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Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Were there Young Adult Novels in the Nineteen-Sixties?

Recent chatter online has suggested that young adult novels are a new phenomenon, something “we didn’t have back when I was young,” as Linda Bernstein writes in the Huffington Post. She and other writers point to Catcher in the Rye and To Kill a Mockingbird as YA forerunners. I take exception on both counts.

For starters, the J. D. Salinger and Harper Lee novels were not marketed to and probably not written for teens. That we read them when we were young is another matter. Back in the Sixties, in high school, we teens read Salinger surreptitiously (almost as surreptitiously as we read Peyton Place). We read Harper Lee for different reasons: because her book is an American classic and because we were ready for adult novels. Teenagers aspired to be recognized and treated as adults then and were eager  – even impatient! – to be initiated into adult life. We hungered for independence, in reading as well as in living. This hunger explains why so many young people in the Sixties lived together in groups or married young -- lingering in parental homes until age 30 for the sake of laundry facilities and technological luxuries was for later generations, not ours – but that is another story altogether....

A novel with a young protagonist is not necessarily a young adult novel. Here's where a lot of confusion seems to come in nowadays. Maggie Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, for example, opens when Francie is a very young girl going about the streets of Brooklyn with her little brother, and the focus is on the girl throughout the novel, rather than on her father, a singing waiter with an alcohol problem, or her mother, a scrubwoman for the apartment buildings in which they live (moving to a new one each time Johnny comes home drunk and causes an embarrassing disturbance). Social and political change, war, the mysteries of sex and death, are all seen by the reader through Francie’s eyes as she grows from a child into a young woman. And yet, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was not intended or thought of at the time as a book for girls teen Francie’s age (as she is later in the book). On the contrary. Many adults found episodes in it “shocking,” or “shockingly frank,” but the publisher noted on the cover of an early paperback edition that “mature readers” would understand such passages as necessary in the context of the story.

The plain fact is that most of us who remain voracious readers today were reading adult novels in our high school years. It was books we read in junior high that were shelved in the children’s section of the library and marked in the library as Y rather than J for “juvenile.” They were the bridge between children’s books and adult fiction. This is still how I think of YA literature, regardless of its content. 

So what were the young adult novels of the mid-twentieth century, books aimed at kids in 6th, 7th, and 8th grade? What did (or do) you read at that transitional stage of life?

My motivation was probably mixed, but I remember discovering in junior high, in anticipation of the driver’s license still four years in my future, Henry Gregor Felsen and a whole new, exciting world of cars. Books like Hot Rod were written neither for children nor adults. The content and concerns of Felson’s automotive fiction was definitely aimed at a YA audience. Today I’m intrigued by a Wikipedia entry that claims Felsen explored “the evils of drugs, sexism and racism.”  Have I forgotten that much of what I read in seventh grade?

One YA classic that’s been around since 1953 is The Light in the Forest, by Conrad Richter, in which a 15-year-old white boy who has lived for 11 years as an Indian, adopted by a great warrior, must return to his birth family and learn white ways. There were, of course, many exciting true life adventure stories and biographies aimed at the junior high audience, but I'm sticking to fiction for now.

For boys and girls, there were heaps of mystery novels, going way beyond the earlier Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys, and there were also stories of children growing up in families, with a first book with young children and sequels with older children as the readers of the original grew older. The two older children of Elizabeth Enright's The Four Story Mistake thus became teenagers in The Saturdays, with all four venturing out on independent adventures in the latter book, in much the same way that Anne of Anne of Green Gables, a much earlier, turn-of-the-last-century girls’ story, grows to adulthood and begins her own family in later books in L. M. Montgomery series. Maud Hart Lovelace’s stories of three little girls in Minneapolis, beginning with Betsy-Tacy, also followed those girls as they grew to college age, launched themselves in careers, and eventually married. Montgomery's and Lovelace's books were not written in the 1960s, but they were still read then and continue to be popular today.
I’ve saved Sixties girls’ stories for last, because there were so many of them! Here’s a little sample, with one male protagonist thrown in, a 15-year-old country boy, so plagued all his life that he’s determined to quit school as soon as he turns 16 (legal quitting at the time). I still vividly remember certain scenes in The Pink Dress, but not all YA girls’ novels were about popularity in the suburbs. Another I recall had an immigrant family living in a New York apartment house. The girl, Magda (?), wore old, unfashionable clothes and spoke with a strong European accent. (Does anyone recognize the story from my description? I’d love to read this book again.) Maureen Daly’s story of teenage love, Seventeenth Summer, originally published in 1942, because of the protagonist's struggles over propriety and depictions of underage smoking and drinking, is claimed by some (according to a Wikipedia contributor) to have kicked off the YA phenomenon – but I’ve already argued that it began longer ago. Then there are the ones that came later, such as the books of Mildred D. Taylor; because she  wasn’t publishing until the 1970s, I was an adult before I discovered her work.

Death was not unknown to YA novels of the Sixties. We had books whose main characters were orphans and foster children and immigrant kids and kids struggling with physical handicaps, serious illness, and minority status. Poverty or reverses of fortune made appearances, too. I wish I had a list of all the books I read between the ages of 11 and 14, but really, it almost seems the phrase ‘problem fiction’ is redundant, doesn’t it? I mean, where is the story unless the main character faces a serious challenge or conflict? Isn’t junior high itself an enormous and difficult challenge?

One theme very important in decades leading up to the Sixties and through that decade that doesn’t seem as strong today is that of young people striving for financial independence. First jobs were landmarks in life and occasions of great pride. Perhaps the absence of focus on wage-earning in today’s YA literature is the other side of the dystopic coin, a despair seeming to dictate that only larger-than-life characters can rise above as they take on global forces of evil. Or maybe it’s as simple as economic reality, with the current YA audience realizing it will never achieve the material abundance of its grandparents.

