Publishers identified several characteristics of successful young adult fiction. First, protagonists were almost always young, and often through first-person narratives, their point of view prevailed. Second, plots dealt with adolescent dilemmas, such as Should one accept family expectations or fulfill personal goals? Was it better to “fit in” with high school cliques or assert one’s individuality? and, Should employment, further schooling, or marriage be the choice for one’s future beyond high school? Disappointment in love and friendship was another common theme. Third, problems were usually optimistically resolved by the end of a book. Fourth, stylistic experimentation was rare, even though many fine literary craftspeople were beginning to write works of young adult fiction.
With compulsory education extending through high school, publishers came to recognize the existence of a vast audience of those euphemistically referred to as “reluctant readers.” Even though teachers and librarians promoted quality literature, many gradually concluded that any reading was preferable to none at all. This opened library shelves to books previously regarded as subliterary, including many formula Westerns, romances, and the previously scorned series books.
A distinctive literature about childhood has existed since the Victorian era, but not so about adolescence as a stage of life with its own integrity, concerns, and distinct problems. Teachers, librarians, and parents argue that the classics of world literature are accessible to reading teenagers. These classics include the work of Edgar Allan Poe, who is a lasting favorite with young people, as with adults. The romances of the Brontë sisters, Rudyard Kipling’s exotic adventure tales, and the picaresque novels of Mark Twain feature youthful characters appealing to a wide range of readers. Young readers also seek out the novels of Jack London, Zora Neale Hurston, George Orwell, Pearl Buck, Ernest Hemingway, Harper Lee, Kurt Vonnegut, Chaim Potok, and others. Even though many classics endure as a type of literature for youth, a distinct junior or juvenile literary category did not emerge until the 1930’s.
Rose Wilder Lane’s Let the Hurricane Roar (1933) is widely credited as the first serious novel written specifically for young adults. Its story of hardscrabble family life on the Dakota plains, in which harsh problems are surmounted, set an optimistic tone for youth reading that was to dominate the field for many years. Publishers loosely defined young adulthood as ages twelve through twenty.
Less than ten years after Lane’s groundbreaking novel, Maureen Daly published her own work of young fiction, Seventeenth Summer (1942). Betty Cavanna’s Going on Sixteen followed in 1946. The success of these books meant that high school proms, sporting events, hot-rod adventures, adolescent infatuations, and career choices were soon the subjects of numerous novels. Seventeen magazine, addressing teenage girls, held writing contests and published examples of good teenage fiction. Publishers were eager to satisfy young readers with fiction about characters their own age and with problems similar to their own. The literature was still timid, however, hesitant to tackle subjects only whispered about at slumber parties or in locker rooms. Publishers understood that many of these books were purchased by adults, so the writing had to satisfy social values and expectations.
Several developments encouraged the expansion of junior books as a separate category. Public libraries appeared in more and more small towns. Mail-order department stores, including Montgomery Ward and Sears Roebuck, marketed books of all kinds. Urbanization provided greater access to libraries and bookstores, and teenagers were earning more discretionary money. “Penny dreadfuls” and subliterary pulp fiction had been marketed for several years, but in the 1960’s the paperback industry accelerated; soon almost any book could be purchased in paperback, including...
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young adult novels. Though prices increased, the books remained popular because of ease of handling and ready availability. Chain bookstores spread, demanding an increasing supply of new books for all tastes.
Established writers would soon be encouraged to write for young adults. One of these writers, Robert Cormier, became a best-selling author of young adult fiction with his immensely popular novel The Chocolate War (1974). As teenage fiction became a genre of its own, some stories would reach beyond the genteel boundaries of middle-class propriety to tackle the realities of youthful existence. Ethnicity, the immigrant experience, family dysfunction, sexual exploitation, drugs, and violence became popular topics. The Chocolate War is infamous for its sexual references, violence, and harsh language.