Wednesday, 27 May 2015

From Jim Hawkins to Katniss Everdeen and beyond... by Anne Stormont

A brief history of YA fiction. The more things change etc...

I'm not a writer of Young Adult (YA) fiction, but I did used to read it. I was a young adult back in the Dark Ages of the 1970s. In my teenage years I was just as avid a reader as I'd been in my childhood, and as I remain to this day. I've dipped in and out of YA fiction over the intervening years, partly in my role as a teacher and partly while parenting my own, now fully-formed, YAs.

I'm no expert on the genre. However, I am aware that the last ten years seem to have seen an amazing rise in YA's level of popularity, building as it has on the foundations laid by Harry Potter.

But was it all really so different forty years ago, and what will my present-day toddler grandchildren be reading when they get to high school?

According to A Brief History of YA books on , the 1970s saw a blossoming of YA fiction, something which had been building since the 1940s and 50s with the appearance of such books as the Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys series. I don't exactly remember the seventies as being awash with contemporary authors in the genre. There are however, two that I do recall fondly. Firstly, there's Mary Stewart and all her historical fantasies including The Crystal Cave published in 1970. It was set in the fifth century and told the supposed real-life back-story of Merlin. And secondly, Judy Blume, especially her 1975 title Forever. Forever dealt with the contemporary adolescent problems of parental divorce, growing-up, bereavement and sexual awakening. Indeed it was remarkable at the time for its level of sexual explicitness.

But here's the thing, the bulk of my YA reading list wasn't written while I was a teenager, comprising as it did of older, classic material. There were the early twentieth-century books such as The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, Catcher in the Rye and Lord of the Flies. But my real favourites from my adolescent years were written in the nineteenth-century.

These include Little Women by Louisa May Alcott written in 1868 and Treasure Island and Kidnapped both by Robert Louis Stevenson and written in the 1880s.

Old and classic they may be, but many of the present-day YA themes and settings are there––absent parents, strange, alien or threatening environments––even those rooted in the familiar, see their main characters dealing with strange and challenging events. They each address at least some of the same issues, such as self-reliance, loyalty, moral choices and first love, as today's YA books do.

Little Women was first published in two volumes. The first volume was so popular with its young, mainly female readers that the second volume was published less than a year later. It was then rapidly followed by two sequels and so became a series. Sound familiar? Little Women tells the story of four sisters, living through the American Civil War and its aftermath. The girls' father is away because of the war, and their mother is either pre-occupied with supporting the war-effort or absent tending to their father after he falls ill. They have to cope with poverty, illness, bereavement and their first encounters with romantic love. Each sister faces her own challenges and a certain loss of innocence. Jo, the main character, is tough, practical and independent. Her three sisters all represent other 'young female' characteristics. Meg is the home-loving, dutiful one, Beth is physically weak but heroic and Amy is pretty and light-hearted. So the sisters'  different and sometimes conflicting personalities and reactions mirror the emotional turmoil often experienced by the young adult reader - and surely some of that turmoil remains the same for today's young women. It could be argued that Little Women and its sequels foreshadow questions of the role of women still being asked in the 21st century. For example, there's Meg the stay-at-home wife and mother versus Jo who for a long time resists the pressure to marry and builds a successful career.

Treasure Island was first produced in 1881/82 in serial form in Young Folks, a children's magazine. It was described at the time of publication as being about 'buccaneers and buried gold' and yes, it's a high-seas, swashbuckler but more than that, it's essentially a coming-of-age story. Young hero, Jim Hawkins, is a timid child at the start. His father is dead and Jim must earn some money. During his time at sea Jim develops into a mature young man. He has to deal with deadly enemies. He has to be self-reliant, cope with moral ambiguities and face up to greed and temptation.  There's complexity too. Little is clear cut. The villain, Long John Silver, is a vibrant and charismatic antagonist. Jim comes to a mature view regarding Silver, at one point referring to him as 'the best man here', and at the end he wishes him well. This all contributes to the book being an enduring YA classic.

