The History of Young Adult Novels
In 1951, J.D. Salinger, author of such action-packed works as "A Perfect Day for the Banana Bread," and Franny and Zooooooey, creates a new genre with Catcher in the Rye, spawning an industry frenzy for novels with red covers. Teachers rejoice, and celebrate this emerging literature by assigning The Brothers Karamazov. Also in 1951, three-year-old Chris Crutcher grows his first mustache. Ten years later, Harper Lee creates a YA classic that doesn't have a single YA character. A short time after that, S. E. Hinton, realizing that she's just as qualified as Salinger to go by her initials, writes several ground breaking YA novels while still in utero. Teachers across the land respond by assigning Silas Marner. Robert Cormier, feeling that Holden Caufield got off too easily, kicks the crap out of his characters. Things start to get interesting. Judy Blume and Stephen King write about girls getting their first period, with broadly different outcomes. Someone points out to M. E. Kerr that she also has two initials.
In the eighties, angst reigns supreme. During that decade, YA novels give us 837 rapes, 943 murders, 1,247 suicides, 12,457 dead parents, 19,382 dead pets, and three smiles. Legions of dogs are bred for the sole purpose of dying in the penultimate chapter. So many parents drown that the Red Cross steps in to offer free adult swim lessons to any interested fictional characters. Loneliness runs rampant -- nobody wants to be the main character's best friend because that's almost a guaranteed death sentence. During this period, I attempt to write books using my first two initials, but people misread the meaning of D. R. Lubar and hound me for amphetamine prescriptions.
The nineties bring us a huge diversity and bold experimentation. Characters get drunk, use bad language, and contemplate intercourse, just like Holden Caufield, but authors bravely use their whole first names. Except for J. K. Rowling, but then again she can do whatever she wants, even if it means that an entire generation of her book-toting fans will eventually suffer scoliosis. (One youngster was already tragically crushed when he tried to bring his entire Harry Potter collection to school in his back pack. This represents an alarming trend in page-count injuries affecting younger and younger kids. It used to be only Robert Jordan fans who got hurt. )
The next ten years should be just as exciting, especially when a wave of adult authors dives into YA novels, allowing teens to share the joys of deciphering enigmatic references, plotless meanderings, epiphanies by the cart load, and the many other wonders of the finest literary and academic fiction. It's about time. There's no reason all of this joy should be the exclusive property of New Yorker subscribers.
Beyond that, two or three decades hence, we'll see the end of the printed word as ebooks take over the world. Or as global warming raises the ambient temperature above 451 degrees fahrenheit (which, as any science fiction fan knows, is the kindling temperature of banana bread). While the end of the printed word was also predicted by the advent of educational radio, educational television, personal computers, laser disks, computers, and Jim Carrey movies, the prognosticators are bound to be right sooner or later. If not this time, maybe next time.
This piece originally appeared in the Spring 2003 issue of "The ALAN Review"
Copyright © 2002 by David Lubar
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