Before the invention of movable type in the fifteenth century, books for children were lesson books in Latin for the upper class. These early texts set the tone for children’s literature as works that should present models of moral instruction.
The expanded use of movable type resulted in increased literacy. As the middle class became concerned with educating their children, distinctions were made between literature for adults and literature for children. In colonial America, the Puritans assumed that the moral redemption of their children was a parental obligation. Books for children, then, were religious and highly moralistic.
During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, some books began to bridge the gap between literature for adults and literature for children. Daniel Defoe’s The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1719) and Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726) are two. In 1744 John Newbery began to publish books specifically intended for children, many of which were deliberately written for enjoyment. The preachy Little Goody Two-Shoes (1765) may be cited as the first short juvenile novel.
During the nineteenth century, children were viewed as winsome innocents lacking adult hypocrisy. Children’s classics such as Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (1867) and Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) were widely read and contrasted with the popular domestic novel. Written primarily for older girls and women, domestic novels promoted acceptable social values and traditional morality. Boys and men read dime novels, adventure novels that contained rugged male protagonists in unrealistic adventures. These books were suspiciously regarded by the clergy, teachers, and many parents. As the nineteenth century closed, distinctions had been made between classics and nonclassics and between boys’ books and girls’ books. Furthermore, many works for young people had been attacked by adults.
Trends in the Twentieth Century
The concept of adolescence as a separate stage of life had evolved during the nineteenth century and was defined by G. Stanley Hall in 1905. Literature for young adults thus began to reflect this life period more definitively. Books of the early twentieth century included Booth Tarkington’s Penrod (1914), which deals with the comical adventures of a twelve-year-old male protagonist. Eleanor Porter’s Pollyanna (1913) portrays an early adolescent female coping with growing up.
During the 1930’s, the term “junior books” came into use. Publishers soon formed junior book divisions and for the next three decades, authors such as Henry Gregor Felsen, James Summers, and John Tunis were popular with boys, and Janet Lambert and Maureen Daly were read by girls. During this period, the characteristics of the young adult novel were established: about 200 pages in length, immediate reader entry into the novel, realistic dialogue, and adolescent characters in relevant settings and situations.
During the 1960’s, adult books such as The Catcher in the Rye (1951) and Lord of the Flies (1954) became popular reading for adolescents. At the same time literature written for adolescents began to reflect changing mores of society and new conflicts for the young adult. S. E. Hinton’s The Outsiders (1967) deals with the problems of gangs. Paul Zindel’s The Pigman (1968) portrays a male and female protagonist. African American characters are important in works such as Nat Hentoff’s Jazz Country (1965) and Robert Lipsyte’s The Contender (1967).
As books for adolescents became more realistic about many adolescents’ lives, they became more controversial. Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War (1974) includes violence and a corrupt adult world. Katherine Paterson’s The Great Gilly Hopkins (1978) deals with an eleven-year-old female protagonist who regularly uses profanity. The Catcher in the Rye has been censored for profanity as well, even though its protagonist mentions profanity only to disparage it. The novels of Judy Blume deal...
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