YA Science Fiction & Fantasy – Part Two: From Humble Origins to Lofty Heights
When addressing the origins of YA literature (we’re not talking SFF specific here for now, but bear with me) it all depends from which angle you decide to approach. I think the fact that often what classifies as “young adult” all depends on marketing and how a publisher and audience decide to view a book: it’s not a set-in-stone label that can be applied. YA fiction is a slippery thing that likes to melt into adjacent genres and sit cosily on the same shelves as both adult SFF and even general fiction books.
There is something to be said for the fact that at the very roots of its evolution, much of YA fiction did feature what we now consider elements of fantasy, or in the very least, adventure. (I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest, for these purposes, that anything outside of a normal way of life can be called “fantasy”—this eliminates the magic and the alternative, imaginary worlds, but how is a story about treasure and shipwrecks in the 1900s different from a fantasy story such as Red Seas Under Red Skies? Yes, there are no mages or elements of a long-retired race that came before, but that’s not the point. To young adults (and even adults) in the 1900s, these sorts of stories were fantastical.) Adventure is a part of fantasy—it always has been.
Some hold that YA literature first became apparent in the 1920s, yet many YA novels had been published long before that. Sarah Trimmer (1741—1810), educational reformer and writer and critic of 18th Century children’s literature, was an early writer to argue the need for such a genre to exist. In 1802 she suggested “young adulthood” spanned ages 14-21. The terms she introduced for referring to YA literature are still in use today, so clearly well before the 20s, writers knew there was a niche to be filled.
At the very beginning, once we move past “short stories” such as written faerie tales and folklore passed down orally (the latter which, although was told to children, is not strictly counted as either children’s or YA, due to its more culturally important nature), we see books such as The Swiss Family Robinson (1812), Waverley (1814), Oliver Twist (1838), The Count of Monte Cristo (1844), Tom Brown’s Schooldays (1857), Great Expectations (1860), Alice in Wonderland (1865), The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), Kidnapped (1886), The Jungle Book (1894), and Moonfleet (1898). Many of these involve either fantastical elements (Alice in Wonderland) or the suggestion of adventure and exotic (fantastical?) settings.
As we move into the 20th century we see the theme of adventure continuing through into Treasure Island (Robert Louis Stevenson) and later, fantasy elements that were present only in medieval romances up to this point are weaved hand in hand with the theme of adventure in Tolkien’s The Hobbit (1938).
Subsequent novels that might have interested young adults include Heidi (Johanna Spyri) and Black Beauty (Anna Sewell, 1877) which are both books that focus on the lives of the characters and do not include particular bouts of adventure. Whilst Heidi was written ‘for children and those who love children’, Black Beauty was not specifically intended for young adults, but rather as a text to primarily promote horse welfare, but also as a story to teach kindness and love.
A great many YA novels try and teach such things now and perhaps books like Heidi and Black Beauty were the first that young adults read and realised that literature teaches. Interestingly enough, in 1919 the first YA literature librarian was appointed and within the next 25 years, bringing us to the 1940s, milestones such as the introduction of the first separate YA reading room (1926, Cleveland Public Library), the creation of a post working with teens at a Baltimore library (Margaret Edwards, 1933) and the first book about YA literature being published (The Public Library and the Adolescent by E. Leyland, 1937) were passed. Furthermore, 1937 saw the first documented use of the term YA for teen books.
Things were going slow, but going well.
Along this timeline we continue into the 50s and 60s where a great many of the books aimed at the adolescent market detailed how cruel and evil teenagers could be (Lord of the Flies, 1954 William Golding). It is perhaps an indication of the social landscape at the time that these books featured such a lack of misadventure and the destruction of social order and the loss of innocence. Adventure is no longer something that can be enjoyed in a carefree fashion and the fantasy of being stuck on an island and fending for oneself has become dull and unattractive. Ironically, in adult fiction, this is where fantasy and science fiction was beginning to truly find its voice.
It is interesting to note that young adults of the time perhaps only read the books that now fall into the categories from a historical point of view, because they were the only books of interest available. Publishing still wasn’t the broad church it is today and when it came to variety or genre, choice was somewhat lacking. It wasn’t until the 1970s that YA paperbacks were created and the 1980s saw the cementing of YA as a genre with its own rising authors.
Likely an expression of the times, it’s perhaps not surprising that YA books are fairly recently getting the attention, press and publishing power they deserve. Generally speaking adults write books. No—that’s not strictly true. Young adults and teens write books. But only adults get books published—or at least this was true ten, twenty years ago and because of this, many of the true issues that would have interested teens, were smothered by the need for overprotective teen literature in case reading about bad things would turn their teenagers bad.
