The decade began with the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, and it was a relatively prosperous decade, compared to the others around it. However, the ’90s weren’t completely peaceful. The United States entered the First Gulf War early in the decade. Part of that war was Operation Desert Storm, which was to free Kuwait from Iraq after Saddam Hussein’s forces invaded and took control. Bill Clinton’s presidency was rocked by scandal, and former football player OJ Simpson was put on trial for the murder of his ex-wife (and found not guilty, although members of the public continued to question this verdict). Princess Diana of the United Kingdom was killed in a car accident, leaving behind two young sons, Prince William and Prince Harry.
Technological developments led to the rise of the Information Age with the development of the World Wide Web. Home computers were much more common, and for those who didn’t have one at home, they were readily available at schools or public libraries, increasingly with Internet access. Much of was available on the Web wasn’t as well-produced as today and teachers wouldn’t always allow Internet sources to be used in writing reports for school (there wasn’t as much useful information available online anyway), at least not as the only source, but more and more teachers began teaching their students how to use the Internet and how to document sources they found online (although they had to make up their own form for documenting online information because the established systems that were used for citing sources didn’t have a format for internet sources yet, that continued even into the early 2000s). As the decade went on, the quality and quantity of information on the Internet improved (although quite a lot of false information also found its way to the Internet as well, which was why teachers urged students to supplement Internet sources with print ones).
Merchants began eagerly embracing the Internet as a way to market products to customers they could not reach before, and they created websites where you could look at products and order them to be sent directly to your house, like electronic versions of the old mail-order catalogs. Private individuals also began creating websites for their own interests, everything from joke lists to fan sites about their favorite tv shows. Individuals started getting their own e-mail addresses so they could send messages either for work or just for fun to family and friends. Some amateur websites were known for being poorly designed or ludicrously designed with too many flashing colors or weird sound effects that would put in just for the sake of showing that the people who designed them could do that.
Some people owned cell phones, but not many. They were large, clunky, and expensive, especially compared to later models, which also included more features than just the ability to make phone calls. DVDs began replacing VHS tapes as the format for home movies, and CDs replaced the cassette tapes people used for music during the previous decade. Many people had portable CD players so they could listen to music on the go. Some people began buying digital cameras instead of the film cameras that people used before.
Video games for home systems were becoming ever more popular, and companies competed with each other for people’s money. Each video game system had series of games with their favorite proprietary characters: Nintendo had the Mario games, Sega had Sonic the Hedgehog, etc. People had their favorite games and systems. The quality and variety of games improved throughout the decade, especially in terms of graphic styles (1980s games had very simple graphics). Many kids owned hand-held gaming systems like the Nintendo Game Boy and other electronic toys (and those who didn’t have them really wanted them). Parents often worried that their children were playing too many video games as well as watching too much tv.
In children’s literature, horror and scary stories were particularly popular early in the decade, especially the Goosebumps series by R. L. Stine.
The first of the Harry Potter books was published in 1997. They were wildly popular, and the Harry Potter series was credited for helping to get children excited about reading as they eagerly waited for new installments of the series, sometimes lining up at midnight parties at bookstores so they could be among the first to get a copy of a new book. Some people praised the complexity of the stories, which tackled dark themes like death, corruption, prejudice, and the ability to do the right thing in desperate circumstances, but some parents argued that they encouraged an unhealthy interest in fantasy and the occult. For the late ’90s and into the 2000s, other fantasy series also became very popular.
For more about 1990s culture:
Lists of 1990s children’s books:
A large family spends their summer at an island vacation home meeting movie stars and investigating the creepy house next door. It’s a collection of short stories, one for each child in the family. By Ann M. Martin.
After Jeremy accidentally signs up for poetry class instead of pottery, he spends the entire year annoying his teacher and becoming the world’s best D- poet. By Gordon Korman.
An orphan girl in the 1800s, Amelia, goes to live with distant relatives and finds herself pursued by a strange group of sinister characters, unsure of who to trust. By Barbara Brooks Wallace.
A girl and her friends investigate the mysterious man who moved in next door, who keeps to himself and whose face is always covered by a bandana. By Alison Cragin Herzig and Jane Lawrence Mali.
Amy goes to Taboga Island, off the coast of Panama, with her aunt for the summer and finds a mystery involving a lost painting.
When her teacher mysteriously disappears, Eliza feels like she is the only one who cares and investigates with the help of some friends. By Mary Frances Shura.
A brother and sister move to Maine with their father, where he is put in charge of a collection of Egyptian artifacts at a small college. They are soon confronted with a mystery concerning the mummy in the collection.
A girl staying with her grandmother at her bed-and-breakfast investigates the theft of letters written by Mark Twain.
