YA: Then vs. Now

If it weren’t for having to remember all those dates, I would have loved to have declared a history minor for myself in college. I like seeing how things go from Point A to Point B, and have a special appreciation for the past. But, sadly, history is about learning a lot of facts, and since I was more interested in the ideas behind those facts, I chose English, a very close relative of history, in my opinion.

Something I’ve been thinking about lately is the history of YA literature. How did we go from its roots as an undefined, confusing genre to one of the largest markets in publishing today? Like most things in history, seeing this evolution is pretty fascinating to me. Understanding that progression wasn’t as easy.

For being such an important part of the industry, YA is practically a baby. It’s a genre that keeps growing, not only in numbers (though that is true too), but in definition. Novels for teens used to be its own category, relegated to the back of the bookstore with a simple sign above it reading “Teen Literature.” Today, there are as many sub-genres in YA as there are in adult fiction. YA sci-fi, YA romance, YA mystery, etc. After Twilight, Barnes & Noble even created a section just for “Teen Paranormal Romance.” You can’t categorize them under one blanket term anymore; it would be impossible.

Part of the reason for this is that people are finally realizing teens aren’t all the same. They are as complex and unique as adults, and each have different preferences in what they watch, read, and listen to. The word “teenager” didn’t even come into existence until the late 1940s and early 1950s. People between the ages of 13 and 19 existed, of course, but no one thought to put a name to them as a group. This makes teenagers relatively new to the world, but also sort of old. With over 60 years of recognition, society still tends to think we go from childhood directly to adulthood. Teens are the third option that no one likes to talk about. If they’re talked about, it means they matter. It’s just easier for adults to mock their hairstyles and taste in music, and ignore the fact that that teen-hood is not just an extension of childhood. It’s something else.

When I thought about the changes in YA, I decided there was a clear difference between “writing about teens” vs. “writing for teens.” YA novels published in the past decade tend to fall under the latter. The voices are edgy, hip, modern, and are void of adult interference, regardless of the age of the author or the characters. YA of the last ten years has taken on a new attitude about their audience, which is that they are savvy enough to know the difference between authenticity and pandering. 

There’s something downright old-fashioned about the books we thought of as YA, and I wanted to find out why this was. When did it shift? There’s no clear-cut example of “the book that changed YA.” There’s no way for me to say, “Oh, well obviously YA is different now because…”

The truth is, there are a lot of reasons, and those reasons can be boiled down to the idea that things simply progress naturally. An entire genre does not change overnight. Instead, it creates sub-genres like the ones I mentioned above. It’s finding new topics to explore. It’s pushing boundaries and making adults uncomfortable. Just like teens are supposed to.

I am 27 years old. My coming-of-age happened in the mid-to-late 1990s. Admittedly, this does not feel like that long ago. On paper, it looks as if it was practically yesterday. But, thinking of how much the world has changed in the past twenty years, and remembering it is 2011 (the second decade of a new century), it is, in reality, pretty far gone. I read a lot as a child, but when I think of books I read as a teen, they were mostly for adults. YA novels were much fewer and farther between in the ’90s, but they were still there.

In my quest to find this shift in the history of YA, I took to Twitter. Asking only people ages 25 and older what books they read as they came of age, I got some overwhelming results. I don’t think I’ve gotten more responses to anything I’ve ever said on Twitter. Or in real life, possibly. There were so many responses, I can’t list them all here, but there were many repeated titles that I thought were particularly interesting.

You see, when I polled my peers on what YA (MG acceptable too) books they loved when they were that age, the majority of people gave me the following titles:

The Babysitter’s Club
Nancy Drew
Sweet Valley High
Goosebumps
Wait Til Helen Comes
The Indian in the Cupboard
A Wrinkle in Time

Then there were “all novels by” Judy Blume, Beverly Cleary, Louis Sachar, Katherine Paterson, and Paula Danziger (who I had to Google and am ashamed about).

Do you notice the same pattern I did? None of these books are YA! Some are Middle Grade, yes, but most of them are books we would have read before we turned 11.

The next biggest group of responders referenced TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD and ENDER’S GAME. These books, along with my beloved CATCHER IN THE RYE, feature incredibly strong child and teen protagonists. We read these books as teens and enjoyed them, but fair readers, these are also not YA. They were not written with us in mind. We just read them because they were there (or because we had to) and the main character was our age, so we responded positively. Still, they fall under the “books we read as teens” category. Close, but no cigar.

Then, because Twitter never lets me down, the magic four authors were named:

Gail Carson Levine, ELLA ENCHANTED
Caroline Cooney, THE FACE ON THE MILK CARTON
S.E. Hinton, THE OUTSIDERS
Lois Lowry, THE GIVER

I was waiting, hoping, for people to list these titles specifically, but it wasn’t until I thought about them again in terms of the evolution of YA that I realized they were the answer to my original question the whole time. Only, I shouldn’t have been asking when YA shifted; I should have asked when it started.

