A distinctive literature about childhood has existed since the Victorian era, but not so about adolescence as a stage of life with its own integrity, concerns, and distinct problems. Teachers, librarians, and parents argue that the classics of world literature are accessible to reading teenagers. These classics include the work of Edgar Allan Poe, who is a lasting favorite with young people, as with adults. The romances of the Brontë sisters, Rudyard Kipling’s exotic adventure tales, and the picaresque novels of Mark Twain feature youthful characters appealing to a wide range of readers. Young readers also seek out the novels of Jack London, Zora Neale Hurston, George Orwell, Pearl Buck, Ernest Hemingway, Harper Lee, Kurt Vonnegut, Chaim Potok, and others. Even though many classics endure as a type of literature for youth, a distinct junior or juvenile literary category did not emerge until the 1930’s.
Rose Wilder Lane’s Let the Hurricane Roar (1933) is widely credited as the first serious novel written specifically for young adults. Its story of hardscrabble family life on the Dakota plains, in which harsh problems are surmounted, set an optimistic tone for youth reading that was to dominate the field for many years. Publishers loosely defined young adulthood as ages twelve through twenty.
Less than ten years after Lane’s groundbreaking novel, Maureen Daly published her own work of young fiction, Seventeenth Summer (1942). Betty Cavanna’s Going on Sixteen followed in 1946. The success of these books meant that high school proms, sporting events, hot-rod adventures, adolescent infatuations, and career choices were soon the subjects of numerous novels. Seventeen magazine, addressing teenage girls, held writing contests and published examples of good teenage fiction. Publishers were eager to satisfy young readers with fiction about characters their own age and with problems similar to their own. The literature was still timid, however, hesitant to tackle subjects only whispered about at slumber parties or in locker rooms. Publishers understood that many of these books were purchased by adults, so the writing had to satisfy social values and expectations.
Several developments encouraged the expansion of junior books as a separate category. Public libraries appeared in more and more small towns. Mail-order department stores, including Montgomery Ward and Sears Roebuck, marketed books of all kinds. Urbanization provided greater access to libraries and bookstores, and teenagers were earning more discretionary money. “Penny dreadfuls” and subliterary pulp fiction had been marketed for several years, but in the 1960’s the paperback industry accelerated; soon almost any book could be purchased in paperback, including young adult novels. Though prices increased, the books remained popular because of ease of handling and ready availability. Chain bookstores spread, demanding an increasing supply of new books for all tastes.
Established writers would soon be encouraged to write for young adults. One of these writers, Robert Cormier, became a best-selling author of young adult fiction with his immensely popular novel The Chocolate War (1974). As teenage fiction became a genre of its own, some stories would reach beyond the genteel boundaries of middle-class propriety to tackle the realities of youthful existence. Ethnicity, the immigrant experience, family dysfunction, sexual exploitation, drugs, and violence became popular topics. The Chocolate War is infamous for its sexual references, violence, and harsh language.
Characteristics of Young Adult Fiction
Publishers identified several characteristics of successful young adult fiction. First, protagonists were almost always young, and often through first-person narratives, their point of view prevailed. Second, plots dealt with adolescent dilemmas, such as Should one accept family expectations or fulfill personal goals? Was it better to “fit in” with high school cliques or assert one’s individuality? and, Should employment, further schooling, or marriage be the choice for one’s future beyond high school? Disappointment in love and friendship was another common theme. Third, problems were usually optimistically resolved by the end of a book. Fourth, stylistic experimentation was rare, even though many fine literary craftspeople were beginning to write works of young adult fiction.
With compulsory education extending through high school, publishers came to recognize the existence of a vast audience of those euphemistically referred to as “reluctant readers.” Even though teachers and librarians promoted quality literature, many gradually concluded that any reading was preferable to none at all. This opened library shelves to books previously regarded as subliterary, including many formula Westerns, romances, and the previously scorned series books.
Novels of family life have always been a staple of youth literature. In Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (1868, 1869), four sisters and their mother form a supporting family circle, despite wartime deprivations and an absent father. In Kate Douglas Wiggin’s Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1903) and L. M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables (1908), orphaned children make happy homes with adoptive parents. Cress Delahanty (1953), by Jessamyn West is a realistic narrative of high school years made tolerable by empathetic parents. Although Cress Delahanty was praised throughout the 1950’s for its keen insight into adolescent psychology and was used as a text in numerous college classes, the short novel rarely was read after the 1960’s, illustrating the ephemeral nature of many quality books about young adults.
