Jun 6, 2012

Young Adult Beginnings

What was the first young adult novel? Well, not everyone agrees.    

In the beginning, books were written for either children or adults, no in-betweens.  No one took into consideration the fact the young adults have different wants, needs, ideas, and/or capabilities than these two prominent audiences.  So, teenagers had to settle for reading one or the other.  There were books that obviously appealed to them, but teens still weren’t being addressed as a separate entity.  

But these were books about teens, so at least they had that, right? Yes and no.  The majority of adult books about teens are stories told by adult narrators reflecting on their past, which leaves you with an adult tone to the work. While reading, you wonder if you can trust the narrator to tell the entire story without censoring  his history and you lose that sense of immediacy that is so important to young adult fiction as we know it today.  These books are also missing the opinions of teenagers because the books reflect the adult morals and viewpoints of their narrators.  Yes, young adult fiction today can still technically espouse adult viewpoints, after all they’re written by adults, but coming from a teenaged narrator gives a teen reader more of a connection to the material.  

So when did that change?

The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger was published in 1951 and the teenagers ate it up.  Yes, there was actually a time when teens would clamor to read about the phony-hating Holden, rather than pretend to read it and write book reports about how people play baseball in a field (if you build it, they will come, much?).  Not expecting this type of response from the teenage population, this book was published as “adult” fiction.  Granted, there was really no such thing as “young adult” fiction, so there wasn’t much of a choice on where to place it on the bookshelf.  

It wasn’t until the wonderful 60s that “young adult” fiction became a thing when, in 1967, the then-teen herself S.E. Hinton wrote The Outsiders.  There was no adult narrator telling the story of his teenage years in The Outsiders.  Instead, you had the story of teenagers as it was happening from the perspective of the youngest.  Fun fact: Like J.K. Rowling, Hinton was urged to publish under her initials because her story features a male protagonist and sexist readers won’t trust a woman to write a book they’ll enjoy.  

Still, others credit Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War with being the first young adult novel.  It was 1974 when this violent novel was first published, sparking a trend in books for young adults that involved realistic problems they endured.  Reading these books was affirmation that someone out there understood what they were going through.  We all know teen years were tough (except for you lucky few I won’t mention).  Fun fact: In another of Cormier’s YA novels, I am the Cheese, there’s a phone number in the book that was actually Cormier’s home phone number.  Readers with nothing better to do who tried that number were often amazed when the actual author answered.

So these books were incredibly groundbreaking in the YA world.  Not only did they address problems teenagers faced and presented teenage perspectives, but they also set the precedent for how long YA novels should be.  If you look at YA novels from this time period, they’re all about 150-180 pages long.  Publishers didn’t think you could hold the attention of children/teens for so many pages and wanted books that were short and (maybe) sweet.  Then BOOM! Harry Potter.  What?! Kids will lug around 700+ page books and READ THEM?! Game-changer.

Back to YA.  A small few will contest that these books were the first of their kind and will name another title: Maureen Daly’s snooze fest Seventeenth Summer.  It’s this atrocious book that’s still being published today with cutesy modern covers to disguise the fact that it was first published in 1942.  It’s about teens, it’s about teenage romance, and it’s about doing nothing. Plus, there’s maybe the tiniest hint of an illegal abortion.  That last part is actually pretty remarkable, especially for the time (which is why it’s only slightly implied in the text), but man is this book BORING.  It’s sappy and all about young love though, so it still sells (alright, I hate sappy crap.  But try it, I dare you).  However, in 1942, Seventeenth Summer wasn’t marketed as a YA book, because that still wasn’t happening in stores or libraries.  Instead, like Catcher in the Rye, it was shelved with the adult fiction.  But because it reads just like a YA novel and is published as such today, some consider it the “first.”

Whatever book you believe to be the first YA novel, just be grateful that it happened and that we got Judy Blume out of the deal.  

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