girl with the Silver Eyes, though, was the shit  well before that was a phrase.

    Willo Davis Roberts also wrote The View from the Cherry Tree.

  19. 19
    Jessie says:

    I love these books! I read them all when I was a teenager! I could never find them in our local bookstores since they were out of print when I discovered them but the local library had them all! My favorites were Kathleen, Nicole, Danielle, and Amanda. At the time I was really into historical fiction. It would explain why those four are my favorites since they covered some of my favorite periods/times for historical fiction. I still recommend these books to my friends and their siblings when they’re looking for a nice romance novel. I’ve lent out my copies multiple times over the years.

  20. 20
    tigerkat81 says:

    I my God, I’d forgotten about these, but I loved them and devoured them like crack. I grew up in the 90s, but my dad had a much-younger cousin who had a boatload of them and let me borrow a bunch when I was in middle school.  I also remember finding some at the book store in the mall (W. B. Dalton, I think?) I’m I making it up or was their a similar series out in the mid- late 90s where the titles were all differenstates, or were there just a few in that one that had state-related titles? Can’t remember the title, but my favorite was the one where the rancher’s daughter was torn between a white boy or the son of a nearby hispanic rancher whom her father did’t approve of for racial reasons.

  21. 21
    tigerkat81 says:

    Gah! Sorry for all the typos, writing on my phone :(

  22. 22
    Victoria says:

    I think that would be VICTORIA, which I loved because we share a name. ;)

  23. 23
    Noelle says:

    Oh my gosh, I DEVOURED these. I started reading them at probably 8 or 9, so late eighties/early nineties.  I’d save up my allowance and then beg my mom to take me to the one bookstore I knew so I could pick up my next one.  I would eventually own most of them, but my repeat reads were Megan, Gabrielle, Merrie, Josie, Julie and especially Margaret, which was my absolute favorite (still like those hate-turns-to-love stories).  I thought Gerald was a total bozo and Robert was so sweet and dreamy.  He was kind and brave and had the hots for Margaret (who was completely oblivious to it until the very end).  LOVED IT.

    I continued to read the Sunfire books even after I had graduated to romance a couple years later.  There was something very simple and satisfying about them.  I second SB Sarah’s wish: I would tooootally read Sunfire books on my Kindle!

  24. 24

    I loved Sunfires so much! I used to haunt the B. Dalton in my local mall looking to spend my allowance on new ones. My all-time favorite was probably MARILEE, but I also loved AMANDA, SUSANNAH, NICOLE, COREY, and EMILY. Come to think of it, I think a big part of my love for cross-class historical romances where the hero is the one from the wrong side of the tracks is because I imprinted on Sunfires.

  25. 25
    Vasha says:

    Oh gosh, this is so reminding me of a favorite book from my childhood; I can’t remember the title, but I’m sure it can’t have been a Sunfire, because although the heroine winds up with a boyfriend that’s a relatively minor part of the story. Can I launch a mini-HABO and see if any of you read this one? It was a teen girl who gets a job at a newspaper, probably around 1900, and although she is initially assigned to fashions and wedding reports, she wants to do “real” reporting, and gets a chance to do so when she pulls off a coup by getting an interview with a suffragist who is in town lecturing. There was also an incident with a radio concert where they invite three singers, a soprano, tenor, and baritone, and don’t ask them what they plan to sing; each one does “O Sole Mio”! A listener felt they were hearing an echo in a different key. This book is also, I think, where I first heard the term “masher” (a man who goes around kissing random women on streetcars and such—we have different words for that now).

  26. 26
    Violet Bick says:

    Wow. I never heard of these books, never even knew they existed. Where was I? (I love historical fiction, but I guess I was well into into my SF/F stage at that time—Anne McCaffrey, Katherine Kurtz, especially.) Maybe my library didn’t carry them? I do know at that time I couldn’t swing a dead cat without hitting a Sweet Valley High book.

    They sound like American Girl books for an older demographic. I wonder if there is any connection? Could they have inspired the creation of the American Girl series?

  27. 27
    Theresa says:

    I loved these books.  My younger sister and I had the whole collection and both read these.  I moved out of our parent’s house before her and when she moved out, she took the whole Sunfire collection with her!  I was so upset – we got into a fight about this.  Needless to say, since she kept them, about 10 years ago, I had to use ebay and used book stores to recreate our collection so I had a copy!  I do wish these were digitized as well – I’d probably buy them again just so I could read them easily.  Anyway, I know what I’m going to read this weekend!

    Its really hard to pick a favorite.  I can tell you those i didn’t like.  Sorry, but I didn’t like Roxanne, Gabrielle or Danielle.  But my favorites were probably Cassie, Laura and Emily.

  28. 28
    LauraN says:

    I loved Sabrina too.  She was a spy!  She had a daring adventure in the swamp!  That spy dude was totally hot!  My little heart just went pitter-pat. Also, I love books set during the Revolutionary War.  There aren’t enough of them.

    But seriously, I needed a mood booster, and this post provided it.  I just finished “The Turncoat” by Donna Thorland and it’s being promoted as a romance, but to me it sooooooooo wasn’t.  It was rapey as shit and there was this whole “sex has to be scary and dangerous and sometimes hurtful because I hate myself for what I’ve become and I can’t feel pleasure without pain” thing that never really got resolved and there was loving two brothers and kind of conflating the two but also hating herself for doing it and there was drama drama drama.  I tried to stop reading because it was bringing me down, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the characters.  I tried just reading the last chapter, like I do when I’m just not that into a book but I want it resolved so I can just move on, but there was so much fuckedupedness that the last chapter wasn’t enough to reassure me and, you guys, I really wish I’d never started it to begin with.  As I said before, I really like Revolutionary War period (French and Indian War is even MORE favorite) novels so I was all excited.  And then I so wasn’t.  But now I’m thinking about how much I loved Sabrina and wondering if I still have a copy somewhere in my parents’ attic.  These are much happier thoughts to go to sleep to.  Good night, interwebs!  Pleasant dreams!

  29. 29

    I checked these out from my junior high school’s library.  My favorite had to be Rachel.  I also remember reading Roxanne, Nicole, and Margaret.  These books were basically my first excursion into romance novels!

  30. 30
    LisaJo885 says:

    What, no love for “Joanna”, and the girls at the Lowell Mills? That was the only one that I read, and I’m fairly sure it went flying off a truck when I moved 10-ish years ago. I did read it as a pre-teen in the mid-80’s and then again as an adult and absolutely loved it. I’m not sure I realized as a kid that it was a romance, I just thought it was a neat story. When I was reading the article, it popped into my head immediately. Now I’ll have to go check the UBS’s! Thanks for the reminder!

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