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February 15, 2017 BOOKLIST
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Happy anniversary, old friend. You’re doing great and looking fine. Yes, young adult literature, that lively and dynamic genre, is now celebrating its golden anniversary, having come into existence in that portentous year 1967. Or did it? Did it perhaps stealthily spring into being earlier? That’s one of the many questions I’ll be addressing as I spend this and my next five columns examining the genre, past, present, and prospective. Each column will deal with a decade; thus, this first one will examine the 1960s; the next, the ’70s, and so forth, until we arrive at the present. So let’s climb into Mr. Peabody’s “Wayback machine” and begin.
There’s no gainsaying the fact that most observers date the beginning of young adult literature to 1967 because it was the year that S. E. Hinton’s modern classic, The Outsiders, was published. However, the great Margaret Alexander Edwards, patron saint of young adult librarians, once pronounced that instead it was with the 1936 publication of Helen Boylston’s Sue Barton, Student Nurse that “the dawn of the modern teenage story came up like thunder.” Edwards wisely recanted this somewhat benighted opinion when she later declared that “it was in 1942 that the new field of writing for teenagers became established.” Why 1942? Because that was the year Maureen Daly’s bellwether novel, Seventeenth Summer, was published, with its closely observed examination of its teenage protagonist Angie Morrow’s summer of love.
I tremble to disagree with the redoubtable Mrs. Edwards, but I have to point out that Seventeenth Summer must be disqualified because it was published as an adult novel, as was another book that has often erroneously been identified as the first YA novel: J. D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, published in 1951. Both certainly influenced the novels for teens that succeeded them. Seventeenth Summer sparked a decade, the 1940s, of romance, while The Catcher in the Rye gave a brash, wry, and cynical first-person voice to a generation of YA novels that would flourish in its wake. More about that in a moment but first a nod to the 1940s and ’50s, two decades of genre fiction—rampant, squeaky-clean romance for girls; and, for boys, science fiction, adventure, and sports—not yet YA but, instead, “junior novels,” as they were patronizingly called.
But then here came the sixties, and the times, they were a-changin’, demanding attention to and divergence from the traditional literature for young readers. Jeannette Eyerly began focusing attention on social problems that were newly plaguing teens in her books, which presaged the rise of problem novels in the 1970s. Frank Bonham, in his Durango Street (1965), cast a jaundiced eye on gangs, while Nat Hentoff spotlighted the impact of music on young lives in his Jazz Country (1965), a book, however, that he himself said failed. “The reality of being young,” he observed, “the tensions, the sensual yearnings and sometime satisfactions, the resentment against the educational lockstep that makes children fit the schools, the confusing recognition of their parents’ hypocrisies and failures—all this is absent from most books for young readers.”
But Hinton was about to change that. The 18-year-old from Tulsa, Oklahoma, raised her voice in concert with Hentoff’s when she passionately wrote in the New York Times, “The authors of books for teenagers are still 15 years behind the times in the fiction they write; romance is still the most popular theme, with a horse-and-the-girl-who-loved-it coming in a close second. Nowhere is the drive-in social jungle mentioned. In short, where is the reality?” Not in what she called “the inane junk lining the teenage shelf of the library.” Instead, it was to be found in the pages of her own groundbreaking novel, The Outsiders, a searing portrait of the urban mean-streets gang warfare world of her compelling characters Ponyboy, Sodapop, Darry, and Dallas. The book caught fire like the incendiary decade that sparked it, and in its sudden celebrity—arising in part from the novelty of the author’s youth (she was only 18 when the book was published)—began to usher in a new generation of novels of contemporary realism.
Hinton was not alone, however, in her nascent influence. Robert Lipsyte, in his gritty novel The Contender, published the same year as The Outsiders, joined Hinton in the campaign against the unreality and vapidity that had previously defined teen fiction. Presto—the young adult novel was born. Arguably the first novelist to be caught up in its wake was Paul Zindel, the Pulitzer Prize–winning dramatist, whose first novel, The Pigman, published in 1968, portrayed the lives of two disaffected teens, John and Lorraine, and their devastating impact on the life and death of Mr. Pignati, the eponymous pigman of the title. Zindel, a master of dialogue, resurrected the wry, wisecracking, first-person voice of Salinger’s Holden Caulfield, a voice that also informed John Donovan’s 1969 novel I’ll Get There. It Better Be Worth the Trip, which introduced the previously taboo subject of homosexuality into the still new world of YA. And speaking of taboos, Zindel tackled another—abortion—in his 1969 novel, My Darling, My Hamburger. In the meantime, Hentoff had returned, acknowledging the agonizing era of the Vietnam War with his 1968 novel, I’m Really Dragged but Nothing Gets Me Down, which explored the hotly topical issue of the military draft and the ethics of avoiding it.
Thus, from 1967 to 1969 a revolution had visited the previously staid world of fiction for teens. Suddenly, attention had to be paid to the realities of a world that was sometimes inhospitable to teen lives, that played out on mean streets, that spoke in the real-world voices of disaffected youth, that set the pattern for the literature of the next decade, and that presaged the dawn of the first golden age of young adult literature. But for that we must await the advent of the 1970s, the decade we’ll examine in my next column. See you then.
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