Books like S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders and Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War helped to inspire a new wave of realistic fiction for young adults. Sadly, realistic fiction soon became boiled down into the unimaginative subgenre of ‘the problem novel’.
Over the last year, I have been sporadically writing about the history of the young adult genre in the United States. Authors have written books about teenagers for a very long time, and from Little Women to Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys, bookcases are filled with books dealing with teenage characters and their adventures. But since the mid-1900s, a genre about adolescents, written from the perspective of adolescents, and written for adolescents has risen to great prominence. We call this genre young adult literature. In the past year I have discussed:
After Robert Cormier’s success– and the controversy created– with The Chocolate War, realistic fiction came to the forefront of YA fiction. The Chocolate War revolutionized the genre through its stark realism and message that not every story has a happy ending. But after the daring of Robert Cormier, a much safer and formulaic branch of the genre was created called ‘the problem novel’.
Michael Cart writes, “Unfortunately, success and innovation often breed not only more success and innovation, but also pale imitation, as new techniques are turned into recycled formula, making subject (think ‘problem’) and theme the tail that wags the dog of the novel. Such is the case of… what has come to be called the problem novel”. The problems that these problem novels center around are issues such as pregnancy, sex, divorce, drugs, desertion, and death, etc. While these issues are things that many young adults struggle with, the formulaic nature of this subgenre still draws much ire from critics to this day.
Thankfully, there were still superb fantasy writers at the time, like Susan Cooper, who worked to ground fantasy in the real world in innovative ways.
Sheila Egoff sums up the feeling of critics towards the problem novel with, “Think of it this way, and you’ll understand the problem with the problem novel: it is to young adult literature what soap opera is to legitimate drama”.
Following the rise of the problem novel, another subgenre of young adult literature emerged in the early 1980s: the romance novel. These novels were a reaction against the gritty realism that had dominated the genre for the past decade. The only problems in these novels were whether or not the female protagonist would go with Bobby or Joe to the homecoming dance. Young adult author Jane Yolan, herself the author of a myriad of fantasy novels, said that the huge popularity of these novels was “a teenager’s way of saying ‘enough.’ Teenagers have seen their adolescence taken away by graphic television shows and movies and books. The return to romance is a way to return to the mystery and beauty of love, even if it is at a superficial level”. By the 1980s, teenagers were growing weary with the dark, realistic fiction that dominated the young adult market, which was glutted with problem novels. The romance novel offered an escape from real life, and the subgenre was wildly successful.
Robin McKinley also wrote wonderfully complex fantasy for young adults during this time– and still does!
But throughout the 1970s and 1980s, there was a subgenre of young adult literature that interpreted “romance” a little bit differently, as stories that are based on legend, adventure, and the supernatural. Equally inspired by the medieval romances of Arthurian legend and the world around them, authors like Susan Cooper, Diana Wynne Jones, and Robin McKinley were writing superb fantasy novels
Susan Cooper is the Newbery Award-winning author of The Dark is Rising Sequence. Cooper based her books on Arthurian legend, as well as Celtic and Norse mythology. The story focuses on several children who are swept up into the struggle between the forces of good and evil, called the Light and the Dark. What I love about Susan Cooper’s work, and what has made her so popular with readers for decades, is the blend of fantasy and reality in her books. I actually got to meet Susan Cooper in 2013, and wrote about the experience and more about her books here.
Diana Wynne Jones is an author who is beloved and revered around the world. While she passed away in 2011, her books continue to be read and loved. Throughout the 1970s and 80s when there was an abundance of realistic fiction, Diana Wynne Jones was writing about worlds that seem very similar to our own until you squint. Magic abounds in her novels, but they are populated by people who are very realistic. The Chrestomanci series is a series of books about parallel worlds, in which the worlds diverge because of different outcomes in wars or events like the Gunpowder Plot in England. The books are loosely based around a boy named Christopher Chant who grows up to become the Chrestomanci, a person who supervises the use of magic. The books are fun, witty, delightful, and filled to the brim with magic. I would highly recommend them to anyone who enjoyed J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series.
Diana Wynne Jones is also a favorite of mine. And oh, how I love this British cover!
Robin McKinley also eschewed realistic fiction during this time for writing fantasy. McKinley won a Newbery Honor for her novel The Blue Sword and a Newbery Medal for her novel The Hero and the Crown. These novels are set in the same world, but in very different time periods. The Blue Sword follows a girl named Harry Crewe who has grown up in a culture similar to that of Imperial Britain during the reign of Queen Victoria. When she is sent to live at an outpost in a country much wilder and full of magic than her own, she is whisked away on an epic adventure that helps bridge the gap between her culture and that of the Hillfolk. The Hero and the Crown follows the story of a princess named Aerin, who does great deeds and is famous in Harry’s time for her work to save her homeland.
Even though the great realistic work of authors like S.E. Hinton and Robert Cormier was boiled down into derivative ‘problem’ novels, the 1970s and 80s were still a time of innovation in literature. Authors like Susan Cooper, Diana Wynne Jones, and Robin McKinley took old stories and tropes in romantic literature and wove them into new, brilliant, and beautiful stories that still capture readers’ imaginations today.
Young Adult Literature: Part 1
Young Adult Literature: Part 2
Young Adult Literature: Part 3
Young Adult Literature: Part 4
Young Adult Literature: Part 5
If you’ve seen Hayao Miyazaki’s gorgeous film Howl’s Moving Castle, then you’ve already been exposed to some of Diana Wynne Jones’ work– the movie is based on one of her books!