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March 15, 2018 BOOKLIST
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Sometime in 1954, Margaret Alexander Edwards, that patron saint of young adult librarians, magisterially announced, “It was in 1942 that the new field of writing for teenagers became established.” The establisher was Maureen Daly, and the occasion to which Edwards refers was the publication of Daly’s first novel, Seventeenth Summer, the story of 17-year-old Angie Morrow’s summer of love. These 74 years later, Seventeenth Summer remains a signal event in the history of young adult literature, though it’s not really the first young adult novel—it was published as an adult book, but it was quickly embraced by teenagers, who made it their own, to the dismay of Daly, who, alas, devalued books for youth. In 1994, she wrote—hotly—“I would like, at this late date, to explain that Seventeenth Summer, in my intention and at the time of publication, was considered a full adult novel and published and reviewed as such.”
Harrumph! Be that as it may, the book was—and remains (it’s still in print and has sold more than 1.5 million copies)—so popular with teens that it ushered in a decade, the forties, distinguished by its romance novels, many of them pale imitations of Daly’s. An early example was Betty Cavanna’s 1946 novel Going on Sixteen, which was as much an homage to as an imitation of Daly’s novel. In fact, the book’s protagonist, Julie, an aspiring book illustrator, reports having “just last month read a newspaper account of a book written by a girl of 17.” Daly was, famously, only 17 when she wrote her novel, though she was 21 when it was actually published. Another of the faux Dalys was Rosamund du Jardin. The dust jacket of her Practically Seventeen speaks tellingly about these romance novels: “In recent years, permanent recognition and popularity have been accorded the ‘junior novel’ [this patronizing term was used to describe books for teens in the forties and fifties], the story that records truthfully the modern girl’s dream of life and romance and her ways of adjusting to her school and family experiences. Practically Seventeen is such a book—as full of life as the junior prom.”
These, er, lively romances continued to rule the roost throughout the fifties in the work of such stalwarts as Janet Lambert, Anne Emery, James L. Summers, the now forgotten Mina Lewiton, the more celebrated Mary Stolz, Zoa Sherburne, and, yes, Lois Duncan, who wrote romances (Debutante Hill, anyone?) before she turned to the mysteries for which she is remembered.
Love was in the air. Love was everywhere.
That romance maintained its popularity well into the sixties is evidenced by something that none other than S. E. Hinton wrote in the New York Times Book Review as late as 1967: “The world is changing, yet 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.” She was, of course, about to change all that with the publication of her first novel, The Outsiders, and thus was young adult literature—the novel of contemporary realism—born. Romance continued to be published throughout the seventies, of course, but took a backseat to more literary YA novels, a reason the decade is known as the first golden age of young adult literature.
The eighties, however, were a different story: they saw a robust renaissance of romance. Just why that should be is debatable. Perhaps realistic fiction became too darkly realistic in the late seventies; perhaps the seventies boom in the publication of adult romance trickled down to YA. For whatever reason, hearts and flowers were suddenly foremost in YA publishing. This recalled the forties, but there was a difference between the romances of that decade and those of the eighties. The former were known by the names of their authors—Cavanna, Lambert, du Jardin, etc.; the latter were known by the names of their series, all of which seemed to contain the words Sweet Valley. Indeed, by the end of the decade, there were 34 million Sweet Valley High books in print, and one, Perfect Summer, had become the first YA novel ever to appear on the New York Times paperback best-seller list.
Sweet Valley may have led the market, but it was hardly the only series to flourish. There were also Scholastic’s Wildfire, Bantam’s Sweet Dreams, Dell’s Young Love, and Simon and Schuster’s First Love. Love was in the air. Love was everywhere. Its popularity was eclipsed, however briefly, near the end of the decade by the rise of horror fiction, all of it seemingly written by R. L. Stine and Christopher Pike, whom Time called “the Beavis and Butthead of young adult literature.” Romance also took a backseat to realism with the appearance, in the midnineties, of the so-called bleak books, realism with a harder edge than that of the seventies. But not to worry, romance came roaring back in the new millennium with the appearance of chick lit. Originating in England, this new genre first appeared on our sunny shores with the publication here of Louise Rennison’s Angus, Thongs, and Full-Frontal Snogging, which copped a Printz Honor Award in 2001. Within two years, chick lit morphed into mean-girl lit with the publication of Cecily von Ziegesar’s Gossip Girl. This barn burner of a series—12 titles in all—had sold 5.5 million copies by 2009.
In the meantime, another barn burner had debuted: Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight, which ushered in the hugely popular paranormal romance, signaling the advent of the mash-up, the merging of genres in single titles. Name a genre—fantasy, science fiction, mystery, horror, historical fiction—and you’ll find an attendant romance, though once again the form has gone into temporary eclipse with—thanks to John Green—the renaissance of realistic fiction. But not to worry, folks. Romance always rebounds, for l’amour is always so toujours!
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