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Find more Before The Outsiders
In the decade and a half before S. E. Hinton’s The Outsiders (1967), books for young readers did exist. It’s just that these books were like the Eisenhower years: conformist, status-quo fare, quite unlike those Vietnam-era titles to come, all rowdy and ready to rock the establishment.
Older teens in the 1950s and early ’60s were doing what young people of previous generations had done, reading the same books as their parents. Everyone worried about nuclear war so everyone was reading Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler’s Fail-Safe (1962), Charles W. Bailey II and Fletcher Knebel’s Seven Days in May (1962), and Nevil Shute’s On the Beach (1957). Commercial fiction found in teens’ hands varied from sultry (Harold Robbins’ The Carpetbaggers,1961) to escapist (James A. Michener’s Hawaii, 1959). And then there were the books—Lolita, Tropic of Cancer, Peyton Place—that teens found buried in their parents’ drawers.
There was also a wave of literary fiction—precursors of today’s crossover novel—published as adult books but already starting to wake up teens. We don’t need to list the authors’ names: East of Eden, To Kill a Mockingbird, On the Road, Lord of the Flies, and The Catcher in the Rye.
For younger teen girls, there was a whole genre, teen romance, that became a telescope into what high school might be like: boys, proms, kissing, and heartbreak. These authors—Rosamond du Jardin, Anne Emery, Janet Lambert, and a pre-Ramona Beverly Cleary—were names as well-known as Judy Blume would be a few years later.
The girls were Caucasian, pretty, and slim (though there was often angst over whether one was quite pretty or slim enough). The boys were good-looking—muscular if on the football team, disheveled if on the school newspaper. People of color were servants, and gay was a word used frequently, as in this sentence from du Jardin’s Double Date (1952): “[She] was able to make everything seem like a gay adventure.”
It never occurred to me, a Jewish girl growing up in a Jewish neighborhood, to look for books featuring people like me. Other than Sydney Taylor’s All-of-a-Kind Family series, I don’t recall ever reading a book with Jewish characters. And since Taylor’s books were set in New York’s Lower East Side at the turn of the twentieth century, those girls were firmly historical fiction—their chicken soup and holidays aside.
Ah, but the characters in the du Jardin and Lambert books, with their ponytails and pleated skirts—those were the girls I wanted to be! Despite hair too frizzy and a chubbiness that made pleated skirts a less-than-ideal fashion choice, I had no problem pretending that those characters’ futures would be mine. When it wasn’t—especially when it wasn’t—I loved getting lost in those stories.
White bread? Yes. Redundant? Often. But those books did something rarely seen today. Lambert’s Parrish family and Lorena Mattingly Webber’s Malones (refreshingly Catholic) were followed over many, many books. Penny Parrish grew so old that she got married and had a daughter, Parri, who then had books of her own. These series allowed fans to feel close to characters in ways only possible over extended time and pages.
Maude Hart Lovelace’s series about friends Betsy, Tacy, and Tib, though also historical fiction, dealt with contemporary topics. Betsy, who didn’t mind competing with her boyfriend, wanted a career as much as a marriage and even had the courage to change her religion.
In one case, a series was a forerunner to books that would explode on the scene later. Du Jardin’s books about Penny and Pam (Double Trouble, et al.) featured identical twins. One was sweet and shy, the other a troublemaker and flirt. As a librarian working in the 1970s, I was surprised to find that girls were still reading this series. When I asked them why—du Jardin seemed hopelessly out-of-date—the girls told me they liked the books because, quite simply, Penny was good and Pam was trouble. I remember thinking someone should write an updated version. Someone did, and Sweet Valley High was born. (Footnote: in 1985, I actually got to write an SVH book, Memories, under the series pseudonym “Kate William.”)
Except for nostalgia buffs, no one is reading Lambert and Emery books today. There are more subtle rhythms and more complex tunes to be heard in literature and life. But some things don’t change—families endure, good is still pitted against evil, and romance remains. Young adult literature, in ever-evolving forms, will continue to contain them all.
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