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Friday Fun: The Origins of YA Fiction

Happy Friday readers and welcome to the end of the week! We hope you find time to relax and recharge this coming weekend . Today we are talking about one of my favorite subjects, literary history! The modern book industry thrives on categories and genres. Target audiences help books find their readers but most genres didn’t spring out of nowhere. While books have been around since the humans figured out how to tell a story on paper, the bells and whistles of modern publishing are relatively new, a product of progress, and so too are several of the literary genres that exist today. So let’s don our word nerd hats and do a dive into the origins of Young Adult Fiction.

The Industrial Revolution Bingo

The Industrial Revolution hit American sometime in the mid to late 1700’s and lasted through the early 1800’s. This period of history has a lot of highs and lows. There were massive quality of life changes due to mass manufacturing and population booms in cities. However humans didn’t quite have a handle on pollution concerns and did untold damage to the environment and generations of people living in smoke choked cities. Early factory life was pretty bleak and the working conditions abysmal.

The shift to mass production continued to create new methods of production and automation, but it wasn’t until the 1916 Child Labor Act we really saw the shift to ‘modern age’. The Child Labor act created many new standards for the under eighteen crowd. It cemented the right to a basic education, capped the number of hours and how late a young person could work, and enforced better safety conditions across the board. By the end of the 1920’s, more American youth could read than ever before, and they finally had the leisure time to do it.

Thank Your Local Librarian

It’s debatable what novel kicked off the YA movement. Some give credit to Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie series, others claim Margaret Daly’s Seventeenth Summer in 1942 was the first novel to actively target the demographic.

The hurdle for YA fiction from a nebulous collection of books to an actual genre came down to librarians. Libraries were a primary force in cataloging and genre establishment. In 1930, the ALA, American Library Association, created the Young People’s Reading Roundtable, along with an annual list of suggested children's and adult titles. With the focus now on young readers, the markets shifted to produce more content.

Outsiders, Chocolate, & Margaret- The Golden Age

The official kickoff of what we know as modern Young Adult fiction was thanks to a little novel published in 1967 by an author who was still a teen herself. S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders is considered the seminal novel written directly to and for young adults, and it remains part of the YA catalog today. The Outsiders is not a perfect novel, but it changed the narrative and style of books geared towards teen readers.

“Teenagers today want to read about teenagers today. The world is changing, yet the authors of books for teen-agers are still 15 years behind the times. In the fiction they write, romance is still the most popular theme with a horse and the girl who loved it coming in a close second. Nowhere is the drive-in social jungle mentioned. In short, where is the reality?” -S.E. Hinton, The New York Times Book Review, 1967

Soon after The Outsiders, other books flowed into the market such as Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War and Judy Blume’s Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret. The 1970’s produced several pivotal titles that helped define the voice of the current generation. This was considered a Golden Age for YA literature that helped form the genre. The 1980’s and 90’s were marked by popular series titles. Think Sweet Valley High, Baby Sitter’s Club, Fear Street etc. Mass Market series were all the rage in the 80’s though we also got amazing titles such as Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones and The Hero and The Crown by Robin Mckinley. However, the downside of the series boom was the general stagnation of the market.

Bella & Katniss- The New Age Babes

In 1998 the ALA launched Teen Read Week to help shape future bookworms. The 16 -29 age group proved to be the largest group checking out books at the library.

This massive shift in readership was due to the arrival of some Wizard kid. However, YA didn’t get it’s true hey day until the ladies arrived on the scene.

Love them or hate them, the arrival of Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight in 2005 and Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games in 2008 marked another turning point for YA fiction. Not only teens were reading these series, but that entire age range of 16 to 29 and beyond were buying these titles up, and the sales boosted the YA market to new heights.

The New Face of YA

Young Adult Fiction as a genre has undergone a massive series of transformations in a very short period of time. The progress of the market within the last 50 years alone is incredible. And it’s not done transforming. The YA of today is a champion for diversity and marginalized voices. This is a hard battle ground, but each new voice that pushes through wedges the door further open. The past few years have seen some monumental titles from the sky rocketing success of Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give to the barrier busting Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas, a trans latinx fantasy that appeared on the NYTs best selling list this past week. The success of these titles and others proves these stories resonate with an audience of readers that crave representation in fiction, a need that will continue to change the face of YA as we move forward.

Resources & Further Reading

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