Stevenson's other novel for young people is Kidnapped. It too was serialised in Young Folks magazine. Published in book form in 1886, it's set in eighteenth-century Scotland. The hero is seventeen-year-old David Balfour. His parents are dead. Having escaped from his kidnappers, he becomes a wanted man and flees across some of the wildest parts of Scotland in the company of another fugitive, the Jacobite, Alan Breck Stewart. In seeking to gain justice for their respective causes David and Alan face danger and death. Their adventures are exciting and numerous and they meet many compelling and fascinating characters along the way, some who are on their side and others who most definitely are not.

And, like Little Women, Kidnapped also has a sequel.

Yes, YA fiction has been around at least since the nineteenth-century and it has continued, in much the same format, series and serials included, to be a major form of literature in the decades since.

During the 1980s the genre of contemporarily written YA fiction became more strongly established, but it probably wasn't doing anything outstanding in terms of more general awareness or outstanding sales. There were the popular, if not exactly feminist, Babysitter Club and Sweet Valley High series of books, but there were also the dark fantasies of, for example, Diana Wynne-Jones.

In the 1990s there was RL Stine's very popular Goosebumps series - a set of horror-meets-humour books, beloved at the time by my, otherwise non-reader, teenage son. And there was also the sexy and dangerous Vampire Diaries series by LJ Smith. But books were by now having to compete for young people's attention with the popularity of evermore technological pursuits.

Then the decade and century ended with Harry Potter - enough said.

And, in the 2000s, YA fiction was able to build on HP's success and the fact that adolescents had returned to reading in a big way.

There was the The Book Thief, a marvellous book by Markus Zusak, published in 2005, and which did that thing that the best YA often does, that is it appealed to a much wider audience than the supposed limits of the genre.

And similarly of course, and in the same year, Stephanie Meyer's New Moon, the first of the Twilight series, was published. The Twilight books have the classic YA mix - young person in unfamiliar territory, pushing boundaries, experiencing first love, albeit with added sexual tension and forbidden elements as one of the main characters is a vampire. Meyer's books also have a great combination of fantasy, reality, suspense and danger and such a good balance of plot and character development that they really can't fail. There's something for every sort of reader.

The same can be said of Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games, published in 2008, and yes, with two subsequent books in the series. Here we have dystopian science-fiction with a feisty and independent sixteen-year-old female lead. This eerie, post-apocalyptic fantasy has politics, violence, rebellion and many tests of loyalty. There are moral choices to be made. Adolescents must become self-reliant, must grow up. The plot has pace and twists aplenty. It ticks all the YA boxes and therefore, once again, breaks out beyond the confines of YA in its appeal.

Which brings us to 2010s, to the present state of YA fiction. It doesn't seem to be waning in its success or appeal. Just two of many possible examples: first Endangered by Lamar Giles. Set firmly in the social-media age, it tells the story of photo-blogger, Lauren, who in exposing the secrets of classmates and school staff falls victim to a blackmailer and is drawn into the deadly game of Dare or Dare. And secondly there's Extraordinary Means by Robyn Schneider. Here the main character, suffering from an incurable strain of TB, is isolated in a sanatorium. It's a story of survival, second-chances and poignant first-love. Again many boxes ticked for widespread YA appeal.

But, looking beyond the Katniss and 2015 generations of adolescent readers, who knows? There's the rise or, should that be rebirth, of the graphic novel. There are the gamers with their need for thrills, immediacy and interaction. Then there's the Minecraft generation building their own worlds online and making up their own narratives. And finally there are the present-day toddlers, already able to operate a smart-phone or tablet by their third birthday, expecting when-they-want-it, visually engaging entertainment.

I hope that books of all sorts continue to deliver their own unique form of entertainment, solace and escape. I hope that YA readers become adult readers. Content and delivery will undoubtedly change and it will be interesting to see where next for YA fiction.

Anne Stormont is an author-publisher. She can be a subversive old bat but maintains a kind heart. As well as writing for this fine organ, she writes fiction for adults – mainly of the female-of-a-certain-age persuasion – and for children - the pre-YA set aged 9 to 12. She blogs at  – where you can find out lots more about her.  

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