by Jakob Ryce / 24rd October, 2017
Young Adult literature has become synonymous with young heroes or heroins. Stories of young people forced into a quest to overcome the odds or face tyrannical forces, often to achieve some form of liberation from the confines of their society or environment. The origins of the genre are still debatable. Novels written for young people could arguably date back to the 1800s – when Sarah Trimmer defined ‘young adulthood’ as between the ages of 14 – 21 (Wikipedia, 2017). Books, such as ‘Oliver Twist’ (1838) or ‘Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’ (1884) all had the hallmarks of books written for young people, yet were really about young people. According to Michael Cart ‘ … a case could be made that the first young adult novel was actually Maureen Daly’s Seventeenth Summer, published in 1942 …’ Cart goes on to explain that this was an era when America began recognising adolescents as a separate generation (Cart, Michael 2001, p. 95). J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye is often said to be the first true Young Adult classic, and perhaps was partially responsible for the genre gaining momentum in the 1950s.
Nevertheless, it was in the 1960s when the Young Adult Library Services Association decided to market novels of the era (considered suitable for ages between 12-18) and the Young Adult genre found its solidity (Strickland, Ashley 2015). In the The Outsiders, S. E Hinton gives readers a peek into the hardened life of a social outcast. It connected to young people in a direct, authentic way: with its adolescent tones and gritty themes. Moreover, many readers were unaware that Susan Eloise Hinton wrote the book during high school, or that she was even a woman. Caren J. Town states ‘ … the novel retains the capacity to speak to young adults about masculinity, identity, and the economic forces that drive our society.’ Town describes the book as a ‘landmark event’ that captured audiences with its poignancy, rogue characters and desolation (Town, Caren J. 2015, p. 15). Over the next decade YA novels branched out to become more direct: tackling mature themes of love, betrayal, alienation and desolation. If we consider the natural evolution of society and culture since the early twentieth century, including environmental shifts, then the metamorphosis of archetypes within literature is simply a part of that change. Therefore, each young generation (of the time) can look to Young Adult literature as a mirror of their own lives, and thus, help establish a sense of identity within society.
Quite often Young Adult fiction will depict a character’s journey from deprivation, or hegemonic oppression, to resolution. The result can be either overly dystopian or naturalistic – conveying a series of complex emotions or modes. Independence and maternal instincts play a large role in The Hunger Games, by Susanne Collins. Katniss Everdeen has been thrust into adulthood by her environment – having to fend for her broken mother and little sister Prim. The roles have been reversed here, and perhaps for the best. ‘It is the women’s daughters, in fact, who are perceived to be more successful at retaining female agency in the face of social oppression …’ (Curry, Alice 2013, p. 96). We can see this reflected in real-life circumstances – the teenage child forced to become the patriarchal nurse, or the child-become-mother scenario: providing for their young siblings within divorces. Nonetheless, Katniss’ resentment at her mother’s depression is also indicative of her anger towards her own seceded and resigned District – a disembodied social hierarchy imposed by the Capitol (Curry, Alice 2013, p. 96). ‘All I can see is the woman who sat by, blank and unreadable, while her children turned to skin and bones’ (Collins, Susanne 2008, p. 16).