Not all young adult novels depict harmonious home environments. With divorce rates soaring during the last half of the twentieth century and the recognition that many children live in troubled or single-parent households, books started reflecting this reality. One of the pioneers of the nontraditional family story, whose enormous popularity did not extend into the new millennium, was Norma Klein. In Mom, the Wolf Man, and Me (1972), Klein introduced a child reared by her unmarried mother. In Klein’s Taking Sides (1974), the loyalties of children were divided between a lesbian mother and a divorced father who took them on assignations with his girlfriend. Though Klein’s characters are upper middle class and her books always end optimistically, her inclusion of socially taboo subject matter earned both praise and condemnation.
Klein paved the way for even more daring writers. In The Hanged Man (1994), Francesca Lia Block’s protagonist lives through incest and child abuse. In Peter (1993), by Kate Walker, a fifteen-year-old Australian strives for his authentic identity, acknowledging his sexual orientation while fighting family and social stereotypes. Jim Naughton’s My Brother Stealing Second (1989) concerns a family coping with suicide, while a high school freshman in Paula Fox’s 1995 novel The Eagle Kite learns that his father is dying of complications from acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, or AIDS.
With American urbanization and increased regional standardization, fiction turned to ethnic diversity as a way of generating interest. The ethnic complexity of American society was explored in numerous young adult books that satisfied readers in two ways: as an expansion of experience and as a celebration of cherished ancestral traditions. Through these books middle-class white teenagers could vicariously experience life in San Francisco’s Chinatown or the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, for example. Chinese American youth claimed ancestry in the world’s oldest continuous civilization, while the Watts youth gained pride in African folk traditions and the achievements of African Americans.
Sulamith Ish-Kishor’s Our Eddie (1969), a much acclaimed novel, easily transcends age categories. It is a realistic narrative of two contending generations of impoverished immigrants. Eddie is a disabled boy oppressed by his scholarly father, a harsh Hebrew teacher who ignores the needs of his family. With a sick mother, Eddie has only his sister to champion him. Defying the ethics of his father, he steals from his employer to provide a gift for his sister. Though Eddie never makes his peace, he does come to acknowledge his father’s gift for bringing the rich panorama of Jewish history—with its mystics, prophets, and dramatic events—alive for his students. Having always been sickly, Eddie dies, but his death is not sentimentalized. The remaining family members find the strength to endure, and even the father, as in classical tragedy, gains a measure of wisdom. The book ends not with trite resolution but with reverent questioning, as Eddie’s sister is left to wonder about God’s mercy and power.
Although spiritual questions concern thoughtful young people, religion is a remaining taboo in young adult fiction. Fraught with complications in the public arena, religious books are purchased with great care by schools and public libraries. World religion may be an exception. Accepted books include those on religious ceremonies and customs when they form a central part of group identity, as with Orthodox Jews, the Amish, or early Quakers. In most other cases, religious matters tend to be approached only indirectly. Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret (1970) is chiefly a coming-of-age tale, though the heroine does address God in the most superficial fashion.
Books with strong and specific religious affirmations may still be found in specialized Christian bookstores, which stock numerous young adult novels, many of them born-again variants of best sellers in the general market. Robin Jones Gunn’s Sisterchicks on the Loose (2003) is chick lit for evangelicals. Ray Blackston writes books designed for young, Christian single men; his best is A Pagan’s Nightmare (2006). The Left Behind series of books by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins (1995- 2004), with their fictionalized accounts of Earth’s last days, have been runaway best sellers and read by all ages.
If established religions are neglected in young adult fiction, the same cannot be said for the supernatural and the occult. Young people have always enjoyed the weird stories of Edgar Allan Poe and Washington Irving. H. P. Lovecraft’s eldritch (or eerie) fictions, long regarded in Europe as classics, remain popular, and Stephen King’s macabre thrillers remain best sellers.
The first decade of the twenty-first century witnessed a veritable epidemic of vampirism in teen literature. L. J. Smith’s three-volume Vampire Diaries (1991) are based, according to the author, on her own nightmares. Cara Lockwood’s Bard Academy books, with their intriguing, familiar titles—Wuthering High (2006), The Scarlet Letterman (2007), and Moby Clique (2008)—combine mystery and family conflicts with ghostly elements. Darren Shan’s Vampire Blood Trilogy (2003) mingles dark humor with graphic detail. His Demonata series introduces creepy country mansions haunted by violent demons, while his Cirque Du Freak series has been described as “teen gross-out fiction.” By far the most popular specters are the romantic teen vampires of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight Saga (2005-2008).
Mystery and Westerns
Young adults, like other readers, enjoy a good mystery. Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, Ian Fleming, Sue Grafton, and Ruth Rendell are young adult favorites. Other mysteries have been written specifically for teens, with teen characters caught up in intrigue. Lois Duncan, Rosemary Wells, Patricia Window, Jay Bennett, and Joan Lowery Nixon are among the favorite writers of teen mysteries.
