I’ve decided to blame DC Comics, if that’s okay with you.
See, I’m sure they started it all with Superboy, The Adventures of Superman When He Was a Boy. There had been similar phenomena before, but the modern age of the childhood backstory really gets its start there. In my theory, this is what led to that spate of TV shows in the late 20th century like “Before They Were Stars”. A few books had already come out, showing yearbook pictures of the rich and famous, but whoever decided to turn that into video entertainment started something. (The craze has waned now because so many stars become famous before they get to high school. We were recently given a DVD which shows a retrospective documentary on the career of Miley “Hannah Montana” Cyrus. They should not make retrospective DVDs of people who are not older than DVD technology.)
I didn’t catch on all at once. I had been toiling away at the Book Fair putting old high school and college yearbooks out for a quarter apiece, because I was too sentimental to throw them away. Illinois schools went into the Chicago section and everyone else went into Reference. As we packed up after each Book Fair, I sighed and sent away dozens of old yearbooks, with their earnest science students gazing at Bunsen burners and their would-be stars putting on “Arsenic and Old Lace” or “Charley’s Aunt”. (Every high school is REQUIRED to present one of these plays every ten years. It’s the law.)
Then came the year when there were no yearbooks to pack up. “Hmmmm,” sez I, “We had a maniac among our customers this year.” (Okay, okay: what I said was “we had ANOTHER maniac”. But that’s beside the point.)
The next year, only one yearbook, which had obviously gone through a flood, was left behind. I did not question this trend. I responded to it by raising the price of yearbooks to fifty cents. Behold! The following year I had only two yearbooks standing alone on the shelf.
It seems somebody out there had decided that old yearbooks were COLLECTIBLE. After all, if you know a celebrity went to Helen Sclair High School, that means there will be three or four years’ worth of yearbooks with that fresh to-be-famous face in it. (If they went to Latin School, there could be even more.) And somebody out there will pay actual money to get a picture of Charlton Heston in the spring musical or Ann-Margret in her tap shoes.
So I’ve gone up to a dollar for most yearbooks now, and I riffle through looking for celebrities before I do even that. There’s a stack of New Trier yearbooks waiting over in the corner, in fact, because I can’t take chances of putting one out without careful examination. I don’t know what I’ll charge for this Latin School yearbook which clearly shows sculptor Claes Oldenburg in his football uniform; maybe I’ll try eBay first. (Oh, he was in the school play, too, by the way. It was “Arsenic and Old Lace”.)