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date: 25 September 2018

young adult

The Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature

Daniel Hahn

young adult (YA) 

Refers to a type of fiction, sometimes described as ‘teen’ fiction, that is, generally speaking, a relatively modern phenomenon. Until the middle of the 20th cent., children who grew out of juvenile books were expected to read popular classics, such as the works of Dickens and Scott, before graduating to more demanding adult novels. Although a distinction was drawn surprisingly early—The Guardian of Education back at the very start of the 19th cent. had defined a category of ‘Books for young persons’ as relating to readers aged fourteen to twenty-one—dedicated production for this readership barely existed till well over a century later. Louise Mack’s Teens (1897) is an almost isolated example of a pre-20th-cent. teen novel.

The present-day teenage novel has its origins in America between the two World Wars, when authors such as Stephen W. Meader, Florence Crannell Means, and John R. Tunis began to write with older children in mind. In the 1950s the novels of Mary Stolz (To Tell Your Love, 1950, and others), showed what could be done with ‘love interest’, though she and Beverly Cleary (in Fifteen, 1956) worked chiefly within the tradition of romantic pulp fiction. The new wave of teenage fiction which came into print in the 1960s had a very different approach to adolescence. It was heavily influenced by J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951)—though Salinger’s book, like Lord of the Flies in the UK, was not written deliberately for a young audience, however much both may be read primarily by teenagers today.

Many writers who had read Salinger in their own adolescence began to create Holden Caulfields of their own, with comic self-regarding attitudes and complicated feelings about the adult world. Novels by John Donovan, Barbara Wersba, and Paul Zindel were typical of the post-Salinger generation in portraying parents as, almost without exception, neurotics of one kind or another. For example, the mothers in Dono-van’s I’ll Get There, It Better Be Worth the Trip (1969) and Zindel’s Pardon Me, You’re Stepping on My Eyeball! (1976) are both heavy drinkers; Zindel’s hero ‘Marsh’ Mellow calls his parents Schizo Suzy and Paranoid Pete. The mother of the heroine ‘J. F.’ in Wersba’s Tunes for a Small Harmonica (1976) passes her day shopping in Fifth Avenue stores and having her hair done; the father spends all his time at his office, ‘was staunchly Republican, drank only the best scotch, played squash on Saturdays and was charming to women without really liking them’.

As well as attacking parents, the typical Ameri­can teenage novel of this period was largely concerned with sex. Homosexuality gradually began to be mentionable (see sexuality), one of the first teenage books in which it appeared being Isabelle Holland’s The Man Without a Face (1972). By 1975 it was permissible for Judy Blume to give a detailed description of adolescent heterosexual love-mak­ing in Forever. The next year came Richard Peck’s Are You in the House Alone?, which dealt with rape. Divorce and remarriage featured in Blume’s It’s Not the End of the World (1972), E. L. Konigsburg’s (george) (1970), and in many other novels of this period. Death (a subject, as John Rowe Townsend has said, ‘which for long was no more mentionable in modern children’s books than was sex in those of the Victorians’) played an important part in, for example, Betsy Byars’s Goodbye, Chicken Little (1979) and John Dono­van’s Wild in the World (1971).

Sometimes the heroes and heroines of these books have a precocious view of the world around them. ‘J. F.’, in Wersba’s Tunes for a Small Harmonica, decides that ‘We lived…in an age of ugliness…in which people went drinking and smoking themselves to death, in which love meant sex and sex was ridiculous.’ More often they are as confused as the adults and regard themselves as losers; the typical American teenage novel opens with its central character in this predicament, and describes how he or she gradually comes to terms with the world. Chris, in Zindel’s Confessions of a Teenage Baboon (1977), starts out as a ‘demented’ (his own word) fifteen-year-old, ‘ashamed and mixed up’, who doesn’t ‘know how to handle the problems of being alive that people don’t warn you about’. By the end of the book, a year later in his life, ‘the cloud that had been hanging over me…was suddenly lifting…I felt an understanding and a compassion for the entire human race.’

