The following is written by Olson Graduate Research Assistant Kaylee Swinford
Recognized as a powerful force, the Young Adult genre of fiction has taken the literary world by storm. With cultural phenomena like Twilight, The Hunger Games, and almost any book by John Green, it is difficult to imagine a time when there wasn’t YA. Developing near the mid-20th century, adolescent fiction originally primarily consisted of “problem novels”, sports, and romance. It would not be long, though, before innovation and experimentation worked its way into the genre with authors such as S.E. Hinton and her novel, The Outsiders. These novels dove into the mature, contemplative, and serious themes of youth.
A transformative genre, Young Adult fiction has found itself welcoming all sorts of writing that perhaps wouldn’t have been welcomed elsewhere. Here, writers explore fantasy, sci-fi, romance, horror, and more; sometimes all in the same book! The beauty of the genre is the knack for connecting to realistic themes, emotions, and tackling difficult problems. Here readers can often find relatable protagonists going through tribulations of their own, often overcoming these obstacles. Though once minimized by many, the YA genre is certainly not one to be dismissed.
Highlighted are 10 adolescent novels from our collection. Spanning over 80 years, each novel gives us a glimpse of popular reading at the time. Even though these books focused on pertinent issues of their day and age, they still portray emotions, experiences, and similar conflicts that are important to the youth of today.
1. A Lantern in Her Hand by Bess Streeter (PZ5.A365 L3 1928)
Born in Cedar Falls, Iowa in 1881 to pioneering parents, Bess Streeter found herself writing stories of the Heartland and pioneer history, reflecting on the environment of her childhood.A Lantern in Her Hand follows protagonist Abbie Deal (modeled after Bess’ mother) who travels by covered wagon to the Midwest. Wildly popular with teenagers, Bess Streeter’s books excelled at conveying strength in everyday things and portraying an accurate depiction of early frontier life.
2.Tiger Eyes by Judy Blume (PZ5.B6314 T5 1981)
Beloved author Judy Blume is a household name with the ever-timely novel Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. Blume excels at touching on themes young adults and children can relate to, with Tiger Eyes being a moving example. Reflecting on the death of her father, Judy poured her emotions into protagonist Davey, who also loses her father in a violent attack at a gas station in Atlantic City. Frequently challenged and even banned for teenage depression, mild sex attitudes, religious debates, and underage drinking, Judy affirms the importance of writing realistic experiences for teenagers and the value of writing honestly. Though faced with challenges, Tiger Eyes resonated with many adolescents, including Judy’s son, prompting him to write a screenplay with his mother and make a film released in 2013.
3. Bonnie Jo, Go Home by Jeannette Eyerly (PZ5.E98 B65 1972)
Acclaimed for her sensitivity, Jeannette Eyerly solidifies herself as a pioneer in dealing with controversial topics in novels with sympathy and understanding. Bonnie Jo, Go Home follows the pregnant, sixteen-year-old titular character on a trip to New York City seeking an abortion. According to Roger Sutton, editor in chief of Horn Book Publications, despite the apprehension and attempts at challenging the novel, this story proved to be an example of what “teenage girls were actually reading, despite what their teachers said.”
4. Breaktime by Aidan Chambers (PZ5.C375 B7 1978)
Breaktime centers on protagonist Ditto on a journey to sort out his life. Literature obsessed, Ditto is searching for meaning and connection between the fiction he reads to the life he sees. Breaktime has been heralded for its use of postmodernist conventions that are approachable to a young adult audience.
5. Daughters of Eve by Lois Duncan (PZ5.D912 D3 1979)
Dubbed the “Queen of Teen Thrillers”, Lois Duncan is considered a pioneering figure in YA fiction, particularly in genres of horror, thriller, and suspense. One shining example of this can be found in, Daughters of Eve. This novel centers on a group of high school girls in a small town who are convinced by a teacher that the men in their life are oppressing them, and they should seek vengeance. Due to themes of sexual assault, feminism, and domestic violence, this book was banned in several states.
6. Claire Ambler by Booth Tarkington (PZ5.T1755 C44 1928)
Known for depicting characters living a carefree bliss, Booth Tarkington’s Claire Ambler follows the titular character through her life as a flapper girl from her teens to her mid-twenties in the “Roaring Twenties”. A 1928 Atlantic Monthly review from R.M. Gay suggests Booth has “never written better” and “never with such precision” than in Claire Ambler.
7. Daddy Long Legs by Jean Webster (PZ5.W377 D3 1912)
The widely adapted novel, Daddy Long Legs follows Jerusha “Judy” Abbott as she leaves an orphanage and is sent to college by a benefactor whom she has never seen. Though predating the adolescent fiction genre, Webster’s 1912 novel was considered a “college girl” book, a type of novel featuring a young protagonist dealing with post-high-school concerns like college, career, and marriage. The story has been adapted into stage musicals, countless films from around the world, and even an anime serial.
8. A Separate Peace by John Knowles (PZ5.K757 S4 1960a)
In this American classic, John Knowles explores the darker side of adolescence and loss of innocence for the central character, Phineas, during his time at boarding school. Set against the backdrop of World War II, themes of morality, patriotism, and trauma are explored, heralding this novel as significant for adolescents and one certainly worth reading.
9. Miriam by Aimée Sommerfelt, translated by Pat Shaw Iversen (PZ5.S6956 M5713 1963)
Aimée Sommerfelt was a Norwegian writer concerned with social justice, often placing protagonists in difficult circumstances and settings, like poverty and wartime. The novel Miriam centers on two teen girls living in Nazi-occupied Norway during World War II. Throughout the novel they are forced to face the reality of prejudice and the impacts it can have on those in a variety of circumstances.
10. Face the Dragon by Joyce Sweeney (PZ5.S975 F33 1992)
I will admit, I wanted to feature this book primarily for the cover – though after looking into it, a protagonist who is influenced by Beowulf really sealed the deal. Eric is struggling in high school; the pressures of relationships and academics are crushing him. Reminded of the heroic poem Beowulf, Eric learns to “face the dragon,” his arrogant debate teacher, Mr. Drake. Author Joyce Sweeney, a prior teacher of 20 years, was encouraged to write stories for kids and teens with themes they can actually relate to. Marking it as a representative novel for youth, Face the Dragon touches on topics like queer identity, disordered eating, and ableism.
Come check out these and other YA books at Special Collections & Archives!