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First novels. Where would literature be without them? Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719) is generally regarded as being the first one in English, though some have argued the honor should go, instead, to Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur (1485) or John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678). The first novel for children is less ambiguous, generally thought to be Little Goody Two Shoes (1765). Its full title is worth noting, since it’s nearly as long as the book itself: The History of Little Goody Two Shoes; Otherwise called, Mrs. Margery Two Shoes, with the Means by Which She Acquired Her Learning and Wisdom and in Consequence Thereof Her Estate; Set Forth at Large for the Benefit of Those, Who from a State of Rags and Care and Having Shoes But Half a Pair, Their Fortune and Their Fame Would Fix and Gallop in a Coach and Six. (Phew!) Who was its author? We don’t know, since it was published anonymously, but many people believe it to have been Oliver Goldsmith.
But what about young adult literature? What’s the first novel in that genre? Again, there is disagreement. Some have opted for Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (1868), others for Maureen Daly’s Seventeenth Summer (1942) or J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951). Of course, Little Women appeared long before the concept of young adults did, and both Seventeenth Summer and The Catcher in the Rye were published as adult titles, though many (including me) believe that if the two were to be published today, they would appear as YA. The great Margaret A. Edwards, the patron saint of young adult librarianship, chimed in, asserting the first YA was Helen Boylston’s Sue Barton, Student Nurse (1936). With its publication, Mrs. Edwards wrote breathlessly, “the dawn of the modern teen-age story came up like thunder.”
From our contemporary vantage, we now agree that it was none of the above but, instead, it was with S. E. Hinton’s The Outsiders (1967) that the real sound of thunder announced the first young adult novel as we know it; that is, the novel of contemporary realism. I don’t disagree with that received wisdom, but I would argue that a second novel deserves equal billing: Robert Lipsyte’s The Contender, since it was published the same year and—to my mind—is the more authentic work of contemporary realism, since The Outsiders comes dangerously close to being a romance. Be that as it may, it’s worth noting that both of these books were first novels, as were Seventeenth Summer, The Catcher in the Rye, and Sue Barton, Student Nurse.
This is a very long, roundabout way of saying that first novels have a significant place in the annals of young adult literature. This was confirmed five years ago when YALSA established its William C. Morris YA Debut Award, which is given to the author of the best first book of the year. Yes, I know that includes nonfiction, but since its 2009 inception, the award has gone only to novels. The winners are now a matter of record: Charm & Strange by Stephanie Kuehn; Seraphina by Rachel Hartman; Where Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley; The Freak Observer by Blythe Woolston; Flash Burnout by L. K. Madigan; and A Curse Dark as Gold by Elizabeth C. Bunce.
But suppose the Morris Award had been around since 1967; what are some of the earlier first novels that might have won the honor? To begin at the beginning, which of the very first YA novels—The Outsiders or The Contender— would have copped the prize? I would have voted for The Contender, but I suspect the winner would have been The Outsiders, the award committee doubtless citing a requirement stipulated in the award’s definition that the book must have “proven or potential appeal to a wide range of teen readers.”
Two years later, the logical choice would have been Paul Zindel’s The Pigman (1969), though there might have been a lively argument about its eligibility, since Zindel had already written plays. If The Pigman were, indeed, ineligible, another novel, John Donovan’s I’ll Get There, It Better Be Worth the Trip, the first YA novel with gay content, would have been the logical choice. More clearly ineligible would have been one of the greatest YA novels of them all: The Chocolate War (1974), by Robert Cormier, since he had already published three novels for adults. Two years before the publication of The Chocolate War, a major contender would have been M. E. Kerr’s Dinky Hocker Shoots Smack! (1972). But it, too, would have been ineligible, since Kerr had already published a number of adult novels writing as Vin Packer and M. J. Meaker. Three years later, another title that was also a likely but ineligible winner was Walter Dean Myers’ Fast Sam, Cool Clyde, and Stuff, since Myers had already published two children’s books.
A title that was eligible (at last!) and a likely winner was Cynthia Voigt’s Homecoming (1981); another would have been Chris Crutcher’s Running Loose (1983). And then how about Francesca Lia Block’s Weetzie Bat (1989)? As we get to the nineties, there seem to be more candidates (and likely ones, at that) Consider Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak (1999), for example. I must mention one other title that was—heartbreakingly—ineligible: Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower (1999); yes, it’s a first novel but, alas, one published as an adult title. Happily, other eligible titles would surely include An Na’s A Step from Heaven (2001), Meg Rosoff’s how I live now (2004), John Green’s Looking for Alaska (2005) and, yes, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (1998).
There are, of course, a host of others. What titles would you select? Drop me a line (email@example.com) and let me know.
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