The Sunday Salon: The History of Young Adult Fiction

While I bore witness to the manga section at your local bookstore taking over the Western comics like, well, a tentacle monster, the young adult section threw me for a huge loop. In fact, the near-meteoric rise of young adult fiction occurred while I was too close to see it, being a year younger than Harry Potter. But looking at this sort of thing serves me as an aspiring editor and publisher, so we’re going to take a look at how young adult fiction conquered a shelf at my local Books-a-Million.

Like many things, it’s difficult to give an exact date when the young adult genre happened. Obviously, by “young adult”, we actually mean “teenager”, so we’re looking at the 1950s and onward, as that’s when teenagers started earning enough of a disposable income to become a viable market and targeted accordingly. (According to the Back to the Future director’s commentary, anyway.) In fact, the Young Adult Library Services Association, or YALSA, was founded in 1957.

The book that more or less started the young adult genre was S. E. Hinton’s The Outsiders, published in 1967. It was written by a young adult about young adults for young adults. From that point on, young adult fiction grew and grew, dealing with more and more difficult subjects. Awards started cropping up–the Margaret A. Edwards Award, awarded by YALSA, was established in 1988, and the Edgar Allen Poe Award for Best Young Adult Novel was established in 1989. Obviously, I can’t exactly speak to this time period, on account of not existing.

The period I can speak to has just as many awards–the Michael L. Pintz award, awarded by YALSA, was first awarded to Walter Dean Myer’s Monster in 2000, and the National Book Award added a Young People’s Literature category in 2000. But for me, young adult fiction as we know it began with the Stateside publication of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in 1998. The Harry Potter phenomenon, in my opinion, is what made young adult fiction into the juggernaut it can be today. Because of Harry Potter, we have midnight releases for young adult books. Twilight, whatever you think of it, translated that sort of hype to teenage romance. And lo, we have modern young adult fiction.

In other news, I’ve spent most of the week trying to get through The Burning City by Alaya Dawn Johnson; I finished on Friday evening, thankfully. I’ve got a nice lovely stack of library books yet again, and I’m currently reading Michelle Moran’s Nefertiti, since I adore Ancient Egypt. I also saw Inception on Friday, which was absolutely fantastic. I also made my way through all the RiffTrax for The Lord of the Rings, actually, which were quite good. (“I make a great Mother’s Day gift!”)

What do you think of the rise of young adult fiction?

8 thoughts on “The Sunday Salon: The History of Young Adult Fiction

  1. I’m in strong support, though at this point every time I visit the YA section of the bookstore I am overwhelmed by the sea of black covers denoting paranormal romance. 😡 But when I was younger, it was great to have a YA section, if only because the sea of choices was smaller there than in the adult section. I have a much harder time browsing grown-up fiction. There are too many books to choose from! YA was a safer, smaller pool.

  2. I love the fact that Harry Potter opened up the market, but I’m not sure if I’d say it created YA as such. The impression I have (which isn’t really well-researched, so do ignore me :P) is that YA general fiction of the John Green-Maureen Johnson-Sarah Dessen-etc kind goes back to Judy Blume, and YA fantasy has also been around for a while, with people like Jane Yolen or Diana Wynne Jones publishing long before Harry Potter. Only their books weren’t marketed as specifically as they are now, meaning they’d probably either go on the children’s shelf even if their intended audience was older, or on the adult fantasy shelf. I remember reading an interview with Diana Wynne Jones a long time ago where she said that back in the 80’s and early 90’s her publishers were actually reluctant to put her books out there because they didn’t think there was a market for them. They were more complex than most children’s fiction, and yet they weren’t quite adult fantasies either. I’m really glad HP changed all that.

    • Harry Potter didn’t create YA, but created the sort of pop culture juggernaut YA has since tried to recreate and co-opts a lot- books that don’t need to be series are.

      I’m glad there’s a definite market now for Ms. Jones!

  3. I like YA fiction (if written well!). I often think the mark of good writers is the ability to write to a specific audience without talking down to them.

    And yes, I’m definitely glad “teen fiction” has evolved and become a viable market because while I have a deep and abiding love for books for “younger children,” at the same time, I want some blood and guts and sharp edges without it totally blowing my naive little mind. 😀

    On the flipside, I do not like so much the cloning of certain books (coughTwilightcoughMegCabotcough). Have you ever read any of the earlier YA fiction? There were some truly gritty novels back in the day.I particularly like ME Kerr and the Tillerman Cycle by Cynthia Rylant. I didn’t realize how groundbreaking they were until I thought about the time period and what they writing about for teens.

  4. Pingback: The Sunday Salon: What Makes YA YA? « The Literary Omnivore

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