In the 80s and 90s teen books exploded (again, because teens started getting more demanding and in tune with what they wanted, maybe?) and though there wasn’t much depth to be found in the SFF branch of things, it could be said that with books such as Why Did She Have to Die? (Lurlene McDaniel, 1986) (who wrote fairly exclusively about sick and dying teens) the seed of “sad-lit” and to an extent, “sick-lit” were sown. Alternatively, horror novels by writers such as R.L. Stein were as easily available as boiled sweeties and were eaten up just as quickly. Lesser known, but often far better, were novels published under the Point Horror imprint. Point published other genres, but the horror and romance genres come first to mind. Certain horror novels under the imprint veered towards the introduction of urban fantasy, featuring supernatural elements. But mainly, the 80s and 90s were all about the dark subject matter of terminal illness, death and loss.
Then we got Rowling.
A lot of people (naively, maybe) try to suggest that there is another way to track the history of YA fiction: pre- and post-Rowling.
It is true that Harry Potter gave a lot to the world (I know it shaped me) but to say that Rowling herded in some kind of revolution is discounting all the books that came before, and simultaneously. The main thing that Rowling did was bring fantasy back to the forefront, giving a more fantastical edge to the YA genre. Then we move into romance and vampires and see a return of the suggestion of “sick-lit” again, whilst the YA tree really begins to branch of into separate directions of genre, holding its own and staying true to individual genre sensibilities.
YA literature is always source of concern to some adults—and that’s how you know it’s being done right. Presently, as we stand tall in the 2000s and the 2010s, YA literature can be a dark and exciting genre that constantly questions and delves.
This isn’t always appreciated and adults tend to complain. Very silly—but it still happens. Even now that YA literature is a solid genre that has so much to offer, we get a regular murmur from “concerned parents” implying that YA literature is too dark and damaging for innocent teen sensibilities At the mention of a parent being unable to buy books for her daughter, I want to say, “let her buy her own damn books”. At least that way she’ll explore her own imagination and not have it stifled. And hey, if she’s going through a rough time, there’s stuff out there to help with.
Though it’s two years old now, the “YAsaves” hashtag that erupted on Twitter in response to the article still makes me grin goofily, since it demonstrated the power of self-aware and educated teens and young adults. If we look back to the teen mind-set of the 60s and 70s, it’s no wonder that the kind of literature available reflected more how adults saw the world, rather than how younger adults did. Now, with teens and young adults more unafraid to express themselves, the type of literature called for has had to change and develop.
It is how we end up with Pantomime and Playing Tyler, the latter which I am a mere quarter through the ARC and have been astounded at just how deep it is, at just how easily it makes you feel. Both titles are Strange Chemistry.
I mentioned before that Strange Chemistry, although a new imprint, are heralding in a true revolution in YA fiction—specifically YA SFF, which, before now, has been a minefield of trying to find something that fits. Yes, YA SFF existed before Strange Chemistry, but not in the same way. They are the next stage, the next step in the history of YA literature, through the branch of SFF.
They are a broad church of fantasy and mystery and horror and steampunk and teen difficulties. There are many elements of LBGT in their titles, sometimes subtle and sometimes not. Pantomime is not subtle. But it is precisely what everyone should be reading.
LGBT is another mark on the timeline of YA fiction. It’s never been so important, both within SFF and without. In general, the notion of LGBT in YA fiction spreads beyond the inclusion of lesbian lovers in a story about pirates and manticores and the struggling identities of Micah and Gene at a vibrant, dark circus: in parallel outside the SFF genre, books such as Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan and Freakboy by Kristin Elizabeth Clark are demonstrating that current teen sensibilities are swinging towards honesty, gender equality and the open exploration of sexuality.
Which is exactly where we should be: exploring things that people don’t want to talk about. That’s what YA literature does. And it’s what fantasy and science fiction does best. Look out for upcoming titles that fit the bill: Proxy, Alex London (June 2013), Playing Tyler, T. L. Costa (July 2012), The Weight of Souls, Bryony Pearce (August 2013) and even though it’s a way away yet, (it’s too important to forget) the sequel to Laura Lam’s exquisite and informative Pantomime, Shadowplay (Jan 2014).
Were most of those Strange Chemistry? Why, yes, they were.
As demonstrated, YA literature has endured both a vast expanse of nothingness, a barren road ahead and half-full bookshelves, which then stretched out towards a future where teens were taken seriously and viewed as different from adults, but also different from children, too. Eventually, after a steep climb upwards, through a wilderness and the testing of humanity, we reached the summit, where, after trekking for a time through limited but excellent choice, we finally saw the other side of the mountain. Now we’re standing, looking outwards; and damn, the view looks good.
Next time we’ll take a look at just what makes a YA book a YA book and if the themes and archetypes found in SFF YA differ from what we’ll hereafter call “literary YA”.
 Owen, Mary, “Developing a Love of Reading”