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April 15, 2017 BOOKLIST
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Rapidly declining sales led editor Linda Zuckerman, for one, to say, flatly, “I think young adult literature is dying.” Industry observer Connie Epstein chimed in: “Some editors, marketing directors, and subsidiary-rights directors have been wondering whether the young adult novel is ready for burial.” What on earth had happened? Well, there is no easy answer. It was partly about a shrinking market, for the teen population had been in decline for 15 years, while institutional budgets were experiencing a corollary devolution. Meanwhile, the eighties had seen the rise of the middle-school movement, and as a result, a new category of reader, ages 10 to 14, had emerged, to be assiduously courted by the newly rampant chain superstores; Barnes and Noble alone opened 105 such stores between 1989 and 1992. These stores had no separate YA sections; instead, they shoveled anything labeled “Teen” into their children’s departments, where no self-respecting young adult would tread. As a result of all this, the average age of “teen” protagonists dropped precipitously from 16–18 to 12–14.
Yet another nail in the coffin of contemporary realistic YA fiction was the fact that, as publisher George Nicholson put it, the chains would not buy a novel “with anything difficult in it.” Ironically, given these nightmare facts and statistics, one of the only areas of traditional YA still flourishing was horror! Christopher Pike and R. L. Stine, dubbed “the Beavis and Butthead of horror fiction” by a cynical journalist, boasted, respectively, 8 million and 7.6 million copies of their books in print in 1993. Meanwhile, love, sweet love also continued to flourish, with the increasingly racy likes of Sweet Valley High registering 81 million copies in print in 1994.
Aside from that, nada. Well, nearly nada. There were a few traditional hardcover titles still being printed, but they were typically issued in editions of a mere 1,000 copies. Why, one wondered, even bother? Misery me, right? Uh, wrong, for at the twelfth hour, things began to change. Significantly, for starters, the teen population suddenly began to spike, growing 16.6 percent from 1990 to 2000, when it totaled a robust 32 million. Meanwhile, the whole-language movement began putting serious YA literature into the secondary classroom, creating a new demand for it.
Significant, these facts, but not the whole story: credit for the restoration of YA must also go to professional librarians and educators who gritted their teeth and simply refused to let the genre die. For starters, two significant YALSA programs sounded a cry for the restoration of the genre. One was a preconference preceding the 1994 ALA Annual Conference, in Miami Beach, which reminded participants of the splendid past of the genre and the need for a similar future; the second was a standing-room-only 1996 program in New York titled “How Adult Is Young Adult?” that focused on the imperative need to restore YA to its previous high-school-age readership.
The professional literature added its voice to a nascent YA renaissance: in 1993, the venerable Horn Book magazine added a new column, Patty Campbell’s “The Sand in the Oyster,” which focused on YA literature. The next year, Booklist began to feature my own YA-centric column, “Carte Blanche.” That same year, emerging YA author Chris Lynch published an influential article in School Library Journal titled, “Today’s YA Writers: Pulling No Punches,” which called for the return of realism to YA fiction. This was followed by author and editor Marc Aronson’s sprightly article, “The Young Adult Novel Is Dead and Other Fairly Stupid Tales,” and my own article in JOYS, “Of Risk and Revelation.” In 1996, the venerable Children’s Literature Association turned its focus to YA for the first time by devoting an entire issue of its quarterly journal to “Critical Theory and Young Adult Literature,” while that fall, NCTE’s Assembly on Literature for Adolescents (ALAN) dedicated its annual conference to the theme “Exploding the Canon,” which argued for the wisdom of using more YA books in the classroom. Later that year, two books appeared that continued to focus readers’ attention on the imperative need for YA: Don Gallo and Sarah Herz’s From Hinton to Hamlet and my own history of YA literature, From Romance to Realism.
Meanwhile, American society was taking note of the expanding teen population and creating a new youth culture rooted in teens’ dramatically expanding role as consumers. In 1995, people between 13 and 19 spent $68.8 billion on personal items, including books. As a result, Barnes and Noble in 1996 began opening separate, stand-alone teen sections in its multitudinous stores. As a result of all this frenzied activity, young adult literature by 1997 had rebounded with a vengeance, reemerging in a new, more sophisticated form targeted directly at teens in high school, YA’s original demographic. These new hyperrealistic, risk-taking titles were quickly dubbed “bleak books” and excited considerable controversy for their boundary-breaking contents, which ranged from pedophilia to insanity, from murder to rape, and from juvenile incarceration to serial slaying.
If this sounds like problem novels gone berserk, trust me, it wasn’t. It was, instead, a new literature of naturalism that brought art to its examination of the increasingly perilous world of teens. It signaled that “YA literature” was no longer an oxymoron; anxious to demonstrate that fact, the Young Adult Library Services Association created its landmark Michael L. Printz Award in 1999, a prize awarded to the best YA book of the year, best being defined solely in terms of literary merit. For its impact on the literature, we must, however, wait for our next column, which will focus on the twenty-first-century period known as the New Golden Age.
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