A brief history of young adult literature

CNN/Stylemagazine.com Newswire | 10/16/2013, 11:52 a.m.
Back in 1998, just as Harry, Bella and Katniss were on the verge of owning the front shelves of bookstores ...
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By Ashley Strickland


Back in 1998, just as Harry, Bella and Katniss were on the verge of owning the front shelves of bookstores everywhere, the Young Adult Library Services Association launched Teen Read Week in an effort to mold adolescent bookworms.

Monday marked the start of 2013's Teen Read Week, but with young adult literature regularly burning up the bestseller lists, it's clear many young adults don't need an excuse to seek out the written word: Sixteen- to 29-year-olds are the largest group checking out books from their local libraries, according to a Pew survey.

Wizards, vampires and dystopian future worlds didn't always dominate the genre, which hit its last peak of popularity in the 1970s with the success of controversial novels by the likes of Judy Blume. In the years between, young adult has managed to capture the singular passions of the teen audience over a spectrum of subgenres.

Now, as the book industry enjoys a second "golden age of young adult fiction," according to expert Michael Cart, it bears asking why young adult fiction has become so successful. The proof just may be in the timeline.

The very beginning

The roots of young adult go back to when "teenagers" were given their own distinction as a social demographic: World War II. "Seventeenth Summer," released by Maureen Daly in 1942, is considered to be the first book written and published explicitly for teenagers, according to Cart, an author and the former president of the Young Adult Library Services Association. It was a novel largely for girls about first love. In its footsteps followed other romances, ands sport novels for boys.

The term "young adult" was coined by the Young Adult Library Services Association during the 1960s to represent the 12-18 age range. Novels of the time, like S. E. Hinton's "The Outsiders," offered a mature contemporary realism directed at adolescents. The focus on culture and serious themes in young adult paved the way for authors to write with more candor about teen issues in the 1970s, Cart said.

The first golden age is associated with the authors who the parents of today's teens recognize: Judy Blume, Lois Duncan and Robert Cormier. The young adult books of the 1970s remain true time capsules of the high school experience and the drama of being misunderstood. Books like Cormier's "The Chocolate War" brought a literary sense to books targeted at teens.

But once these books devolved into "single-problem novels" -- divorce, drug abuse -- teens grew tired of the formulaic stories. The 1980s welcomed in more genre fiction, like horror and adolescent high drama a la "Sweet Valley High," while the '90s were an eclipse for young adult. With fewer teenagers around to soak up young adult lit due to low birth rates in the mid-1970s, books for tweens and middle-schoolers bloomed. But a baby boom in 1992 resulted in a renaissance among teen readers and the second golden age beginning in 2000, Cart said.

"When I was a teen in the '90s, there were probably three shelves of teen books I wanted to read," said Shannon Peterson, president of the Young Adult Library Services Association. "Now, I feel like it's evolved from three shelves to whole hallways of books."