At World Fantasy Con last weekend I attended a couple of excellent panels on Young Adult / teen fiction. I was surprised how many panellists asserted that YA was a pretty brand-new category. Specifically, the panellists said that as they grew up there was no YA fiction for them to read, and that they all felt the lack of it.
The panellists were covering a decent span of ages, and I think some were my age or younger. I turned teen at the close of the eighties and I remembered a lot of teen fiction. I sat in the audience scribbling down authors and titles, and also remembered a few teen-specific publisher imprints, and a dedicated area of my small-town library. I’m not arguing that the panellists had access to all this, as well – I may have been very fortunate – but I suggest that YA definitely existed as a category 25 years ago.
So now I’m home, I’ve raided my shelves for the books that I’ve owned since the eighties, or repurchased since, to remind myself what was available.
Types of teen novel included:
Slice-of-life stuff, from the gritty to the humorous. Shown are SA Kennedy’s Hey, Didi Darling (US teen girls cross-dress to form a boyband), Berlie Doherty’s Dear Nobody (teen pregnancy) Norma Klein’s No More Saturday Nights (teen fatherhood), Deborah Hautzig’s Hey, Dollface (‘Don’t worry, you’re probably not a lesbian’), and Janni Howker’s The Nature of the Beast (it’s grim up north and the sheep are being mutilated).
Science fiction and fantasy. Monica Hughes Isis books (teen girl on a previously uninhabited world), Louise Lawrence’s Moonwind (a haunting little jaunt to the moon with a romantic Welsh hero), Meredith Ann Pierce’s Darkangel series (I hope these are teen rather than kids’, as they’re kind of all about erotic obsession), and Alan Garner’s The Owl Service. Tim Kennemore’s The Fortunate Few is a personal favourite, partly because it characterises the genre-bending I associate with YA. It’s set in a slightly-alternative world where gymnastics is as popular as football is in ours. The main characters are girls in their early teens, being starved, drilled, drugged and economically exploited for their abilities. (I had no idea, on first reading it at the age of ten, that it was speculative fiction – I assumed it was chilling realism.)
Exemplifying this weird boundary-crossing was Jan Mark, one of my favourite authors, who wrote fiction that was poised between or floating above categorisation. Re-reading The Ennead recently, I find it’s about illegitimacy and being Jewish in space (aged ten? straight over my head).
And the recent run of distopian and apocalyptic books had precursors. The Cold War loomed a fair bit. I only still own Robert Swindell’s Brother in the Land (post-nuclear) but Lions Tracks published Z for Zachariah (a bit further post-nuclear), and Methuen had Jean Ure’s Plague 99 series (plague, and then post-plague gender politics).
Genres not shown: Thrillers (Louise Duncan, including Killing Mr Griffin and I Know What You Did Last Summer – first published in 1973; Robert Cormier), and romance (there were whole teen romance imprints, as well as standalone novels).
Absent friends: all my Margaret Mahy novels have modern covers, but I particularly loved her supernatural-intrusion fiction (The Changeover, The Tricksters).
Imprints represented in those photographs include Puffin Plus, Pan Horizons, Lions Tracks. Common cover styles included ‘ripped edge’ effects and neon geometric blocks.
I think one significant difference about today’s wave of YA may be bookshop placement – shops moving the YA section away from the top end of the kid’s section. But texts, imprints and library space were all there in the eighties.
And now I’m washed away by nostalgia for the teen section of my local library. A few shelves of books, and a couple of magazine subscriptions to lure in teen readers using the Just17 problem pages (the kind of smart cross-media branding that the first UK YA Con is showing by launching at London Film and Comic Con 2014). The shelves ran at an acute angle to the wall, forming a nook with a square-cushioned chair where I read books I judged too racy to check out and take home. Many excellent discoveries, and a few missed connections; I didn’t read Dance on My Grave by Aiden Chambers, a funny queer coming-of-age story which might have been useful to me, because I assumed it was a horror story. So many happy afternoons learning how to apply three shades of eyeshadow in the event of global thermonuclear war.
So, YA fiction – it may be having a bubbly moment, but it’s been around for a while. I have no statistics, only subjective memories and a lot of bedraggled Puffins.