Literature Essay | There Was No YA When I Was Growing Up

I’m a young adult writer, mostly. Which means that whenever anyone asks what I write, they get . . . this Look. (And a bit of a head tilt.) And then they ask, ‘have you ever thought about writing . . .  a real book?’

And then they might say, even if they’re YA writers themselves, ‘ah sure, it’s great, I mean, there was no YA fiction when I was growing up!’

Which is something that might surprise a lot of literary historians, or librarians, or people who actually know the history of the field, and look-it, I do think knowing the history of anything you’re working on is important. Not so you’re super-pretentious and constantly ‘situating yourself and your work within the tradition’, but so you know the context. So you have some perspective. 

For example, YA fiction is currently going through one of its periods of anxieties about Who Gets To Tell What Stories – a trend that we see in all fiction, of course, but especially heightened for teen fiction because of the idea that teenagers are stupid, impressionable and unable to read anything without copying it exactly or reading critically in any way.

There is, of course, a much-publicised sense that we must champion previously-minimised minority voices (quite right, too). But because the internet is sometimes toxic, and people have too much time on their hands, this need for ‘authentic representation’ can sometimes – or rather, does often, right now – morph into demanding of authors whether they have suffered enough in order to be able to write the book. Writing outside of your own experience – which is essentially what writers DO – is often seen as bad and wrong and evil. 

But this is not a brand-new point to make in this field; YA discourse follows a cyclical pattern. Prolific author Jane Yolen wrote, cited in Michael Cart’s Young Adult Literature: From Romance to Realism (3rd ed.): “What we are seeing now in children’s books is an increasing push toward what I can only call the ‘Balkanization’ of literature. We are drawing rigid borders across the world of story, demanding that people tell only their own stories.” 

That was in 1994. Plus ca change. But knowing this, as a writer, makes you feel slightly better about what the American YA crowd are trying to stir up as a distraction from their own deep-seated racial issues and economic inequalities and owning ALL THE GUNS EVER. 

And it is the Americans. Because America is where YA begins.

Literary historians have different opinions – shocker – about when exactly YA fiction begins, not helped by how it’s sometimes called different things – juvenile fiction, teen fiction. Some would argue that a lot of 19th century novels appealed to young readers and therefore should be counted, but others go, look, you can’t have ‘teen’ fiction until you invent the idea of the ‘teenager’. Which brings us to the 20th century, particularly post-World War II.

The other thing that happens in the 20th century is that the book-packaging industry starts marketing specifically to children – for example, the Stratemeyer Syndicate, responsible for the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew, among others. 

If we can all agree that the 20th century, the era where there’s an increasing sense that marketing books specifically to teenagers, is where YA fiction begins, we can start zooming in on the specifics. There are three titles that are often cited as the first or foundational texts for YA, and the first one is in 1942 – by a writer called Maureen Daly, still in college at the time. Her novel, Seventeenth Summer, is still in print.

As you might guess from the name, Daly was Irish – she was born in Co. Tyrone. So actually, the Irish invented YA. I’m claiming it. Look, if we can build Barack Obama Plaza in Moneygall we can definitely claim young adult fiction.

Seventeenth Summer, in many ways, sets the scene for the contemporary YA novel as it still exists today: first-person narrative, vaguely ‘bold’ behaviour (drinking, smoking), and oh you have to have a bit of romance. 

It wasn’t intended to be a YA novel, but it was certainly marketed as such – or at least, a book that would particularly appeal to teen girls. As un-literary as it sounds, that’s the best way of identifying YA – where does it go in the bookshops? (Writers who appeal to teens but aren’t specifically marketed towards them, or who also appeal to an adult audience, tend to go in different sections.)

When there’s an obvious demand for consumer products aimed at teenagers, the market provides, and the 1940s also saw teen magazines established, including Seventeen, and The New York Times published ‘The Teen-Age Bill of Rights’ which had lines like ‘the right to let childhood be forgotten’, ‘the right to struggle towards his own philosophy of life’. At the same time, as Cart and others have noted, more specifically-teen-focused stories were published – ranging from romance to sci-fi and adventure tales – and then in 1951, the second of the key YA texts was published. 

