Young adult literature: an American invention

Like jazz, the Broadway musical and the foot-long hot dog, young adult literature is an American gift to the world, a groundbreaking genre that I’ve been following closely for more than 30 years.

Targeted at readers 12 to 18 years old, it sprang to life in 1967, with the publication of two seminal novels: S. E. Hinton’s “The Outsiders” and Robert Lipsyte’s “The Contender.”

Ms. Hinton and Mr. Lipsyte were writing a new kind of novel — one of unsparing contemporary realism that met a need articulated by Ms. Hinton herself in The New York Times Book Review:

“Teenagers today want to read about teenagers today. The world is changing, yet the authors of books for teenagers are still 15 years behind the times. In the fiction they write, romance is still the most popular theme with a horse and the girl who loved it coming in a close second. Nowhere is the drive-in social jungle mentioned. In short, where is the reality?”

The answer was to be found in her novel. “The Outsiders” had a mean-streets setting and dealt with urban warfare between teenage gang members. Ms. Hinton’s mean streets were in her hometown of Tulsa; those of Mr. Lipsyte were in New York City. His 1967 novel “The Contender” featured one of the first protagonists of color to appear in young adult literature, the African-American teenager Alfred Brooks, who struggles in the boxing ring and in life.

Before these two novels, literature for 12 to 18 year olds was about as realistic as a Norman Rockwell painting — almost universally set in small-town, white America and featuring teenagers whose biggest problem was finding a date for the senior prom. Such books were patronizingly called “junior novels.”

Small wonder, then, that this newly hard-edged, truth-telling fiction filled such a need. Within two years, Paul Zindel’s “My Darling, My Hamburger” and John Donovan’s “I’ll Get There. It Better Be Worth the Trip” had embraced real world considerations like abortion and homosexuality. In 1971, Ms. Hinton wrote about drug abuse in “That Was Then. This Is Now,” and in 1973 Alice Childress joined her with “A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ But a Sandwich,” which told a story of heroin addiction.

With 1974 came the publication of one of the most influential novels in the history of young adult literature. Robert Cormier’s “The Chocolate War” was arguably the first young adult novel to trust teens with the sad truth that not all endings are happy ones. In this unforgettable book, 17-year-old protagonist Jerry Renault steadfastly refuses to sell chocolates for his school — an act with dire consequences.

That book was the culmination of three decades of change. The word “teenager” first appeared in print in the September 1941 issue of the magazine Popular Science Monthly. In earlier times, there had been only two population segments in America: adults and children, the latter becoming adults when they entered the workforce.

But in the Depression era, record numbers of adolescents started attending high school. Popular culture took note, and teenagers quickly became a staple feature of radio and motion pictures. Teenagers were also consumers, editors at the new Seventeen magazine saw in 1945, when they hired Benson and Benson to conduct market research showing that girls — and boys — had money of their own to spend.

Librarians first began calling teenagers “young adults” in the 1940s. In 1944, librarian Margaret Scoggin wrote a journal article introducing the term, and arguing that the group constituted a new service population. The practice of referring to “young adult” literature was formalized in 1957 when the American Library Association created its Young Adult Services Division.

But during the 1950s, teenage readership lacked a literature to match its socioeconomic and psychological needs. For decades, the Young Adult Services Division’s annual lists of the best books for young adults included only books written for all adults, novels such as Isaac Asimov’s “Fantastic Voyage” (1966).

It wasn’t until 1970, three years after the formative publications of “The Outsiders” and “The Contender,” that serious young adult literature was recognized. For the first time ever, an actual YA novel — Barbara Wersba’s “Run Softly, Go Fast,” about a teenage boy’s love-hate relationship with his father — was admitted to the list.

So, finally, young adults and their literature came together. The rest is a history that has seen young adult literature become one of the most dynamic segments of American publishing. But that’s another story.

Michael Cart is a columnist and reviewer for Booklist Magazine. He is a nationally recognized authority on young adult literature and the author or editor of 24 books. He wrote this for “What It Means to Be American,” a project of the Smithsonian, Arizona State University and Zócalo Public Square.

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