Recently someone suggested a novel to me, but cautioned that I might not like it because it was “women’s fiction.” That sparked a mini-revelation. I realized I read a lot of women’s fiction because I read a lot of young adult books, and the two have become synonymous. As if to underscore the notion, an email from Amazon popped up in my inbox called, “New Releases in Young Adult.” Of the ten recommendations, nine were by women, and the single title written by a man was a paranormal romance with a female protagonist.
That got me wondering about the history of YA, its origins, its audience, and its nature in the olden days, which I guess means before Twilight. Wikepedia came to the rescue with a well done page on the history of YA fiction: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Young-adult_fiction.
The honors for coining the phrase, “young adulthood,” and distinguishing “books for children” from “books for young persons,” goes to Sarah Trimmer, in 1802. Even so, 19th century publishers did not use any distinct classification for young readers, though some of the titles published remain classics to this day: Swiss Family Robinson, Oliver Twist, Alice in Wonderland, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Kidnapped, and The Jungle Book to name a few.
The trend continued into the 20th century, and the roaring 20’s established young adults as a group apart, but it wasn’t until the 50’s and 60’s that “young adult” as a classification entered the publishing world. The genre as we know it did not begin to emerge until the 70’s and 80’s, for books like The Catcher in the Rye (1951) and The Lord of the Flies (1954) bear little resemblance to what you find in the YA section today. In case I’m being too subtle, I don’t really think that’s a good thing.
Neither did a thoughtful blogger named Annalee Newits, who posted a piece called, “Stop Writing Young Adult Science Fiction,” in 2008. Though she writes in defense of her favorite genre, her observations transcend such confines:
If we really want to open science fiction up to new readers, we won’t do it by dividing our audience up into smaller and smaller groups. Nor will we expand the minds of young people by telling them that they should only read specially-designated novels for young people. Why not admit that teens have a place in the world of adult imagination, and vice versa? Adults and teens are different in all kinds of ways, but surely they can meet in the world of fiction. http://io9.com/5037686/stop-writing-young-adult-science-fiction
I posted earlier about my frustration one day when I cruised the blogs, in search of the “proper” age for protagonists in young adult vs. middle grade fiction. It turned out that just as in real life, no one knew what to do with the 14 year olds. The real question is why we are asking this question at all? Who told us we have to, and why?
Ursula le Guin, Madeline L’Engle, C.S. Lewis, Tolkien of course, Mercedes Lackey, Robin McKinley, and Neil Gaiman – these are just a few of the names that pop right to mind when I think of writers who have played by their own rules, who have written stories for young adults that have weight, substance, and staying power, and defy our feeble attempts at classification.
The blurb for the young adult winner of the 2011 Amazon Breakout Novel Award begins, “In the increasingly crowded paranormal marketplace…” Apparently that’s what it has all come down to in young adult – we introduce an award for excellence by noting how the book has positioned itself in the marketplace.
Life is way too short to play by this kind of rule.