These books, or more specifically their authors, are who I hereby dub YA Pioneers. (Proud to say 3 of the 4 happen to be members of the Curtis Brown family!) Don’t get me wrong, they weren’t the only four, but they are arguably the most widely read of their generation. They not only made the genre popular, they made the genre a genre. They are the reason bookstores started Young Adult sections. They weren’t just writing about teens; they were writing for them.

[Digression: Sadly, they were not the reason the New York Times finally decided to give YA props by including their own Bestseller section. That honor went to J.K. Rowling after the newspaper was tired of Harry taking space away from the “real” books in 2000.]

Anyway, remember when I said that teenagers have been around since the 1950s, but no one paid attention to them as individuals until recently? To give you an idea how recent YA – as a named, recognized genre – is, each of the above four novels, with the exception of THE OUTSIDERS, was published in the early 1990s.

[Note: THE OUTSIDERS, of course, was published by a teenage S.E. Hinton in 1967, and had to wait over 20 years to be defined. It remains, more often than not, the exception to most rules in literature.]

These books didn’t only feature teenage protagonists, they offered a teenage perspective. Obedience, betrayal, alienation, and oppression are all things teenagers feel every day of their lives to varying degrees, but not many people were willing to give them a voice before these books came along. Yet, for all their forward-thinking and barrier-breaking, they were tinged with one fatal flaw. They sounded like they were written by adults. Granted, they were written by adults who gave teens a lot more credit than most people at that time, but adults nonetheless. They read as if they are telling a story to their audience, and even though the authors describe the feelings of their characters remarkably well, going back and reading these novels now don’t offer the sense of being there in the same way YA novels published today do (examples to follow).

[Another interesting exception to a rule I found was that while Levine, Cooney, and Lowry’s novels were written in the 3rd person past tense, which creates the most distance between the author and her characters, teenage Hinton wrote THE OUTSIDERS in1st person.]

There are still authors of “the old school” who continue to have voices that resonate with modern teens. The above-mentioned YA Pioneers, along with the likes of Judy Blume, are examples of authors who seem to defy the laws of evolution and whose classic novels are as strong as ever with their key demographic. Others don’t pass the test of time as well, but it doesn’t make them any less important in their contributions in starting a genre.

As big as YA is now, I’m convinced that we are still in a transitional period. Perhaps that’s why I cant tell when the shift happened – it’s because we’re still in it. My fellow over-25 readers and I grew up with books that are now considered classics. They are important and they should continue to be read by generations to come. But, tides are changing, and these classics should no longer be considered the standard. Writers today are no doubt influenced by them, so we exist in a time where both old and new voices are spoken simultaneously.

The YA Pioneers made it possible for late-’90s/early ’00 books like THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER, SPEAK, and MONSTER to exist. They allowed the characters they created to be taken into new areas – specifically, the taboo, the banned. Suddenly authors were giving a voice to the parts of being a teenager that adults didn’t like, or even know about – sexuality, drugs, abuse, rape, injustice. Not exactly the stuff Disney movies are made of. (But it could have been the stuff WB shows were made of, a network also born in the late ’90s. In retrospect, that might not have been a coincidence.)

Not only were topics and stories getting more to the heart of the teen experience, but the way these stories were being told started taking risks too. PERKS is written in epistolary format, MONSTER is told as a screenplay, and SPEAK takes on the rarely-done-well 1st person present tense that puts you exactly in the moment with the main character.

In turn, these books made it a easier for titles like THE ABSOLUTELY TRUE DIARY OF A PART-TIME INDIAN, THIRTEEN REASONS WHY, and CRANK to be published. Which, of course, will be responsible for the YA we see released tomorrow. Things shift, the way things always do, and the way things should. Sure, it’s a little sad to know that your kids won’t enjoy the same exact things you did, but every generation experiences the effects of the previous one, so nothing is ever really lost. Books are no different, and I’m looking forward to seeing how the next generation takes what we give them and evolves.

**Author’s Correction: Commenter Manette Eaton has brought to my attention that Ella Enchanted is also written in 1st person. I’m sorry to have led you astray.

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37 thoughts on “YA: Then vs. Now

  1. Brilliant. I was thinking about this recently, because I had just finished All the Pretty Horses, and while it is a beautiful book about young people, it isn't necessarily written for young people.

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  2. Just finding this post now and I'm glad a did. Great topic! My first YA books (and, coincidently or no, the ones that turned me from a 'meh' reader into a 'OMG I CAN'T LIVE WITHOUT BOOKS' reader) were those by Tamora Pierce and Robin Mckinley (I'm a fantasy girl). Both still top my list of all-time favorite authors and continue to delight me with awesome books. 🙂

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  3. This is great! I'm printing it right now to put in my writing files for YA! Thank you for doing all the research for us YA authors 🙂

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  4. A great summary! Funny thing, I read your post the other day and just yesterday picked up a book at a book fair published in 1948 and billed as a “story for Teen Agers”.

