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April 1, 2017 BOOKLIST
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And so, when S. E. Hinton, Robert Lipsyte, and Paul Zindel launched such an age, they opened the floodgates to a pent-up wave of hard-edged novels of contemporary realism to be offered by a spate of gifted young authors who would become grand masters of the genre. Consider the roster of writers who launched their careers in the ’70s: Judy Blume (1970); M. E. Kerr (1972); Richard Peck (1972); Lois Duncan (1973—Duncan had actually started writing light romance in the ’60s, but it wasn’t until the ’70s that she began writing her signature novels of suspense); Robert Cormier (1974); Walter Dean Myers (1975); and Lois Lowry (1977). All of these writers went on to receive the prestigious Margaret A. Edwards Award for lifetime achievement in young adult literature.
Nevertheless, it is Cormier, I would argue, who remains the most important; indeed, I would go so far as to say he is the single most important writer in the history of the field, a writer whose work alone would constitute a golden age. With The Chocolate War (published in 1974), he introduced literary fiction into the YA fold, a literature rooted, in his case, in the twin philosophies of determinism and naturalism. Large, impersonal, often evil forces are at work in his universe, acknowledging the darkness that often pervades lives, teenage and otherwise. Indeed, in his work he takes his readers into the very heart of darkness, turns the lights on, and shows them the bleak landscape there. Thus, he became arguably the first to trust young readers with the truth that not every ending is a happy one.
Such thematic richness opened up enormous possibilities for those who would follow him, as reality became more, well, real and young adult literature, a more vital literary force. This is evidenced, in part, by the 1973 decision of the Young Adult Library Services Association to allow young adult books onto its longstanding Best Books for Young Adults list, which previously had included only adult titles. The first three YA titles to officially appear were Alice Childress’ A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ but a Sandwich, Rosa Guy’s The Friends, and Robert Newton Peck’s A Day No Pigs Would Die.
One important book never made the list, however: Judy Blume’s Forever, issued in 1975, a novel that approached Cormier’s Chocolate War in its influence on work that would follow. Forever is, of course, about Sex, with a capital S, the first YA novel—and, for years, the only one—to feature a scene of explicit sex (and a penis dubbed “Ralph,” which has occasioned generations of smirks and giggles). Until Blume celebrated it, sex had been a virtually taboo subject in YA literature, and when it did appear, always offscreen, it was typically punished with dire results, often unwanted pregnancies that bade fair to ruin young lives. What was revolutionary about Forever was not only its inclusion of explicit sex but also the fact that its actors, Katherine and Michael, enjoyed the act and paid no enduring price for their action—except the end of their relationship, the title Forever being ironic. Though ahead of its time and influential, as noted, the novel suffered from some didacticism.
The best celebration of love and sex would have to wait until the 1980s and the publication of Francesca Lia Block’s Weetzie Bat. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Back to the 1970s and a less salutary trend that informed the decade: the rise of the problem novel, formula fiction, that is, in which societal problems became the tail that wagged the dog of the novel. Characterization and other literary elements took a backseat to the issue du jour, whether it was parental divorce, sex, abortion, drugs, or rock ’n’ roll.
Jeanette Eyerly set the pattern for the problem novel with such 1960s books as The Girl Inside (drugs), A Girl like Me (pregnancy), and The World of Ellen March (divorce). Eyerly continued to write well into the ’70s, even as her ’60s novels remained widely read. If she established the pattern, others quickly began pushing its parameters, sometimes sensationally, as did one novel that was published in 1970, the very first year of the decade: it was Go Ask Alice, by that celebrated author Anonymous, the purportedly “authentic” real-life diary of a teenage girl whose being is destroyed by drug dependence. It was, of course, a novel, not a real-life diary, and it was coauthored by Beatrice Sparks and Linda Glovach. So over the top and lurid that it quickly became a best-seller (and has never gone out print, selling millions of copies since), it is unintentionally hilarious in its melodrama (like the equally cautionary movie Reefer Madness), and, though originally published for teens, it is today read principally by middle-school students.
If the decade opened with the lurid, it closed with the lucid, the literary likes of Cormier’s After the First Death, Terry Davis’ Vision Quest, Hinton’s Tex, Norma Fox Mazer’s Up in Seth’s Room, and Walter Dean Myers’ The Young Landlords. It was, in retrospect, a decade of dramatic tension, a push and pull between the authentic and the specious, between a literature of realism and one of quotidian problems. Which would win this tug of war? For answers, we turn to the decade of the eighties, and my next column.
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