But before we talk about the current landscape of YA, let’s talk about the history of YA.
While there are classic novels that can retrospectively have the YA label applied to them, the first YA book is considered by some scholars to be Maureen Daly’s Seventeenth Summer. The novel, which focused on seventeen-year-old’s Angie Morrow’s budding attraction to Jack Duluth, published in 1942 as the idea of a teenager became to take hold socially.
But the book that most consider to be the first YA book is S.E. Hinton’s 1967 novel The Outsiders, about a group of teenage boys.
“It wasn’t entirely by choice that S. E. Hinton didn’t publish under her full name,” wrote Kelly Jensen on Book Riot in a fantastic piece entitled “A Censored History of Ladies in YA Fiction.” “She was urged by her publisher to use her initials in order to avoid being readily dismissed by male reviewers who would potentially be turned off by her real name, Susan Eloise. It didn’t matter that her book featured male main characters.”
While YA books – books featuring teenage protagonists, aimed for teenage audiences – were published on and off, books like the Nancy Drew series and the Hardy Boys series forced publishers to take advantage of their audience, and the division of literature took off in the 1970s with Judy Blume and dozens of other authors.
It continued to grow in the 1980s, with the Ann Martin’s Babysitter’s Club earning a huge fandom (which still lingers to this day, especially with its resurgence in graphic novel format with books illustrated by Raina Telgemeier) alongside Francesca Lia Block’s Weetzie Bat and Robin McKinley’s The Hero and the Crown, some of the first genre fiction for teens.
Names fans of YA will recognize now – L.J. Smith, Stephen Chbosky, Laurie Halse Anderson and Sarah Dessen – came to popularity in 1990s. The 1990s was also when J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series was first published, a series that started as kidlit and grew into a YA series.
And YA only got bigger from there. The bestselling Princess Diaries series by Meg Cabot was published in 2000 and adapted into a film starring Anne Hathaway; Twilight by Stephenie Meyer was published in 2005, causing a spark of unrivaled grow in the YA genre, with teens and adults alike becoming invested in the story; Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games was published in 2008, sparking even more of an interest in YA and adapted into a film series nearly as popular as the books.
Most of the names that built the YA industry belong to women, though men played their part – there’s no doubting that Chbosky’s The Perks of Being A Wallflower was game-changing – but the most successful books by men, during the formative years of defining young adult as an industry, often focused on female-driven stories, like Garth Nix’s 1995 fantasy Sabriel.
“Tamora Pierce wrote her first series in the eighties and it is still highly influential and beloved today,” wrote the team at YA Flash. “Laurie Halse Anderson’s beautiful and powerful novel Speak was published in 1999. How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff was published in 2004 and won a landslide of awards. Walter Dean Meyers, Carolyn Mackler, Angela Johnson, Madeline L’Engle, Judy Blume, Christopher Pike, Margo Lanagan, Lois Lowry, MT Anderson, Markus Zusak, and many more were already publishing amazing, influential, much-beloved YA books in the early 2000’s and before.”
But the name most often linked to YA now isn’t Stephenie Meyer or Suzanne Collins – two of the largest game-changers – or Laurie Halse Anderson or Sarah Dessen – who helped build YA into what it is today – but John Green, whose first YA novel Looking for Alaska released in 2005.
“This phenomenon of male writers being hailed as the ‘saviours’ of female-dominated genres can also be seen in the recent popularity of young adult author John Green, writer of The Fault in Our Stars. Young Adult fiction has been around since the 1980s, with females writing profusely in that genre for decades,” said Nudrat Kamal in her piece on sexism in literature for the Tribune, noting how many lady YA authors are “rankled” at the idea that it took a man writing YA to make YA a worthy career choice for a writer or a category of literature to consider seriously as a reader.
As Dianna Anderson wrote in her piece “Why criticizing Young Adult Fiction is sexist,” “Before John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars broke records, there was Maureen Johnson, Laurie Halse Anderson, J.K. Rowling, S.E. Hinton, Madeline L’Engle, and Suzanne Collins. Historically, women have populated the genres aimed at teenagers and children precisely because of a sexist publishing industry that deemed women unable to write adult literary fiction.”
“The problem though is that John Green’s name has become a tool of power and force in the YA world. When mainstream writers talk about YA, his name is held with affection and as an ideal to which others should aspire. Forget Stephenie Meyer and her vampires. That’s laughable, and it remains a means of degrading the entire category of fiction. John Green, though — he’s helped save and revive YA fiction from being a crumbling cesspool of . . . whatever a crumbling cesspool of an entire category of fiction can be,” wrote Kelly Jensen in her post “The reductive approach to YA, revisited” on Stacked.
Or, as Justina Ireland has said multiple times, across many platforms: “Women built this castle.”