The sequel to The Castle in the Attic. William introduces his best friend to the secret of the castle and the two have an adventure that demonstrates the difference between bravery and foolhardiness.
Elynne Danneby is afraid of dragons, which is a shame because her family makes its living by dragon charming. When thieves steal a dragon egg, Lynnie conquers her fears in order to get it back. By Douglas Hill.
Fiona leaves the big city to return to the seaside to live with her grandparents, hoping that they might once more live on the island their family has called home for generations and hoping to find her lost little brother, who was apparently washed out to sea the day their family left, but who may actually be alive on the island in the care of the seals that live there. By Rosalie Fry.
I have the movie-tie in version, which was printed much later, but it contains the text of the original book, Secret of the Ron Mor Skerry (Child of the Western Isles), which was originally published in 1959. Copies of the original book are very expensive collectors’ items. However, there is good news: it’s coming back into print in October (and on Kindle!), so if you’re nostalgic or just curious, you will be able to get a copy easily then!
A collection of fantasy stories by different authors.
A pair of twins star in a silent movie serial during World War I and learn that their father’s death was due to war-related sabotage, not an accident.
The son of a colonel in the revolutionary army during the American Revolution becomes the man of his family when his father is captured. With British soldiers occupying his family’s house, young Joey does what he can to keep his family safe.
Short stories about the adventures a brother and sister have with their grandmother in the rural Midwest during the Great Depression. Hysterical! By Richard Peck.
A World War II story, set in occupied Austria. A Jewish family realizes that they must flee their home in Austria to escape the Nazis.
This picture book contains four stories which are all being told at once, but they are connected to each other, and readers are invited to spot the connections. By David Macaulay.
About a girl whose parents are divorced and the changes in her family. By Jeanne Betancourt. 1983-1990.
Maggie, her grandmother, and Mr. Whiskers the sailor have adventures in the small town of Cranberryport. By Wende and Harry Devlin. 1971-1995.
The hilarious escapades of Cathy and her crazy cousin Courtney in New York and California. By Judi Miller. 1993-1997.
The antics of a pair of twins who have a tendency to switch places. By Michael J. Pellowski. 1986-1998.
About a girl in elementary school who solves mysteries with the help of her friends, who call themselves The Martians. By Susan Pearson. 1990-1991.
About a girl who wants to be a detective and her genius younger sister. By Carol Farley. 1986-1991.
Peter Hatcher tells humorous stories about his little brother, Farley Drexel Hatcher, who everyone calls Fudge.
A granddaughter passes on stories that her grandmother told her about growing up on a farm in Michigan during the 1800s. The stories often have a Christian moral. By Arleta Richardson. 1974-1991.
About the children in Ms. Rooney’s second grade class, their friendships, rivalries, school issues, and special occasions. By Patricia Reilly Giff. 1984-1991.
Also called the Bruno and Boots series. Bruno and Boots are a pair of pranksters at a boarding school in Canada. By Gordon Korman. 1978-1995.
A historical mystery series with Christian themes that takes place in turn-of-the-century South Carolina. Amanda Shaw is an orphan with a mysterious past who finds a new life with relatives she had never met. By Lois Gladys Leppard. 1983-2004.
About a pair of sisters who live in Indiana and have adventures on road trips with their father. Written by Eth Clifford. 1979-1993.
A series of mysteries with The Kids of the Polk Street School. Dawn uses her Polka Dot Private Eye detective kit to solve mysteries with her friends and classmates. By Patricia Reilly Giff. 1987-1990.
The adopted son of a famous judge helps him to solve mysteries in feudal Japan. Not a series for young children! By Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler. 1999-2014.
About a girl who wants to be a detective and her two friends. They investigate spooky mysteries in a small town in Pennsylvania. By Drew Stevenson. 1991-1996.
Four friends, Kate, Stephanie, Lauren, and Patti, love to have sleepovers. They also help each other through common problems that preteen girls face and have adventures in their small town. By Susan Saunders. 1987-1991.
“Queer” as in strange, weird, mysterious. No other sense of the word! Two friends, Gwen and Jill, solve mysteries with the help of Jill’s dog, Fletcher, who loves salami. By Elizabeth Levy. 1973-2003.
Based on the Star Trek television series. Focuses on Spock, McCoy, and Kirk during their Academy years. Written by different authors. 1996.
A group of third graders investigates strange phenomena and possible ghosts, including one at their school. By Grace Maccarone. 1984-1990.
Short funny stories about a school that was accidentally built sideways. Nothing normal ever happens at Wayside School! By Louis Sachar. 1978-1995.
Kate Waters is the author of a series focusing on historical reenactors, showing them acting out the lives of real children who lived in Colonial America.