JD Salinger’s The Catcher In The Rye was not specifically published as teen fiction but is today the sort of book that appeals most to readers under the age of 20. Holden Caulfield tells us his story in the first person: we’ve bad language (gasp!), sex references, and deep thoughts about the world. He’s misunderstood! Adults are phonies and he is the only one who’s noticed. The tropes explored here will be a staple of much YA fiction well into the 21st century!

The third key ‘foundational YA’ title was published more than 50 years ago. In 1967, SE Hinton’s The Outsiders, focusing on tensions between the ‘Socs’ and the ‘greasers’ (memorably made into an 1983 movie with Matt Dillon, Tom Cruise, Patrick Swayze, Rob Lowe, and others) was published. 

Hinton was seventeen at the time of writing it, and used initials (reducing Susan Eloise to S.E.) to be taken more seriously. And it was. The Outsiders was viewed as real, as gritty, as capturing the authentic difficulties of the teen experience. And by the end of the 1960s – certainly in the States, although many of the titles were published on this side of the Atlantic as well – there was a sense that this, this is what Young Adult literature is. 

From the late 60s, there were writers like Paul Zindel, who wrote various highly-acclaimed books about teenagers exploring all kinds of difficulties, including My Darling My Hamburger (the title is inspired from advice a character gets, which is whenever a boy is pressuring you for sex, suggest you go get a hamburger).

Robert Cormier, writing in the early 70s onwards, gave us The Chocolate War, about bullying and the teenage realisation that the world is a terrible place. His other books don’t shy away from mental illness or terrorism – topics which still are viewed today as ‘oh, very brave!’ to write about for teenagers.

Then we come to Judy Blume, whose work has slid in and out of the YA category over the decades, a reminder that the boundaries do shift. Most of her books feature characters in the 12-14 age bracket experiencing divorce, menstruation, wet dreams, and masturbation (she has been banned and censored a great deal for addressing these topics).

Her 1975 novel Forever still influences YA writers and is remarkable for its resistance to typical teen-sex narratives (it was inspired by Blume’s then-teenage daughter asking her for a book where teens fall in love ‘and have sex and don’t die’). Even though it has ensured that any boy named Ralph – what the male protagonist in the novel christens his penis – will never be taken seriously again, it’s a vital text for young readers.

The final writer I want to mention reminds us of YA’s potentially-didactic qualities and how we must remember these humans are amongst us. If you grew up at a certain time, you will remember Go Ask Alice (1971), a real-life teenage diary about drug addiction and homelessness. Ahem. 

The ‘editor’ – author – of the book, Beatrice Sparks, then went and wrote various other ‘real life diaries’ up until her death a few years ago. The basic premise of every single book in her library is this: a girl goes to a party. Someone puts something in her drink. She has sex, but not consensually. Then her life falls apart. 

Things that might happen after this include getting pregnant, getting HIV, or – my personal favourite – becoming a Satanist. NEVER GO TO PARTIES, KIDS!

Sparks is not a beloved YA icon for what I imagine are obvious reason. Teenagers aren’t idiots, and neither are the increasing number of adults who are reading YA fiction. At its best it’s honest and works pretty much as ‘real’ books do – using imagination and empathy to tell a story. 

YA as an entity knows this. In the 1980s, we saw British writers like Aidan Chambers and Jacqueline Wilson (before Tracy Beaker) remind us of this; by the 1990s teen fiction was even – gasp! – identifiable in Ireland, with Attic Press establishing its Bright Sparks imprint as well as publishers like O’Brien, Wolfhound, Poolbeg, etc. bringing out books by Irish writers. 

YA is not a shiny new trend that will shortly fade. It’s been around for a while, and that perspective is certainly comforting for its writers (and hopefully its readers). Because that means it’s probably not going anywhere. It’s hard to get rid of something established. Something that’s been around for a while. Something that’s looking around and going, ‘okay, lads, this is cool – now, what can we add to this?’ 


This essay was semi-based on a HeadStuff lecture given May 2017

Photo by Karim Ghantous on Unsplash

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