For a time, novels in this genre rarely had much to distinguish them from each other; there was an almost uniform shrillness of tone and predictability of character development. But more subtle studies of adolescence were produced by certain other American writers, such as Paula Fox, in Blowfish Live in the Sea (1970), Vera and Bill Cleaver, in such books as Where the Lilies Bloom (1969), and Robert Cormier, who presented a view of teenage life which is harsher, more luridly dramatic, but at the same time more convincing than that of the Salinger imitators.

For a time the American teenage novel was something of an isolated phenomenon. In Australia H. F. Brinsmead was an early specialist in writing books about and for teenagers, but others were few and far between. Though in Britain from the mid-1950s many books were written with older children or teenagers in mind, there was not the same concentration on adolescence itself as subject matter, nor the same shrill tone of voice in writing about it, and Red Shift (1973) by Alan Garner was one of the few early British books to approach the American genre in its harsh portrayal of Tom’s mental isolation from his mother and father. But in this and Garner’s The Owl Service (1967), which also contains unsym­pathetic portraits of parents, the author is more concerned with the effect of history and myth on present-day adolescents than with their psycho­logical problems in isolation. K. M. Peyton has produced much popular fiction for and about teenagers, but her books are related to established genres and attitudes (the romantic novel in her Flambards series, and the school story in her ‘Pennington’ novels) rather than striking out in any new and radical line. John Rowe Townsend and Jill Paton Walsh were typical of their generation of British authors in producing ‘adolescent’ books (such as Townsend’s The Intruder, 1969, and Paton Walsh’s Unleaving, 1976) which deal with their heroes’ quests for personal identity, but do so in a reflective ‘interior’ manner derived from the mainstream of the English novel rather than from Salinger.

It was not until the 1980s and the decades since, however, that young adult fiction truly came of age in the English-speaking world. Mainstream publishers began to commission work specifically for this demographic category, and marketed it accordingly, as youth culture itself became a heavily marketed commodity in other areas; libraries and bookshops followed suit, beginning to arrange their stock to reflect this new delineation; and—as important as any of these—a small number of standout writers came into the market at around the same time, driving the momentum of these new developments with works that were popular, high-profile, and critically acclaimed. Dedicated prizes for young adult literature were launched in several countries (such as the Michael L. Printz Award in the US and the Booktrust Teenage Prize in the UK), and many of the more general prizes (the Newbery Medal and the Carnegie Medal, say) began to be won by—indeed, in some cases, some would say dominated by—exceptional and sophisticated young adult books.

Young adult fiction in English now spans every genre, though there are certainly some types of book—dystopian fiction, for example, and certain kinds of graphic novel—that seem to lend themselves particularly to work for this readership. And the readership itself is a group with porous boundaries, too; while typically young adult fiction tends to be seen as—very roughly—corresponding to readers aged twelve to sixteen or eighteen, the recent rise of the crossover book has made such a sharp delineation less meaningful than once it was.

The diversity in young adult fiction is not only generic, but thematic, too. The range of subjects tackled grows every year, and while some publishers remain risk-averse and anxious about adult reactions, there are plenty of others who allow their writers to break each new boundary. Because much young adult fiction focuses on the experience and perspective of teenagers themselves as protagonists, it is unsurprising that these readers’ concerns, and the sense of boundary-testing, self-determination, and experimentation that defines so much teen experience, are reflected in the books. Recent years have seen increasingly explicit writing on drug use, sex and sexuality, violence and abuse, suicide, incest, and almost any other subject imaginable. Conventions about what teenagers can read about, but also about how those stories ought to be told (e.g. any subject can be broached so long as the book’s resolution is ultimately hopeful), are no sooner defined than they are broken. Naturally each developmental stage is met with its share of concern and criticism, as well as general enthusiasm.

Isolated early examples of the teenage novel can be found in the world outside the Anglosphere, for example, in Russia, Vadim Frolov’s What It’s All About (1968), about a boy coming to terms with the break-up of his parents’ marriage and his own emotional develop­ment, but such examples that predate the English-language boom are rare. And while there is now at last a substantial body of work in certain places—Scandinavia and elsewhere in northern Europe in particular—the production of young adult fiction even today remains sparse in most places; English-language young adult fiction is translated widely, but this is on the whole not supplemented with domestic production to any significant degree, though there are already signs in many countries that this is beginning to change.