December 18, 2013

Rant: YA has a history. Read it.

Jennifer Hubbard's recentish post on the history of YA novels reminded me how much it gets my goat when people carry on as if YA didn't exist before the 1990s (at the earliest - in many cases people seem to think Twilight was the first book ever written aimed at young people). I should add that the people I'm referring to are not readers, who I can forgive for thinking that YA began when they cracked the spine on the first YA novel they ever read, but librarians, booksellers, people who host writing panels, reviewers and even YA authors themselves.

I began reading what we now think of as YA when I was about 8. (I had an older sister and a dedicated children's library whose staff didn't bat an eyelid if you read 'above your age', unlike our school librarian who kept trying to force me to read Milly Molly Mandy.) It started with light, romantic books that epitomised the image of teenagerdom I already had in my mind via Gidget movies, The Brady Bunch, and other assorted American series from the 50s/60s that were still being repeated on Aussie TV in the early 80s. I distinctly remember reading Beverly Cleary's Fifteen and Sister of the Bride and imagining going on my first 'date', which I thought would probably be with a nice, cleancut boy from our neighbourhood. From there I moved onto more contemporary fare, scouring the library shelves for books by Paula Danziger, Betsy Byars, Paul Zindel and, of course, Judy Blume. (Interestingly - to me and no one else, I suspect - I didn't read these authors' middle grade novels until I was older and had run out of books with teenaged protagonists to read.)

Now, when I see one of the books that made such an impression on my young self at an op shop or garage sale, I snatch it up greedily. My bookshelf includes well-worn paperback copies of The Cat Ate My Gymsuit, I'll Get There. It Better be Worth the Trip and Pardon Me, You're Stepping on my Eyeball, all of which stand up well to rereading three decades later and up to four decades after they were written (attested to by the fact that many of them have been republished since the YA boom).

As well as the books mentioned above, YA 'classics' I love and heartily recommend include:
  • The Pigman by Paul Zindel, which taught me that weird can be wonderful. (Actually, that's true of all of Zindel's books.)
  • Forever by Judy Blume, written in response to her daughter's plea for a book about teenagers who have sex and don't die, a la Love Story. (Not only that, in Blume's world they use contraception and even orgasm, which may have raised my hopes about teenage sex but was also a better education than they offered at school back in the dark ages). This isn't my favourite Judy Blume novel, but each time I read it I think it's still groundbreaking.
  • The Summer of the Swans by Betsy Byars (have tissues handy)
  • The Pistachio Prescription by Paula Danziger
  • The Alfred G. Graebner Memorial High School Handbook of Rules and Regulations by Ellen Conford (actually, pretty much anything by Ellen Conford)
  • It's OK If You Don't Love Me by Norma Klein (anyone who thinks 'new adult' is new should read this and pull their head in)
Yes, YA's come a long way in terms of recognition, particularly in the last decade or so, but let's not forget where we came from.

The writing hasn't dated, even if the cover art has


  1. This is very interesting to me, Aimee, because I missed out on all those books! (I think I may have read The Pigman, but I didn't understand it…) All those authors remain pretty much undiscovered territory for me, probably because I had a bias against American authors for some stupid reason, and leaned far more toward the British. I will take this list as a recommended reading list forthwith!

    1. My inclination towards Brit YA didn't come until 12 or so (possibly because our local library didn't have much), but I remember absolutely loving Gregory's Girl in Year 7, just as my obsession with the Young Ones began. Would love recommendations for vintage UK YA if you have any.

  2. ... and let's not forget our Australian YA. back in the 60s there was 'Pastures of the Blue Crane', by Hesba Brinsmead, and 'The Feather Star', by Patricia Wrightson. In the 70's, 'Matt and Jo', by Ivan Southall. And way back in 1897, 'Teens', By Louise Mack.

    Come on peoples - name some more. (There are many more) And read A History of Australian Children's Literature by Maurice Saxby.

    1. I'm embarrassed to admit that I've read none of those; a huge gap in my own YA knowledge. Will try to track them down - could be the ultimate op shop scavenger hunt if they haven't been reprinted recently!

  3. I still remember the furore "Forever" caused in our Grade Six class, I believe it has the word "Horny" in it somewhere and our teacher was forced to explain the meaning to us as some of the kids started using the word indiscriminately :)
    Good times

  4. I remember the "period scene" in New Patches For Old (Christobel Mattingley) being passed around our playground in grade 5!
    For the Brits, my favourites are Rumer Godden and Antonia Forest, but I also read a lot of Nancy Mitford, Dorothy Sayers, PG Wodehouse, Agatha Christie and Gerald Durrell as a YA - technically for adults but superb reading for teenagers too (teenagers who like retro Britain anyway :-)

    1. Ah yes, I first read My Family and Other Animals at 11 and it's still an all-time favourite. The only book I re-read EVERY year :)