Skip to main content Skip to Search Box
Summary Article: Young Adult Literature
from Continuum Encyclopedia of Children's Literature

Young Adult Literature, typically regarded as REALISTIC FICTION for readers aged twelve through eighteen, is an American contribution to world literature that emerged during the 1940s when adolescence—the period between childhood and early adulthood—came to be regarded as a separate stage of human development.

Many observers cite Maureen Daly's influential romance, Seventeenth Summer (1942), as the first young adult novel. Though actually published for adults, its enormous popularity with teenage readers inspired countless other romance novels by such authentic young adult authors as Betty CAVANNA, Janet Lambert, Rosamund DUJARDIN, Anne Emery, James L. Summers, Mary STOLZ, and others. Indeed, the 1940s, in retrospect, may be dubbed the “decade of romance.”

The most significant title of the 1950s was J. D. SALINGER's The Catcher in the Rye (1951). Like Seventeenth Summer it was originally published for adults but was quickly embraced by teenagers. Catcher introduced important themes of adolescent angst, anomie, and alienation that, however, did not become staples of young adult fiction until nearly two decades later. In the meantime while romance remained popular, a number of other genres flourished, including SPORTS STORIES (John R. TUNIS), ADVENTURE (Howard Pease, Robb White, Paul Annixter), and car stories (Henry Gregor Felsen) for boys. For readers of both sexes there was SCIENCE FICTION (Robert HEINLEIN, Andre NORTON), career novels (Stephen W. Meader, Helen Wells), and ANIMAL STORIES (Walter FARLEY, Fred GIPSON, Marguerite HENRY).

Although topically diverse, these books had in common their depiction of a world that looked like a Saturday Evening Post cover—a small-town, middle-American world populated by characters with faces as white as the picket fences that surrounded the comfortable, two-story houses in which they lived. The most serious problems that seemed to confront their protagonists were falling in love for the first time and finding a date for the senior prom.

All of this changed abruptly in 1967 with the publication of two landmark novels: The Outsiders by S. E. HINTON and The Contenders by Robert LIPSYTE. The former dealt with gang and class warfare on the mean streets of Tulsa, while the latter—set on the even meaner streets of New York City's Harlem—was an acutely observed novel about the self-transformation of a black teenager from high school dropout in a dead-end job into a contender, in the boxing ring and in life.

By focusing on the often unpleasant, life-and-death realities of adolescent life in America, these two authors pushed back the boundaries of what had previously been deemed “acceptable” in books for young readers, ushering in an era of realistic fiction that engaged—in its themes, characters, and settings—the authentic lives of American teenagers.

Thanks in large part to Hinton and Lipsyte's liberating example, the 1970s became a golden age of young adult literature, a period when such modern masters as Robert CORMIER, John DONOVAN, Richard PECK, M. E. KERR, Walter Dean MYERS, Harry MAZER, and Norma Fox MAZER began publishing. Of these, Cormier is indisputably the most important and arguably the first writer who dared to introduce determinism into young adult fiction, demonstrating that hope may be fugitive and evil might prevail.

Unfortunately innovation quickly bred less talented imitation and the seventies are, thus, also remembered as the decade of the problem novel, i.e., the work of social realism in which character, setting, and style are sacrificed to an almost expository treatment of a single social problem: e.g., drugs, alcohol abuse, parental divorce, and so forth. The formerly taboo topic of sex also became a staple of the problem novel, though the act itself was almost never discussed; instead, its consequences (inevitably depicted as unhappy) became the topic du jour. One of these, abortion, was first dealt with in Paul ZINDEL's My Darling, My Hamburger (1969) and a second, rape, in Richard Peck's Are You in the House Alone? (1976). However, it was not until 1975 that the sexual act itself would be celebrated as normal and healthy in Judy BLUME's frequently banned Forever (1975). Perhaps in reaction to the plethora of problem novels, the 1980s became a period defined by a return of bland romances, usually published in paperback series with names like “Wildfire,” “Sweet Dreams,” “Caprice,” “First Love,” and so forth.

Also responsible for the 1980s explosion of paperbacks was the dwindling of resources available to public libraries and schools, the institutions that had been the traditional market for YA books. Now the teenagers themselves became the consumers targeted by publishers; their point of purchase was the chain bookstore, a fixture of the omnipresent shopping malls that had begun appearing in the 1970s.

By the end of the eighties, horror had replaced romance in the genre lists and the novels of Christopher Pike and R. L. STINE seemed poised to pound the final nail in the coffin of traditional hardover young adult publishing.

Predictions of the death of the young adult novel were premature, however, for by the mid-nineties, a revival was under way. In part this was due to publishers' rediscovering older teen readers, a market segment they had abandoned in the early nineties when young adult literature had turned into “middle-school literature” with protagonists as young as twelve and seldom older then fourteen. Today, however, authors like Francesca Lia BLOCK, Chris LYNCH, Rob Thomas, and Brock COLE are writing books with intrinsic appeal to high school age readers and even those in their early twenties. Protagonists have begun to grow up and their creators have begun dealing realistically, and, artfully with the complexities of their postmodern, at-risk lives. REALISTIC FICTION has taken on a harder edge and the last taboos have begun falling, including themes of child abuse and incest, which have been addressed by major writers such as Francesca Lia Block, Carolyn Coman, Cynthia VOIGT, Jacqueline WOODSON, and Brock Cole. Homosexuality has also begun emerging from publishing's closet, though cautiously. Some fifty novels with homosexual themes and characters have appeared in the first eight years of the 1990s, as many as were published altogether in the twenty years between 1969, when John Donovan first addressed the topic in I'll Get There, It Better Be Worth the Trip, and 1990.

Another reason for the recent revival is that, in counterpoint to the huge entertainment conglomerates that own most major American publishers today, a number of independent so-called niche PUBLISHERS have emerged. Some like Front Street and Milkweed specialize in risk-taking “literary” fiction, while others like Arte Publico, Clear Light and Lee and Low reflect the interest in MULTICULTURAL publishing that has emerged in the wake of the 1980s' surge in immigration.

For young adult literature the nineties, a decade that began with a near-death experience, is ending with a return to robust publishing activity and a rebirth of artistic viability.

Michael Cart

(See also CROSSOVERS: CHILDREN'S BOOKS FOR ADULT READERS.)

© 2005 The Continuum International Publishing Group, Ltd

Related Articles


Full text Article young adult fiction
Continuum Encyclopedia of British Literature

There is a considerable problem with the concept of literature for young adults. What is a young adult, and when does he or she become simply...

Full text Article young adult fiction
The Cambridge Guide to Children's Books in English

As a genre young adult fiction did not exist until well after World War II. Before then a number of classic children’s series such as ...

Full text Article young adult literature
Continuum Encyclopedia of American Literature

Before the 19th c., few books were written for children, and virtually none for young adult readers. 17th-c. children heard and read the...

See more from Credo