The Western, often called the American morality drama, with its courageous cowboy venturing forth to battle the forces of disorder, never goes out of fashion. Zane Gray, Louis L’Amour, and Walter Van Tilburg are important authors. Westerns written specifically for teenage readers include The Man Who Killed the Deer (1942), by Frank Waters, in which an American Indian youth must come to terms with two cultures, and Walking Upa Rainbow (1986), by Theodore Taylor, with its fourteen- year-old orphan hero setting out on a major adventure, driving sheep from Iowa to California.
Science Fiction and Fantasy
Science fiction is less distinct in its target audience, and there is much cross-over appeal among different age groups. The classic science fiction writers—Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, Theodore Sturgeon— are well known to young readers. For young readers willing to tackle more complex styles, the novels of Philip K. Dick or Ursula K. Le Guin are challenging. Orson Scott Card arrived on the scene with his Ender series (1985- ). Scott Westerfield’s Uglies series (2005- ) describes a future world in which each person, upon becoming sixteen years old, is subjected to compulsory surgery that transforms him or her into society’s ideal of physical beauty. The uglies themselves Smoke, a distant settlement of conscientious objectors. Though of more appeal to boys than to girls, this series, which plays upon adolescent anxieties about appearance, is enjoyed by both genders.
Fantasy is a closely related genre, but unlike science fiction it does not have to establish authenticity through scientific extrapolation. Its readers are unapologetically projected into magical realms. The immensely popular Harry Potter stories (1997- ), by J. K. Rowling, inventive and witty, are read by all ages, as are the classic fantasies of J. R. R. Tolkein and C. S. Lewis. Other fantasy writers read often by youths include Ann McCaffrey, Marion Zimmer Bradley, and Lloyd Alexander.
Historical novels at their best provide information as well as entertainment. Because they deal with the long ago and far away, they tend to romanticize. Sir Walter Scott and Alexandre Dumas are often considered the first writers of historical fiction but are rarely read by modern teenagers. Their stories, however, are kept alive in films. Late twentieth century historical novels take special account of the narrower attention spans of young readers.
Rosemary Sutcliff has reconstructed early Great Britain in The Eagle of the Ninth (1954) and The Shining Company (1990). Patrick Raymond’s Daniel and Esther (1989) and Bette Greene’s Summer of My German Soldier (1973) are love stories set against a World War II background. No World War II era topic has attracted more attention in literature, youth or adult, than the Holocaust. The Journey (1990), by Ida Fink is an autobiographical novel about Jewish women hiding from the Gestapo. It is one outstanding example of the numerous young adult books about the Holocaust. Miriam Bat- Ami’s Two Suns in the Sky (1999) is a story of forbidden love between a Roman Catholic American girl and a Jewish Croatian who meet in a refugee camp—in New York—for European Jews during the time of the Holocaust. Hans Peter Richter wrote three young adult novels about Nazi Germany and the Holocaust from the point of view of a German. Those novels are Friedrich (1961), I Was There (1962), and The Time of the Young Soldiers (1967).
Possibly the most distinguished American author of historical fiction for young adults has been Scott O’Dell, the winner of every major award in his field. In The King’s Fifth (1966), sixteenth century Spaniards search for gold, while Sing Down the Moon (1970) tells the story of nineteenth century American Indian women suffering the advancement of white settlers. O’Dell’s best loved book remains Island of the Blue Dolphins (1960), a Robinson Crusoe-type narrative about a twelve-year old girl unintentionally left behind on a Pacific island after the rest of her group is evacuated. It is a tale of survival under difficult physical and psychological conditions, of animal-human companionship, and of a lushly beautiful island.
Hot Rods, Sports, and Adventure
While much young adult fiction seems designed for female readers, there are many books that appeal chiefly to young males. The hot-rod and sports books produced in abundance since the 1940’s have been largely formula driven, but other books are more substantial. Nelson A. Hutto’s Breakaway Back (1963) is a serious novel about illegal sports recruitment in high school. Paul Zindel’s The Pigman (1968) is a thoughtful exploration of interactions between young and old, while the novels of Robert Lipsyte and Robert Cormier always have important themes. Lipsyte, a professional sports writer, crafts sports fiction with special authority. In The Contender (1967) he introduces a young African American boxer, while The Chief (1993) features an American Indian heavyweight boxer. Cormier’s The Chocolate War, set in a corrupt parochial school, and We All Fall Down (1991), a love story with “attitude,” are admired for their stylistic skill as well as their powerful narratives.