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  5. I'm surprised nobody mentioned Tamora Pierce! Her books are primarily about strong teenage women and were published in the early eighties, and I read and LOVED her books in the early nineties…they were still wildly popular a decade later. Today I work in a public library as a teen specialist, and they STILL ask for books by Tamora Pierce. I'd say she's somewhat of a legend in the YA genre, and it's pretty amazing that nearly 30 years later her books are still being read by teens.

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  6. The lists are great! I definitely felt my eyes suck onto Indian in the Cupboard and Ella Enchanted when you wrote them down. But another book came to mind that you did not put down, that most people have never heard of, which I realized is very much YA genre (I didn't like reading until 6th grade when I read this book).

    Sabriel by Garth Nix

    It's YA fantasy, and I haven't found any people who've read this book, but I still would suggest it, especially for a feel for YA when it was still new. Perhaps this is another reason I didn't like reading until Sabriel. Not only had I never read a fantasy book before, but I had never read YA. What an interesting thought! 🙂

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  7. I agree, and I feel like this is something I'm constantly trying to explain to my non-writer friends, who grew up on books like Babysitter's Club or To Kill a Mockingbird, and then tell me that these are what YA books look like, not what I write. And then I struggle to explain that no, those aren't really YA, in spite of having teenaged protags. And then the convo devolves into “well then what is YA? you can't define it so it must be made up” gah. >.>

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  8. Interesting that those four authors/titles surfaced! I adored Ella Enchanted when I was younger, it was one of my favourites. And I've read The Giver and The Face on the Milk Carton multiple times. I agree, there definitely seems to have been a shift from writing about teens to writing for them. I think before then it's true that a lot of teens read what would be considered more MG titles today (Beverly Cleary, Paula Danziger, etc.)

    This post reminded me a lot of a series I've been doing on my blog called “YA Through The Ages” looking at YA in various time periods, if you'd like to check it out.

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  9. Wonderful post. You mentioned some books that I grew up reading as well, such as The Babysitter's Club, The Outsiders, and The Perks of Being a Wallflower. I love that YA is continuing to change and the authors writing it aren't letting teen voices be silenced. It's important. I hope to be a part of this one day.

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  10. @Lindsey – Smiley faces are always welcome. Thank you for sharing this. For the purposes of this post I stuck to the most popular titles mentioned in my poll. It's definitely worth noting other authors who wrote for teens before YA had a name. Thanks!

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  11. Okay for the sake of sharing my knowledge of older YA titles, I will. Although I do not:) come from this generation, I can vouch for the fact that there were YA titles in the 1950's and on.
    I actually own 50+ and I'm talking where the teen is the MC and it's age appropriate stories. Of course what was edgy back then isn't close to edgy now. I do think those authors should get some sort of recognition. they wrote about romance and rebellion and everything in between.
    Betty Cavanna wrote many novels for teens, about teens.
    Other authors and titles.
    Sweet Sixteen by Anne Emery
    Drop Out by Jeanette Eyerly
    Milestone by Esther Elisabeth Carlson
    Sunday Dreamer by Bob and Jan Young
    And the list could go on and on.
    I was friends with a librarian at my HS (late 90's) who let me have as many discards as I wanted. And I snagged over 50 books… most were written in the 50's and 60's.
    I'm not sure if this addresses your post, but it seemed weird not to acknowledge authors who wrote for teens way back when.

    Lindsey

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  12. @Rebecca – Like any well-written fiction, Harry can be read and enjoyed by all ages. But, in terms of intended audiences, the series begins at MG. The reason it's not mentioned in this post is because the bulk of the series is too modern for the over-25 crowd to have grown up with, which is who I focused on. Thanks for your comment!

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  13. I've been reading lately about the invention theory of adolescence. Proponents of the theory say that in “the old days” (I always wonder which, and when) children simply passed over into the responsibilities and privileges of adulthood without an intervening halfway period. They like to point out that now we've “invented” it, adolescence keeps getting extended further and further into the twenties and that this situation is unnatural and unsatisfying and has led to a decline in marriage.

    It's hard not to feel there's something to it, while at the same time I think it's fair to point out than in many past societies, families fulfilled many of the roles that civil government now fulfills, so entering adulthood at twelve wouldn't have been the dramatic (and possibly traumatic) separation that it would be today.

    Anyway, this all makes me wonder about the YA genre. Even the MG genre. Isn't there an element here where young people are being forced to grow up later and later (even while their bodies mature earlier) and so they are scratching the “grow-up-now” itch by reading about kids who DO THINGS besides engaging in an seemingly interminable education?

    As for the connection between history and English, have you read Barfield's 'History in English Words?' Maybe I've suggested something pretty obvious here (and I know some of his ideas are out of date) but I found it intriguing and entertaining and I like to mention it to people when I get the chance. 🙂

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  14. Where do the Harry Potter books fit in a discussion of YA lit? Sure, they're categorized by publishers under children's fiction, but as for readers? My high school-age daughter and her smart, non-nerdy friends are still caught up in these books and of course movies. They reread them almost as comfort food, I believe, along with all the heavy stuff in their AP lit courses, etc.

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