Books have been written about teenagers for a very long time. From Little Women to Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys, bookcases can be filled with books dealing with teenage characters and their adventures But there is a very big difference between books about adolescents and books that fall into the young adult genre. As outlined in my last post, books in the young adult genre generally have:
- Protagonists who are generally between 12 and 18 years old.
- Stories told from the perspective of an individual who is between 12 and 18—not an adult looking back on events from adolescence.
- Coming of age themes
While there have always been books about young adults, most critics agree that the first book that falls into the young adult genre is J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, which was published in 1951. The Catcher in the Rye, as you may recall from your high school English class, is told from the perspective of a sixteen-year-old boy named Holden Caulfield. After being expelled from his prep school in Pennsylvania, Holden Caulfield spends three days in New York City and the novel focuses on the difficulties and angst Holden experiences about growing older. “I don’t give a damn, except that I get bored sometimes when people tell me to act my age,” Holden notes at one point in the novel. “Sometimes I act a lot older than I am – I really do – but people never notice it. People never notice anything.”
This book is largely recognized as the first in its genre because of Holden’s limited perspective and his first person point of view narration. Patty Campbell explains why this book and Salinger’s character Holden are seminal to the genre, saying, “In The Catcher in the Rye we first hear that self-absorbed, angry and touchingly vulnerable voice of the One True Outsider and see the adult world through Holden Caulfield’s limited but judgmental perception”. Holden uses certain slang words and phrases that underline his cynical perception of the world—crummy and phony, among others—and sometimes is not sure of how to unravel his own emotions, as when he hires a prostitute but starts to feel “peculiar” when she starts to undress and makes excuses so she will stop. He can be sullen and angry, but also honest and vulnerable. “And I have one of those very loud, stupid laughs. I mean if I ever sat behind myself in a movie or something, I’d probably lean over and tell myself to please shut up.” Holden is a complex character—angry and awkward, confused, lonely, and scared about the future, and his narration perfectly captures those emotions, which are all part of the adolescent experience.
David Levithan, author of Young Adult books such as Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist and an editorial director at Scholastic, backs up Patty Campbell’s statement in an essay aptly titled “How J.D. Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye” Helped Create Young Adult Literature”. He says, “Holden Caulfield is the embodiment of what we mean by the phrase “young adult” – too young to be a grown-up, but too wise to the world to be completely innocent. He’s caught in the in-between, and that in-between is what all young adult authors write about.”
Holden Caulfield has a very distinctive voice and a unique vocabulary and point of view. He also has a singular outlook on life, one that has been tainted by the world of the adults around him, but he is still innocent in some ways. This is what sets The Catcher in the Rye apart from adult novels: the fact that Holden in not able to transcend or break free from his teenage perspective. He is not looking back on his actions in the books with regret or a fond smile, but is experiencing them along with the readers, and this is what defines young adult literature.