Novels of family life have always been a staple of youth literature. In Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (1868, 1869), four sisters and their mother form a supporting family circle, despite wartime deprivations and an absent father. In Kate Douglas Wiggin’s Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1903) and L. M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables (1908), orphaned children make happy homes with adoptive parents. Cress Delahanty (1953), by Jessamyn West is a realistic narrative of high school years made tolerable by empathetic parents. Although Cress Delahanty was praised throughout the 1950’s for its keen insight into adolescent psychology and was used as a text in numerous college classes, the short novel rarely was read after the 1960’s, illustrating the ephemeral nature of many quality books about young adults.
Not all young adult novels depict harmonious home environments. With divorce rates soaring during the last half of the twentieth century and the recognition that many children live in troubled or single-parent households, books started reflecting this reality. One of the pioneers of the nontraditional family story, whose enormous popularity did not extend into the new millennium, was Norma Klein. In Mom, the Wolf Man, and Me (1972), Klein introduced a child reared by her unmarried mother. In Klein’s Taking Sides (1974), the loyalties of children were divided between a lesbian mother and a divorced father who took them on assignations with his girlfriend. Though Klein’s characters are upper middle class and her books always end optimistically, her inclusion of socially taboo subject matter earned both praise and condemnation.
Klein paved the way for even more daring writers. In The Hanged Man (1994), Francesca Lia Block’s protagonist lives through incest and child abuse. In Peter (1993), by Kate Walker, a fifteen-year-old Australian strives for his authentic identity, acknowledging his sexual orientation while fighting family and social stereotypes. Jim Naughton’s My Brother Stealing Second (1989) concerns a family coping with suicide, while a high school freshman in Paula Fox’s 1995 novel The Eagle Kite learns that his father is dying of complications from acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, or AIDS.