Young Adult

Young adult fiction (YA) is defined as a category of fiction written for readers from 12 to 18 years of age and while the genre is targeted at adolescents, surveys show that approximately half of YA readers are adults. Some authors write with that age group in mind, but many books with characters in that age group become thought of as YA literature even if the author did not intend that to be the audience. That is the case with many popular titles taught in middle and high schools, such as To Kill a Mockingbird, Brave New World, A Separate Peace, Lord of the Flies, and Of Mice and Men.

As a secondary school teacher, I never really saw a great difference in the styles of YA and adult literature other than the themes. A lot of YA novels address friendship, first love, relationships, and identity. Some might be classified as problem novels or coming-of-age novels.

Young adult fiction was developed to make a transition between children’s novels and adult literature. There were a good number of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century authors who wrote novels that appealed to the YA age group. Some of these authors – Lewis Carroll, Robert Louis Stevenson, Mark Twain, JM Barrie, L. Frank Baum, Astrid Lindgren, C.S. Lewis – may have had younger readers in mind but probably hoped for a wider audience than 12-18 year-olds. Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series, published in the 1930s, was an early effort to target a specific YA audience. But schools and librarians did not accept books for teenagers as a genre until the second half of the twentieth century.

Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951) was written for adults but gained a huge adolescent popularity, though few schools taught it at that time and some schools and libraries banned it. Holden Caulfield’s angst and alienation still are a part of many YA novels.

I read that A Wrinkle in Time, written by Madeleine L’Engle in 1960, received over 26 rejections before publication in 1962, at least partly because it was hard to label as a children’s or adult’s book. It is also science-fiction with a teenage girl protagonist and sci-fi was targeted at males.

Many critics point to the modern classification of young-adult fiction as starting with S. E. Hinton’s The Outsiders in 1967. It was the first novel specifically marketed for young adults. Hinton is Susan Hinton and the S.E. was because her publisher though a book that featured tough, male characters wouldn’t be read by boys if they knew a girl had written it. And Hinton was a girl when she wrote it. She wrote it while she was still in high school which is why it feels true to teens.

The cast of The Outsiders (19xxxxxxxxxxxxx

I taught The Outsiders many times and it never failed to connect to students, even reluctant readers. It is a truer, darker side of adolescent life that didn’t appear in novels of that time that featured adolescent characters. It is not a nostalgic story. Adults, including parents, are almost non-existent in the book. There is violence and death.

When I was 13, I read my sister’s copy of Fifteen by Beverly Clearly hoping to understand what being a teenager was all about – especially understanding girls. That and other books on my sister’s shelf and that the librarians pointed me at were nothing like Hinton’s writing. They were written by adults looking back. Nancy Drew, The Hardy Boys and things in the Scholastic books order form that we got in class were fun but tame. When I was 14, I ordered the new novel, The Outsiders, from Scholastic, her publisher. She had submitted it to them because it was where she ordered books in school too.

Though the content of Catcher in the Rye and The Outsiders seems very mild compared to content of movies and TV shows available to children and teens today, those books and many others are still included in the nationwide wave of book bans that continues to move from libraries and school reading lists works that acknowledge the existence of racism, gender identities, gay people, sex, profanity, religion, fantasy, and other topics and themes.

Hinton’s first novel is about two feuding groups of teenagers in an economically segregated city based on her own Tulsa life (though students always assumed it was New York or some other big urban center). Hinton said in an interview that she wrote the book because she was “surrounded by teens and I couldn’t see anything going on in those books that had anything to do with real life.”

Eventually, I taught the novel together with Romeo and Juliet and West Side Story and they all swirled together in the classroom and in our discussions. Which kid in Tulsa reminds you of Benvolio in Verona? Compare the rumbles in the three stories.

Between 1990 and 1999, The Outsiders was (according to the ALA), the 38th most frequently challenged book in the U.S. Imagine how shocking the number one book must have been. Actually, number one was Alvin Schwartz’s Scary Stories, usually because it has scary illustrations.

What were the objections to Hinton’s novel? Sone people objected to the smoking, violence, and the absent parents, broken homes, single-parent households and some drug and alcohol references.

I don’t remember any references to something else that I have discovered has been found between the lines more recently. These young men, like Pony and Johnny, who spent the night curled up together in a lot or an abandoned church were seen as a gay romance. Ah yes, like Ishmael and Queequeg in that inn before going to get the white whale. Trigger warnings all over the place, including for scenes where someone pulls the trigger on a revolver.

I don’t know how I would teach any literature in these times.

E.B. White had 18 nieces and nephews who asked him to tell stories, so he started writing some down. In a dream, a story about a mouse-boy with human parents came to him. He wrote Stuart Little in 1945, and seven years later Charlotte’s Web. The latter book has sold more than 45 million copies.

White was not a children’s author and he didn’t really write with children in mind. He said, “Children are game for anything. I throw them hard words, and they backhand them over the net. They love words that give them a hard time, provided they are in a context that absorbs their attention. I’m lucky again: my own vocabulary is small, compared to most writers, and I tend to use the short words. So it’s no problem for me to write for children. We have a lot in common.”

For me, the line between much of children’s literature, young adult and adult literature isn’t much of a line. The Alice adventures in Wonderland may be the best examples. I know children like the stories. I had YA students who loved them and saw other things in them. And there are lots of adults, me included, who have read them, read the annotated versions and dug deep into other aspects of them.

Young adult? Really?

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A lifelong educator on and off the Internet. Random by design and predictably irrational. It's turtles all the way down. Dolce far niente.

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