Monday, October 21, 2013

Some history of YA novels

I'm mystified when people say that young-adult novels are a new thing, that they weren't around even a decade or two ago. They've been around much longer than that. In fact, many of the YA books I'm going to discuss here were written before I was even born.

For purposes of this discussion, I'm excluding books that were originally written for adults but later became high-school classics (like The Catcher in the Rye and Lord of the Flies), and books that featured teen characters but were clearly for younger readers (like the Nancy Drew books), and books that were stocked in the adult section when they first came out but would go in the YA section now (like Forever ... and It's OK If You Don't Love Me). I'm talking about books that were absolutely aimed at teens, that were grouped together in the children's or teens' section in bookstores and libraries, and were sold in school book clubs.

They've changed over the years, of course. The typical YA of the 1960s-1980s was short (closer to 200 pages than the 350 pages of our current era). Contemporary realism dominated the market. You could find a smattering of historical fiction, and there were mysteries and science fiction and romances. But there were, by far, fewer fantasy and paranormal novels than there are now.

Also, while today's books tend to be more explicit when dealing with edgy material, tough subjects were not off limits even 40 or 50 years ago. Here are a few examples to illustrate that this genre has been thriving for much longer than people might think:

1940s and 1950s

Practically Seventeen, by Rosamond du Jardin (1943)
Senior Year, by Anne Emery (1949)
Jean and Johnny, by Beverly Cleary (1959)

YA from this era was definitely tamer in tone than today's stories. There's nothing in these books that most middle-graders couldn't read. But I consider them YA because all three feature high-school girls and their adventures (mostly misadventures) with the opposite sex. Boyfriend troubles are usually considered a YA subject, even nowadays. All three books are clearly aimed at readers who are the same age as the protagonists; the voices and point of view are young.


The Unchosen, by Nan Gilbert (1963)
Drop-Out, by Jeannette Eyerly (1963)
Durango Street, by Frank Bonham (1965)
A Girl Like Me, by Jeannette Eyerly (1966)
The Outsiders, by S.E. Hinton (1967)
The Pigman, by Paul Zindel (1968)
Mr. and Mrs. Bo Jo Jones, by Ann Head (1968)
Tuned Out, Maia Wojciechowska (1968)
I'm Really Dragged But Nothing Gets Me Down, by Nat Hentoff (1968)
I'll Get There, It Better Be Worth the Trip, by John Donovan (1969)
My Darling, My Hamburger, by Paul Zindel (1969)

The 1960s saw a shift in tone and subject matter. While the first book on this list, Nan Gilbert's The Unchosen, is similar to the 1940s-1950s-era stories in its often light tone and humor, it is less chatty in style, and it's extremely well-written. Also, while its references to making out would scarcely raise an eyebrow today, it approaches the subject a bit more frankly than the books of the previous decades.
With Drop-Out arrives the serious tone--and the edgy topics--of the problem novel: dropouts and runaways (Drop-Out), teen pregnancy (A Girl Like Me; Mr. and Mrs. Bo Jo Jones; My Darling, My Hamburger). In these books, for the first time, teens are sexually active--although that all happens offstage, and every girl who does it gets pregnant.
Durango Street is about street gangs; its main character has been arrested for car theft.
The Outsiders and The Pigman were undeniably watershed novels, novels that show the power of the genre. Those who know Zindel only for The Pigman might be surprised to come across My Darling, My Hamburger, a book in which a teen girl has an abortion (a topic that YA novels rarely touch even today).
And John Donovan's I'll Get There, It Better Be Worth the Trip is often cited as the first YA novel to introduce a same-sex attraction. It may be; I don't know of others. I do recall that the main character seems to write off his interactions with his friend as just adolescent experimentation.
I'm Really Dragged But Nothing Gets Me Down references the draft; unsurprising, since this was a major concern for teen males of this era.
Tuned Out is the earliest example I have of a problem novel centering around drugs.


Phoebe, by Patricia Dizenzo (1970)
An American Girl, by Patricia Dizenzo (1971)
Go Ask Alice, by Beatrice Sparks (1971)
Dinky Hocker Shoots Smack!, by M.E. Kerr (1972)
The Fog Comes on Little Pig Feet, by Rosemary Wells (1972)
The Room, by Ruth Holland (1973)
They'll Never Make a Movie Starring Me, by Alice Bach (1973)
A Hero Ain't Nothin' But a Sandwich, by Alice Childress (1973)
Trying Hard to Hear You, by Sandra Scoppettone (1974)
The Late Great Me, by Sandra Scoppettone (1976)
Confessions of a Teenage Baboon, by Paul Zindel (1977)
Happy Endings Are All Alike, by Sandra Scoppettone (1978)

The problem novel was going strong in the 1970s, and drugs were everywhere in books. Lots and lots of drugs (almost always in cautionary tales): see A Hero Ain't Nothin' But a Sandwich, Go Ask Alice, Dinky Hocker Shoots Smack!, and The Room. (The latter two, incidentally, manage to be warm and funny as well, and Dinky Hocker really only mentions drugs peripherally.) Alcoholism shows up, too (An American Girl, about growing up with an alcoholic parent; and The Late Great Me, about a teen with alcoholism). I have to say that although the problem novel eventually became a rather played-out formula, in its heyday, it produced some gripping novels.
We also have more discussion of same-sex relationships in They'll Never Make a Movie Starring Me, Trying Hard to Hear You, and Happy Endings Are All Alike. Gay and lesbian teens may have found a glimmer of hope that the lesbian couple in Happy Endings was featured prominently on its cover, although the perils of prejudice experienced by those who dared to come out of the closet were brutally rendered in that book and in Trying Hard to Hear You.
Although 1970's Phoebe had an unplanned pregnancy, by 1973 pregnancy was no longer the obligatory outcome for a sexually active character. The main characters in the Wells and Bach books are the first female characters I can think of who actually wanted people to think they were experienced, unlike the girls of an earlier era.
Suicide--attemped or successful--is also mentioned in The Fog Comes on Little Pig Feet and Confessions of a Teenage Baboon. (Come to think of it, Zindel touched on this topic in his 1969 book, too.)

And yes, in these decades YA was very (though not exclusively) white, which continues to be an issue today. I can recall a few novels about teens with terminal illnesses, but fewer about teens living successfully with physical challenges (Beverly Butler's 1970 Light a Single Candle being a notable exception).

This is hardly an exhaustive or systematic survey. My point here is to show that YA was around at least as early as the middle of the 20th Century. (I'm open to the idea that it goes back even farther than I've shown here, if anyone wants to pursue that.) YA has continued to evolve, and I've only barely touched on what was happening in the genre even in the 1940s-1970s. I just wanted to review some of the history of the genre.