(One mother told me there was no point in college kids working part-time jobs any more, since they would still not be able to afford daily lattes. Lattes? What happened to vending machine instant? That’s what we drank in our dorm late at night! Ah, yes, and my “poor grandfather,” as he told me with a big fake sigh and a twinkle in his eye, “had to ride a pony to school!” I’d sure have chosen a pony over a daily caffe latte, but that’s just me, I guess.)

I wonder. Adolescence has always been a difficult time of life. The transition from childhood to adulthood is confusing -- no less confusing as teenagers begin to realize that adults are often confused, too, and we all need heroic characters once in a while. Dystopic novels, though, paint an awfully grim and unappealing picture of “adult” life. If it’s that bad, what can one do other than rebel? And after rebellion, then what? Wading full-tilt into adult ambiguity, dealing with well-meaning individuals who disagree on means to an end, sorting out the well-meaning from the deceptively self-serving – this is the reality that awaits young people with the courage to engage with the world as it is. It sure isn’t easy – but then, it never has been, for anyone, at any time in history.

YA novels can be so compellingly written that they find a large adult audience, in addition to younger readers. Some are realistic, others fantastic. Can they be divided into escape and thought-provoking along the same lines? Probably not.

Do you read new YA fiction? What are your favorites? Or if you’re older, what were your favorites when you were a preteen and/or young teen?

Whatever your age, from ten to 100, the good news for my readers is that a new YA novel by Ellen Airgood, The Education of Ivy Blake, a sequel to her delightful Prairie Evers, is due for release in early June 2015. Chances look good, too, for a bookstore visit from our favorite U.P. author, so if you haven't read Prairie yet, do that this winter to increase your anticipation for Ivy, a worthy successor.


Yvonne said...

Did anyone read the Cherry Ames series in their early teens?

P. J. Grath said...

Oh, my, yes! My next-younger sister devoured them! And that's another whole sub-genre: mid-20th-century YA novels featuring nurses or nurse's aides.

Barbara Stark-Nemon said...

What a great post, Pamela! A lovely trip down memory lane. Should we add Les Miserables and A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations to the list of YA novels?! They were surely assigned in my high school English classes and were life changers for me.

Karen Casebeer said...

What an interesting topic! It's really made me reminisce about what I read during my junior high years. I also loved the Cherry Ames series that Yvonne mentioned. Besides A Light in the Forest, which you mentioned, two other titles stand out for me: Call it Courage and Call of the Wild. I remember reading those during my young teen years and, incidentally, they remained popular when I taught junior high English.

P. J. Grath said...

I really wasn't thinking about classic adult novels here. I certainly wasn't reading Dickens in junior high myself! My bookselling experience tells me that books with teen characters begin to appeal to 10- and 11-year-olds, so YA fiction will often be read as early as 6th grade. In high school, in the old days, we usually left that behind. Nowadays, with the line blurring more and more between YA and adult, especially in the fantasy genre, and with more adults reading YA lit, it's a different scenario. Although I can still remember my grandfather reading my copy of THE BLACK STALLION'S FILLY, becoming so lost in the story that beads of sweat popped out on his forehead!

Anonymous said...

What a wonderful post! Takes me back to whole days spent reading with one leg over a chair arm. Many of those books loved in late childhood are still on my shelf. Master Skylark, by John Bennett, about a young boy singing the parts of women in Shakespeare's England, Gene Stratton Porter's novels of the Limberlost in Indiana, horse books, dog books, especially Alfred Ollivant's immortal Bob Son of Battle, Melville and Thomas Wolfe, Dickens and Kipling and Maugham, and then the bounty of Sherwood Anderson, Welty, and the whole world of the American short story...

I don't think very many of these books would be easily shelved now as fantasy, children's, teen, YA or New Adult. Many of them were sentimental by today's standards, but who's more sentimental than an adolescent?

BB-Idaho said...

Having never been on sabbatical, but experiencing numerous vacations, I was a bit curious about the difference. There is
one source
that suggests the sabbatical is more purposeful, albeit IMO, more worklike. So I hope you consider
taking a 'vacatibbatical'!

P. J. Grath said...

BB, you must have been catching up on several posts, as this comment clearly replies to my last post of December. As for the term 'sabbatical,' I used it very intentionally. Thanks for the link to that site differentiating 'sabbatical' from 'vacation.' You noted, I'm sure, that sabbaticals can (often do) involve travel, and everyone I know who's traveled on sabbatical has combined the pleasures of travel with the work (also pleasurable) of research and writing. My goals for this winter are very much of the sabbatical order: focus on creativity, productive work, and rejuvenation. And I'll have to answer to the boss, you know -- ME -- and she (I) can be very demanding!

Susan said...

Glad to read that you, David and Sarah were not part of the devastating pileup in southern Michigan. Your trip sounds great so far. Sarah looks humiliated.
I used to take a blanket for my short-haired dachshunds. I was relatively certain that your route did not include the area of the pileup in I-94 but I kept looking for your vehicle on the TV news.

P. J. Grath said...

Hi, Susan! It's a bit disorienting to read a new comment, hit "publish" so it will appear, and then realize it's appearing on an older post rather than a recent one. The photo of Sarah's "humiliation," for instance, does not appear on this page but on a later one. I don't care! I'm just glad to see a comment from you! And yes, we were happy not to be in that horrendous pile-up, too. We would have missed it, anyway, as it was east of 131, but by holing up for three nights in Hastings we escaped the worst blizzard driving -- after our first day that is.