A Brief History of Young Adult Fiction

Young adult fiction is coming of age.

Young adult (YA) works such as The Hunger Games and The Fault in Our Stars are flying off the shelves and being adapted into blockbuster films. It’s a genre that’s being respected by over-18s as well as by its target audience, with 55% of YA novels being bought by adults (presumably they can’t all be Christmas presents). It might seem that not only is YA fiction here to stay, but its roots must be deep to bring forth all this success.
But that’s actually very far from being the case. A dedicated YA fiction section has only been the norm in bookshops for about 30 years, and the idea that YA fiction and YA writers were just as deserving of respect and accolades as their counterparts for older readers is newer still. The genre of YA fiction – books targeted primarily at readers in their late teens, featuring protagonists in the same age range and addressing the issues experienced by those readers – is itself less than a hundred years old. The very concept of a ‘teenager’ only appeared in the 1950s and its usage, along with ‘young adult’ steadily increased, as this ngram shows, before dipping slightly in the 2000s. In this article, we take a look at where YA fiction came from, and what the future holds.

Teenage fiction before there were teenagers

What you should read: Pamela (1740), The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), Northanger Abbey (1817, but written late 1790s)

“When was the first novel written?” is a fun question to ask if you want to watch some English students have a row. When – or what – the first novel was is a hotly debated question, but what’s beyond doubt is that by the mid-18th century, there were not only plenty of novels but a very large audience of people who wished to read them. At this time, only about 40% of women and 60% of men were technically literate (and given that this was based on the ability to write a signature, it’s likely that a much lower percentage would have been able to read a novel). Nonetheless, among those who could both read novels and afford them, they became very popular, very quickly.

Pamela Fainting by Joseph Highmore.
Pamela Fainting by Joseph Highmore.

The typical novel of this time featured the marriage plot: the story of how a young woman overcomes various trials and tribulations and ends up – usually because of her own virtues – with a good husband. And most of these early novels could well now be considered young adult fiction. The eponymous heroine of Pamela is 15; Emily in The Mysteries of Udolpho is 18; and Catherine in Northanger Abbey is 17.
Catherine is an interesting case because she is explicitly an avid reader of novels herself, which have in some cases warped her worldview. She demonstrates that novels at this time were not only about what would now be considered teenagers, but they were read by teenagers (primarily women) as well. So while critics might sneer at novels like Twilight, it’s worth remembering that they come much closer to the origin of the novel – often fantastical stories about women deciding on whom to marry – than any literary fiction currently winning the Booker Prize today. In fact, many of the criticisms levelled at Twilight about setting a bad example for young women were levelled at Pamela over 250 years ago.

Improving fiction for young minds (or not)

What you should read: Wuthering Heights (1847), Little Women (1868)

By the time Queen Victoria was on the throne, the nature of society had changed. In particular, men’s and women’s roles in life were becoming more distinct. The upper-middle class woman who in the 1700s might have helped run her husband’s business was now expected not to work at all, but to confine her life to the ‘separate sphere’ of looking after the house, the children and the servants. Partly as a response, novels became more didactic, teaching young women how best to perform these roles. One such example is Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, where the title suggests that it is about young adults, people who are literally ‘little women’. Alcott had written it as a response to being asked to write “a girls’ book” by her publisher. While the characters do strive for independence and equality, this is achieved within the Victorian definition of the female sphere.

Still from the 1939 film of Wuthering Heights.
Still from the 1939 film of Wuthering Heights.

Despite novels like Little Women, there was growing concern about the impact of reading novels on young women (much like the moral panics today over young people spending too much time online or on social media). The danger was held to be that too much excitement from reading novels would damage a young woman’s health; young men were thought to be more physically robust, so reading posed less of a danger to them. Dr John Harvey Kellogg described reading novels as “one of the most pernicious habits to which a young lady can be devoted” and other writers compared it to forms of addiction and even suicide.
One novel that raised such fears and demonstrated that not all Victorian women thought solely about how to become good wives was Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. Paterson’s Magazine gave one of the more memorable reviews: “We rise from the perusal of Wuthering Heights as if we had come fresh from a pest-house. Read Jane Eyre is our advice, but burn Wuthering Heights.”

Imperial adventures and Gothic horror

What you should read: King Solomon’s Mines (1885), The Beetle (1897), Dracula (1897)

King Solomon’s Mines – for “big boys and little boys”

The prim and proper period of Victorian literature didn’t really last that long, and there were so many exceptions that the degree to which that cultural trend existed has been disputed. By the 1890s, it was well and truly gone. This was the period nicknamed ‘the naughty Nineties’ and in it, stories of well-behaved young women being rewarded for their virtue with kind and respectful husbands were fading from view. Instead, they were being replaced by fantasy, proto-science fiction, and the return of Gothic horror. Novels were still being read primarily by young women (women have always read more novels than men, up to the present day) but adventure stories targeted at a male readership were gaining ground as well.

Christopher Lee's portrayal of the eponymous vampire.
Christopher Lee’s portrayal of the eponymous vampire.

