Monday, September 7, 2009

Yes, Virginia, there was YA when you were a teenager.

I have no idea why this topic heats me up so much. Maybe I've never gotten over my Ramona-like demand for precision from adults.

I keep hearing phrases along the lines of "we didn't have YA when I was a kid"--most recently among the comments to a post of Roger Sutton's about books being too long, here. (Someone else carried the torch there, I was glad to see. Also, in one of those sisterly coincidences--I was chomping at the bit to write this post yesterday but had to go to work; now I see that Laurie commented on the blog yesterday with the same point I was going to make.)

Yes, there were books specifically aimed at teenagers when you were a kid. Lots of them. This is true no matter what age you are. You might not have read them, but they were there.

I don't mean to claim that there isn't lots and lots of excellent YA today, maybe more than ever before, but there's been a lot for a long time.

One comment I hear often to make this point is that when we were kids, there was only a small YA shelf at the library(if that); this is what I found, also, at my library. Yes, these days most libraries seem to have huge YA sections. But from what I see, the difference here is largely in reclassification. If you go to your library and look at your YA shelves, you'll probably see lots and lots of books that were published before that shelf existed. Where were they before that? In the children's or "juvenile" section. That doesn't mean they weren't YA. The YA shelf at my library in the 80s and 90s seemed to be reserved specifically for books that had very explicit sex in them--but even lots of books with sex were shelved in our children's section. A House Like a Lotus, for instance. Annie On My Mind was shelved in YA, but other books with gay characters that were perhaps not so well-known were shelved in children's.

We can go back further than my youth. One of the comments in Roger's blog has an excellent list of the YA from the 70s and 80s (much of which was yes, shelved in my children's section also), and I'll let her speak for that era; I want to point out specifically Are You In the House Alone? which is definitely an "older teen" kind of book (yes, no matter when you read it), dealing as it does with teen sex and acquaintance rape and a sophisticated POV on teen dating.

I have a big collection of YA from the 1950s and 1960s. I discovered these books in middle school and devoured them and reread them and was fascinated by life back then. These books are sometimes tossed off as "malt shop books", acceptable to read only for nostalgic value. A few of them are pure fluff, but mostly they deal with serious subjects, and the very same subjects we get in YA today--I mean, yes, they talk about sex (and racism and cheating at school and failing college because you spend too much time with your boyfriend and so on). They don't use the same words, and the things kids worry about are slightly different because social mores were different.

After Pat has an argument with Tim, for instance, in First Love Farewell by Anne Emery, copyright 1958, a book about two college students:

She made her good-night kiss a special effort to show him she loved him more than ever. The trouble was, she had to make the special effort...she did not realize that she was beginning to use their love-making for special purposes: to cheer him up when he was melancholy, to reassure him when he was pessimistic about their future, to persuade him that she was deeply in love with him and that he was passionately, single-mindedly in love with her. Making love now meant that she wanted to kiss and caress him not only because she loved him, but because there was some misunderstanding that must be smoothed over, and making love as and when Tim wanted to was the easiest way to keep him content.

Later:
"You don't have to go in for a while," he whispered. "That's why we left by ten."
She pulled away. "Tim, we've got to take it easy."
He looked at her in astonishment.
"What's the matter with you? Don't you love me anymore? Don't you trust me?"
"Of course I love you, darling," she said, feeling weary that it had to be proved and asserted over and over. "But we can't go on like this indefinitely. It's getting harder all the time and --oh, I don't know. I just don't feel like being quite so--"...
"Well," he said angrily, "I guess I don't know what's going on any more. I figure if a girl doesn't want to make love, she isn't interested in a guy."...
"You know I love you, Tim. I've shown you that over and over. But tonight I just don't feel that way, somehow."

I do know that "love-making" didn't carry the same definition then that it does now, but I'm struck by how these scenes would have spoken to a variety of teens--the ones who didn't do much more than kiss AND the ones who were actually having sex. Nicely done, Mrs. Emery.

I think sometimes these books are not considered YA by people because for the most part there's nothing in them that would be too much for a middle-grade reader who happened along them--but that doesn't mean they aren't YA. All media at that time was less explicit--TV shows and movies, too. These were books written for teenagers, displaying the same kinds of characteristics that define YA today--seeking identity apart from one's parents and finding a place in society.

We can go back and back, to Seventeenth Summer published in 1942, to Anne of Avonlea, checked out by Ella and Henny (from the adult section!) just before World War 1, to The Little Colonel's Knight Comes Riding, which Betsy Ray read when she was no less than 15 in 1907. Have I got you convinced?

And I think there's another important reason YA is more plentiful now--a number of adult books published back in the day probably would be published as YA if they were written now (I Capture the Castle, To Kill a Mockingbird, A Separate Peace). My mother, born in 1949, remembers loving Edna Ferber when she was a teenager; I read Show Boat at 16 and loved it, too. Ferber might have been marketed as a young adult author, these days. And it works the other way, too--let's look at my beloved Tender Morsels--Margo Lanagan has mentioned that it wasn't written as a young adult book. In 1940, it definitely would have been in the adult section. Some publisher saw a market (and, I hope, a message) for teens there. And it's still being published as both an adult and a teen book.

Perhaps what bothers me about the claim "there wasn't any YA, or at least any good YA, when I was a kid" is that besides being untrue, it derails what could be an interesting conversation--how is YA different today from how it used to be? In what ways is it similar?

5 comments:

Kathleen McDade said...

I haven't read most of the books on that list from the 70s and 80s. I think I somewhat share the experience of those on Roger's post who said they mostly read YA in middle school or younger. I know I did read some later, too, but mostly as light reading or nostalgia.

I'm often not sure of when I actually first read something, but in high school I recall reading James Michener and Tolstoy and biographies about the Beatles. And I guess I must have read all of the Dark is Rising books in high school, just because that's when we happened to discover them. And they're not really YA anyway, IMO. And I read A House Like A Lotus fairly close to when it came out, I think.

This is not to say that YA wasn't widely available (although for a while, the YA section at Midland Library consisted of one paperback rack). I think I just wasn't interested. And if I were a teen now, would I be reading, say, The Hunger Games? I don't know. Possibly not. But that's ME, and I'm very likely not representative.

I've heard that Little Women is often considered the first YA novel, by the way. Makes sense - it's certainly about seeking identity and finding a place in society.

Michelle Magill said...

A good door slam always sobers me up because I'm always surprised by how loud it is!

Well argued my dear. I heartily agree. I wonder if todays YA is only defined by being full of angsty teenage tantrums... because as you say... they don't seem to care how much sex and violence is included. I have no problem with a lusty book but I feel the lines of decency have been rubbed out. I worry about how sex it is portrayed in YA fiction but there are times when I worry more about how violence is so easily accepted.

Back to your point though.. it is also a mystery to me why people see YA as a new thing. I certainly remember having access to a mountain of it but I also remember that I had less to worry about (compared with today) if I did read adult fiction. My library and mother were good chaperones in my reading life.

Sandy D. said...

Possibly people don't recall it as "Young Adult" because it wasn't marketed as such twenty or more years ago?

Does anyone know when the YA categorization became common? When did libraries start creating separate spaces, new rooms as opposed to a shelf of TEEN books in the kids' section?

Kim said...

What about Little Women? Most of us read it as tweeners (not that we had that term either) or teenagers. I think YA is more of a very effective marketing and bookstore organization term. I find it interesting that having separate category helped create a spurt in that area. Makes me want to consider what else could be singled out to highlight.

Wendy said...

(The word "tweenage" is actually used in Noel Streatfeild's PARTY FROCK/PARTY SHOES, published 1946. So!)