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The evolution of young adult literature

The evolution of young adult literature

“I do believe something magical happens when you read a good book.” - JK Rowling

For as long as I can remember, reading has been a staple in my everyday life. My love for books has never faltered; if anything, it has only grown stronger with each passing year. If I’ve had a tough day at school, nothing is more appealing than to lie on my couch and disappear into a battered copy of The Hunger Games. Perhaps you can relate. Whether you read for excitement, relaxation, or because your English teachers force you to, it’s likely that you’ve read a fair share of books in your lifetime. It’s also likely that many of those books fall under the increasingly popular genre of young adult literature. Many teenagers have fallen in love with YA books, such as Harry Potter, The Fault in Our Stars, and of course, The Hunger Games. Perhaps you are one of those teenagers yourself! With September being the birth month of the Hunger Game, as well as hosting National Literacy Day, let's dive into the works of literature that pioneered the YA genre, as well as influenced books we all know and love today.

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The book Seventeenth Summer, by Maureen Daly, is considered the first YA novel ever written. Published in 1942, it was categorized as a fictional romance novel—that is, until it started gaining popularity within an unintended age group. Seventeenth Summer followed a group of 17 year old girls, and depicted them trying to deal with classic teenage problems; social reputation, personal imaging, and first romances. The novel was relatable to young adults, an age group that had previously been neglected. It was a book written by a teenager, about teenagers, for teenagers; although it was the first of its kind, it would not be the last.

Photo from GoodReads

In 1967, The Outsiders was first published, and with it came an important milestone for the YA genre. Like Seventeenth Summer, The Outsiders appealed to young adults, a concept that was still foreign to many readers. Yet, the idea was beginning to gain popularity—and fast. Other books, like Nancy Drew and The Little House series, were inspiring a new wave of adolescent readers as well. A demand had been made, and authors began to listen. A question was racing through all of their minds—are young adults the consumer market we need to appeal to? The answer was clear—yes. The term “young adult” became a genre in 1967 to compensate for this revolutionary movement in books.

Even though the YA genre had been established, many readers were still unaccustomed to this innovative movement. Like a sapling, it still needed to bloom, and it was only just beginning to bud. How did this feeble industry grow to compensate for all the YA books we have today? 55 years after the genre emerged, YA books now have shifted dramatically from their processors. Novels such as Forever, Go Ask Alice, and The Chocolate War have shaped the industry, as well as pushed the limits of the genre as a whole. More importantly, they also played a direct hand in influencing YA books now.

Let’s start with Forever, by Judy Blume (1975). This book was groundbreaking, revolutionary, and yes, controversial when it came about. It talked about subjects such as sex, sexually transmitted diseases, and even abortion. The book was an eye-opener for teenagers, many of whom had never been able to read books about such subjects. On a more emotional aspect, it also spotlighted the inner conflicts that come with relationships. Go Ask Alice, by Anonymous, (1971), is a book about drug addiction and escapism. Written as a diary, the reader is pulled into a world of internal destruction and hallucinogen dependence. Through hallowing words, the novel covered a subject and theme that teenagers vitally needed to understand. Lastly, The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier (1974), was one of the first books to talk about peer pressure, and the strength it takes to defy it. The novel also covered approval within high school dynamics, which adolescents took a liking to. Those three books were the ones that stretched expectations and defined what the YA genre could be.

At this point, you’re an expert on how the YA genre originated, as well as the novels that helped do that. However, you may still be unclear on the correlation between past and current bestsellers of the genre. In fact, you may be thinking that a relationship is virtually nonexistent. After all, how can a book about drug addiction influence a book about dystopian war? But, believe it or not, it did. In fact, all the books mentioned at the very beginning of the article were; they weren’t just influential, they were influenced as well. Harry Potter’s plot shared similar components that were prominent in The Chocolate War. Within the uttering of spells and quidditch matches, Hogwarts is a home. As magical as it is, it’s not free from social cliques and bullies. It also touched on the dominance and power that a single group can hold, as well as the division caused by separation within a community. The Hunger Games and Go Ask Alice actually cover many of the same predicaments. They both feature a female teen protagonist struggling to fit in. Additionally, both novels include mental health issues, internal chaos, and physical harm. The characters have to navigate through a life they don’t deserve. In even more specificity, in The Hunger Games, multiple characters develop morphine compulsion as a way to escape reality. Lastly, Forever and The Fault in Our Stars both cover the idea of what “forever” really is. In different ways, both novels share their take on what romance actually means and the bonds that connect two characters.

YA is a genre that has changed over the years, but its core has stayed the same. Teenagers like to see themselves in books; they are transitioning from children to adults, and reading is a way to learn about life experiences and how to navigate through them. Teens nowadays are accustomed to dystopia, murder mysteries, and magic to make novels exciting; however, they still enjoy the morals and lessons incorporated into those fictional worlds and societies. That’s what reading is—becoming immersed in a fanciful book, to care about the characters and live in the settings. Reading means becoming engrossed in a world, and with every turn of the page, diving deeper and deeper into it. So next time you find yourself reaching for a YA novel, think about the books that paved the way. And don’t forget to wish The Hunger Games a happy birthday!

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