Like jazz, the Broadway musical, and the foot-long hot dog, young adult literature is an American gift to the world, an innovative, groundbreaking genre that I’ve been following closely for more than 30 years. Targeted at readers 12 to 18 years old, it sprang into being near the end of the turbulent decade of the 1960s—in 1967, to be specific, a year that saw the publication of two seminal novels for young readers: S. E. Hinton’s The Outsiders and Robert Lipsyte’s The Contender.
Hinton and Lipsyte clearly were writing a new kind of novel for young adults—one of unsparing contemporary realism that met a need articulated by Hinton herself in a passionate article in The New York Times Book Review published on August 27, 1967. Here’s what she wrote:
Teenagers today want to read about teenagers today. The world is changing, yet the authors of books for teen-agers are still 15 years behind the times. In the fiction they write, romance is still the most popular theme with a horse and the girl who loved it coming in a close second. Nowhere is the drive-in social jungle mentioned. In short, where is the reality?
The answer, of course, was to be found in the pages of her novel. The Outsiders had a mean-streets setting and dealt with urban warfare between teenage gang members, dubbed, respectively, the Greasers and the Socs. Hinton’s mean streets were in her hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma; those of her equally innovative fellow author Robert Lipsyte were in New York City. His 1967 novel The Contender featured one of the first protagonists of color to appear in young adult literature, the African-American teenager Alfred Brooks, who struggles to become a contender both in the boxing ring and in life.
Before these two novels, literature for 12- to 18-year-olds was about as realistic as a Norman Rockwell painting—almost universally set in small-town, white America and featuring teenagers whose biggest problem was finding a date for the senior prom. Such books were patronizingly called “junior novels” and were typically sweet-spirited romances, a genre that defined the 1940s and 1950s and featured books by the likes of Janet Lambert, Betty Cavanna, and Rosamond DuJardin, among others. Indeed, virtually all literature for young readers in those two nostalgia-inducing decades consisted of inconsequential, formulaic, genre fiction: not only romance but also science fiction, adventure tales, and novels about sports, cars, and careers.
Small wonder, then, that this newly hard-edged, truth-telling, realistic fiction filled such a need. Seemingly overnight, a new genre, young adult literature, sprang into being. Within two years, noteworthy novels such as Paul Zindel’s My Darling, My Hamburger and John Donovan’s I’ll Get There. It Better Be Worth the Trip had embraced real world considerations like abortion and homosexuality, respectively. In 1971, Hinton wrote about drug abuse in That Was Then. This Is Now and in 1973 Alice Childress joined her with A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ But a Sandwich, which told a story of heroin addiction.
And then came 1974, and the publication of one of the most important and influential novels in the history of young adult literature. Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War was arguably the first young adult novel to trust teens with the sad truth that not all endings are happy ones. In this unforgettable book, arguably the first literary young adult novel, 17-year-old protagonist Jerry Renault steadfastly refuses to sell chocolates for his school—an act with dire consequences. Cormier took his readers into the dark heart of adolescent anxiety, and turned on the lights, revealing a bleak moral landscape. In The Chocolate War and 14 other novels that followed, Cormier continued to dare to disturb a too-comfortable universe by acknowledging, as he told an interviewer, that, “Adolescence is such a lacerating time that most of us carry the baggage of it with us all our lives.”