One such novel was King Solomon’s Mines, by H Rider Haggard. It followed in the footsteps of adventure novels such as Treasure Island, and was explicitly written for men. The dedication reads, “This faithful but unpretending record of a remarkable adventure is hereby respectfully dedicated by the narrator, Allan Quatermain, to all the big boys and little boys who read it”, and the narrator states, “I can safely say there is not a petticoat in the whole history”. Despite the statement that it could be for “little boys”, it’s not a book for young children, given the level of violence in it – but it could easily be enjoyed by teenagers.
The heroes of Gothic horror novels The Beetle and Dracula are men, but neither novel is petticoat-free. In both cases, female characters step outside of the restrictions of Victorian society, though the more they do so, the less likely they are to survive to the end. All the same, there are no morals being made clear for the benefit of the young reader; by this time, they are expected to be able to work it out for themselves, regardless of their gender.

The invention of the teenager

What you should read: The Outsiders (1967), Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret (1970)

In the 1950s, the teenager was invented. This might seem absurd given that so many of the books in this article have clearly been aimed at teenagers, albeit teenagers who were expected to find husbands and run a household, rather than going to school and manage university applications. All the same, before 1950, no one would have recognised the idea of a time between childhood and adulthood as a separate stage of life. This can lead to some passages in books that seem very strange to us today, such as young women who go from playing with dolls to getting married within the space of a year or two.

It is only within the last century that the concept of “the teenager” has existed at all.

But from the 1950s onwards, the idea became rapidly and firmly entrenched in Western culture that a teenager was a separate and different being from a child or an adult, and so fiction specifically for teenagers was the logical next step. This really took off in the late 1960s with issue-driven books that focused on particular problems in teenagers’ lives, whether that was coping with puberty, bullying, or darker storylines. The Outsiders, which really kicked off the genre, is a particularly bleak example that covers gangland violence including murder. Its author, SE Hinton, wrote most of the novel when she was just 16, and one of the reasons suggested for its success is that it doesn’t contain any nostalgic misconceptions about what it’s like to be a teenager.
This trend for issue-driven teen fiction continued from the 1960s well into the 1990s, with writing that was frank and open about the experiences of teenagers. One of the most famous examples is Judy Blume’s Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret, which looks at the life of a girl who has just turned 12 at the start of the novel. It looks at her exploration of religion alongside her experiences of puberty, which is explored in a much more open and honest way than it would have been in novels from earlier decades. The trend leaned strongly towards realistic novels, usually written in first-person, that centred around real-world issues such as drug abuse, pregnancy or bereavement, and that often had more nuanced than happy endings.

Young adult fiction goes out of this world

What you should read: Twilight (2005), The Hunger Games (2008)

The trend for realism in teenage fiction didn’t survive long into the new millennium. What was re-branded as young adult fiction swung strongly towards science fiction, fantasy and horror, and has stayed there up to the present day.

A whole generation of twenty-somethings are still waiting for their Hogwarts letter...
A whole generation of twenty-somethings are still waiting for their Hogwarts letter…

The reason for this probably lies with the Harry Potter series; while the earlier books, certainly The Philosopher’s Stone to The Prisoner of Azkaban, are children’s fiction, the later books cross the line into YA territory, as JK Rowling deliberately intended her books to mature as her original readership grew older. The hallmark of YA fiction is dealing with its protagonists’ specifically young adult concerns, and that’s evident in the Harry Potter novels as Harry starts to develop feelings for girls and then has his first kiss. Yet the plots of the Harry Potter novels derive not from real-world issues, but from a group of school students fighting dark magic, with storylines that reflect real-world problems, such as racial prejudice that in Harry Potter affects werewolves and Muggleborns. It’s a combination that resulted in some of the best-selling novels of all time; it’s unsurprising that other writers wanted to try for the same audience.
As a result, Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight novels take a standard YA romance plot with the usual elements – a move to a new school, a love triangle and parents going through a divorce – and add vampires and werewolves. Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games series focuses more on the dystopian science-fiction elements of the story and less on the YA elements, but the novels still contain a teenage heroine struggling to cope with a love triangle. That’s not to say that the realistic YA novel is dead – The Fault in Our Stars by John Green is a notable exception – but even this tells a more hopeful and less aggressively gritty story than its 20th century predecessors.
Because of its age-specific nature, YA literature has peaks and troughs that correspond with rises and falls in the birth rate – so the lower birth rates of the 1970s resulted in a quiet time for YA fiction in the 1990s, which picked up again in the 2000s thanks to an 1980s and 1990s increase in births. The dramatic state of world politics makes it seem likely that the current trend for dystopian YA fiction with strongly political themes will continue – and possibly move from fictional worlds far removed from our own to something a little closer to home. And the democratisation of publishing where self-publishing is becoming increasingly normal means that the next big thing in YA fiction could come from anywhere.
Image credits: boy reading; open book; pamela; dracula; girls walking; harry potter books.