Young adult lit grows up fast
Young adult fiction is going through a growth spurt. Find out how it is changing.
By Marian Wilde
Parents of middle school children who are lagging behind in the gardens of Narnia and Ramona the Pest will be surprised to learn how wide and rich the world of young adult fiction has become, and how fast it has changed.
Young adult fiction (or YA, as it's frequently called) is not the teen literature of yore. Now we have acclaimed adult authors, such as Sherman Alexie and Nick Hornby, writing for the YA audience. Conversely, we have books written for teens crossing over to the adult market. The Book Thief by Mark Zusak is one example. But, we also have books with darker and racier content.
A great flowering of talent and titles
Young adult fiction is a fairly recent phenomenon. It wasn't until the 19th century, when the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen were translated and beautifully illustrated books became more widely available, that publishers began to think of children's books as a market niche. This trend was codified in the United States in 1900, with the creation of the children's section of the American Library Association.
Children's literature continued to develop through the first half of the 20th century, with Mary Poppins and the Chronicles of Narnia being two major publication events.
However, there were still no books written specifically for teens. Readers of all ages embraced books like Swiss Family Robinson, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Little Women, but these classics were written primarily for adults.
In the 1960s and '70s, we see the beginnings of young adult literature. In response to baby boomers entering their teen years, and spurred on by the burgeoning music and fashion industries, publishers brought out novels specifically for adolescents, such as The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton and Forever by Judy Blume.
If the '60s and '70s were the classical age of YA, we're now in the midst of its renaissance, due again to the sheer number of teens out there — the children of baby boomers and a huge second wave of YA consumers. The Association of American Publishers reports that from 2002 to 2005, hard-cover books for young people accounted for the largest increase of books marketed to a general audience.
In fact, there has been such a remarkable increase in high quality YA fiction that many new awards have been created to acknowledge the authors. The two most prestigious awards are the National Book Award for Young People's Literature, created in 1996, and the Michael L. Printz Award, given by the Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA) and first awarded in 2000.
Says Barbara Feinberg, author of Welcome to Lizard Motel: Children, Stories, and the Mystery of Making Things Up, A Memoir: "One of the discoveries I made when writing my book was that there really is a whole new world of young adult literature out there."
A dark streak grows
YA typically features a tween or teen protagonist and deals with topics favored by this age range: fantasy, adventure and coming-of-age stories. Recently, more graphic sex and violence has crept into books aimed at the younger YA age ranges, causing concern and consternation among parents.
It's important to point out that it's not unusual for books marketed to 12- to 18-years-olds to exhibit edgy qualities, the genre pioneer, The Outsiders — which is about boys joining gangs — being a prime example. "Authors realize that teens are exploring the edges of experience, and young adult books explore reality to the extreme," says Jennifer Collins, Teen Services Coordinator for the San Francisco Public Library.
Although the issues explored in YA literature are basically the same today as they were in the '60s and '70s, the descriptions are now more detailed and graphic. This has troubled parents in a number of communities, and books have been pulled off library shelves as a result of their protests.
"Within the explosion of young adult literature there have been some books that explore sexuality more graphically than in the past. In the past five years more books push the limit to explore themes of at-risk teens and teens on the edge," Collins says.
One parent who has criticized this trend is Barbara Feinberg, whose 2004 book Welcome to the Lizard Motel, is a memoir about her inquiry into young adult literature. She wrote it because her seventh-grade son was unhappy with his school reading assignments. "The books that were being assigned were very topical and dark, with topics such as maternal suicide, alcoholism, family dysfunction and abandonment," she says. "I would never want to censor things — I think kids should read what they want — but it seemed there was a preponderance of these kinds of things in young adult literature, and it was all kind of contrived."
The novel The Catcher in the Rye set the tone for YA literature. With its portrayal of adolescent angst and sex, The Catcher in the Rye became one of the most controversial and banned books of the 20th century. Now, however, it is frequently required reading in high schools.
The Catcher in the Rye, although it was not written for teens, is considered a benchmark by many YA authors. The main character, Holden Caulfield, narrates his story from a mental institution. Profanity, academic failure and prostitution are part of Holden's experience.
"The Catcher in the Rye is beautiful and subtle," Feinberg says. "It was really the first book told from the point of view of a teenager in a disaffected voice, talking about his inner turmoil. Huckleberry Finn was written from the point of view of a teenager, but it wasn't about his inner life so much. I think there has been a tremendous change since The Catcher in the Rye, which is a work of art. Now, a lot of young adult books have a pared down quality. They feel more like TV. It's all about the issue."