Although the bane of teachers and librarians for decades, series books have been almost an addiction for many young people. Familiar characters following formula adventures to neat conclusions can be reassuring to unsteady or unsure readers. Harmless escapism or wish fulfillment are the chief offerings of these series, though a few add humor and occasional satirical wit.
The Stratemeyer Syndicate, with its large staple of writers, has been the most prolific supplier of series books for young adults. Among the heroes of the series, beginning early in the twentieth century, have been Tom Swift, the Bobbsey Twins, the Rover Boys, and the Hardy Boys. However, no series character has been more enduring than Nancy Drew, a girl detective, now as famous as Huckleberry Finn. Nancy Drew was created by Carolyn Keene and first appeared in 1930 in The Secret of the Old Clock. Nancy endured into the twenty first century, as great-grandmothers shared fond memories of her with a new generation.
Nancy remains a liberated teenager, traveling to interesting places and meeting unusual people. Initially, she drove a roadster, carried a revolver, and was free of adult supervision. Her mother was deceased and her father was a distracted defense attorney. Though the early books contained ethnic stereotypes—chiefly of African Americans, Jews, and Eastern Europeans—later editions reflect a changed perspective. The early books were revised near the end of the twentieth century, reformed to educate as well as entertain. The books reference American Indian handicrafts, ecology, and the geography of the “exotic” places visited by Nancy. Also added to the Drew canon is a cookbook—though Nancy was never domestic—a handbook of detection, and an inspirational guide.
Other series proliferated throughout the 1940’s, though none ever attained the popularity of the Nancy Drew books. Some attempted to combine mystery adventure with solid information about careers considered suitable for women. Helen Wells wrote both the Cherry Ames series and the Vicki Barr series. Betty Cavanna, writing as Betsy Allen, authored the Connie Blair series.
The series concept moved into the twenty-first century. Superficially, the later books appear more sophisticated and witty, though their plots still are predictable. They mirror—or wistfully project—an affluent youth culture in which designer clothes, neglectful parents, casual sex, drugs, and alcohol are the norm. Typical of the Clique series, so popular with young adult females, is Bratfest at Tiffany’s (2008), by Lisi Harrison, a former senior director of programming at MTV. The Gossip Girl series (2002-2011 ), by Cecily von Ziegesar, is set in New York City’s upper East Side, while Zoey Dean’s A-List series (2003- ) unfolds in the golden ghetto of Beverly Hills, California. The Princess Diaries series (2002-2015 ), by Meg Cabot, would seem to offer the ultimate in wish fulfillment for many American girls.
The early, widespread conviction that books for youth should be didactic, or educational, as well as entertaining led to attempts to control their content. Well-meaning adults, often with little sensitivity to the aesthetics of literature and forgetting that adolescents are exposed to the seamier side of life every day, took exception to novels that would have attracted little notice if marketed for general adult readers.
Some books were condemned as racist or sexist while others were scorned for being too violent or for depicting sex. Novels about people with physical or psychological disabilities, too, often caused offense. The intent of an author or overall theme of a book would be ignored if even a single word was deemed inappropriate. In one extreme example, a novel as seemingly harmless as Walter Dumaux Edmonds’s Drums Along the Mohawk (1936) was condemned in a Tennessee county because a parent found that the book included an expletive.
Established classics and books usually had some immunity to censorship, but not always. The most frequently banned book in schools had been Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), which many regard as the great American novel. Objections stemmed from Twain’s use of substandard dialect and a misunderstanding of his satire, leading to charges of racism. In the 1960’s, Twain’s book was superseded in controversy by J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951) despite this later novel’s high moral direction and popularity with young readers. Its offense was a single obscenity, employed in realistic rather than salacious contexts. An awareness and understanding of the legal principle of a work’s redeeming literary and social value has been slow to reach the general public, leading to much of the continuing controversy.
With the proliferation of books for all abilities and tastes, it was clear by the end of the twentieth century that young adult fiction was well established. Twayne’s Young Adult Authors series published its first book in the 1980’s, while the three volumes of the influential work Writers for Young Adults were published in 1997. Although competent reviewing existed for some time before these series began, these books helped to bring serious but accessible literary criticism to the field. With this development, it might be said that young adult literature truly came of age.
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Cyclopedia of Young Adult Authors. 3 vols. Pasadena, Calif.: Salem Press, 2005.
Donnelson, Kenneth L., and Alleen Pace Nilsen. Literature for Today’s Young Adults. 7th ed. Boston: Pearson/Allyn&Bacon, 2005.
Kies, Cosette N. Presenting Young Adult Horror Fiction. NewYork: Twayne, 1992.
Kutzer, M. Daphne, ed. Writers of Multicultural Fiction for Young Adults: A Bio-Critical Sourcebook. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1996.
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