We turn this Sunday to young adult literature. The birth of this literary genre dovetails with the history of childhood and adolescence. Believe it or not, childhood may not have always been considered a distinct stage of life. Over time, however, our present day idea of childhood solidified under the pressures of industrialization, social reform, educational innovation, and Enlightenment thinking. By the nineteenth century, childhood became recognized as a distinct phase of life deserving of special protections among the upper classes, and gradually filtered down through the other social strata.
The concept of the young adult, or young adulthood as a separate phase of life, took root beginning in the 1920’s. There is still debate as to when the first novels written for young adults appeared. Some trace the first stirrings back to the early twentieth-century, while others claim it was really not until the 1950’s and 1960’s that young adult literature gained appreciation as a separate literary genre.
Young adult literature really began to speak to issues which interested teens in the 1970s and 1980s, in line with the youth activism of the late 1960’s and the 1970’s. Michael Cart, author of an in-depth book which analyzes young adult literature from its origins to the Twilight age, argues that YA books have undergone a significant shift, from offering a romantic portrayal of life to tackling tough issues with gritty realism. While I will leave you to draw your own conclusions about Cart’s theory, if one thing is certain, it is that young adult literature comes in many forms.
Recently, I read two rather different young adult novels, which provide a microcosm of YA diversity . The first is Who I Kissed by Janet Gurtler. A contemporary novel, Who I Kissed deals with pressing issues like death, sex, friendship, and love with considerable finesse. The heroine Samantha inadvertently kisses a boy to death. Settling into a new school, Sam doesn’t realize that Alex has severe peanut allergies, and her kiss sends him into anaphylactic shock.
Who I Kissed offers a tough look at guilt and forgiveness, primarily from the perspective of Sam. Gurtler leaves readers with the surprisingly powerful lesson that rather than letting guilt consume you, instead you should go on living for not one person but two.
At the same time, Gurtler’s book is a timely meditation on daily life with allergies as an adolescent. Even for those who don’t struggle with severe allergies on a daily basis, or who, like me, grapple with strict diets for other conditions like celiac disease, Who I Kissed prompts readers to empathize and consider the situations of others.
Apart from teaching valuable lessons, Gurtler’s book deftly combines easily digestible prose, relatable, human characters, and a realistic, if upbeat plot.
Maria Snyder‘s Poison Study, the first book in her “study” trilogy, takes readers to a fantastical semi-dystopian universe. Once a corrupt monarchy, an almost bloodless revolution has turned Ixia into a military state with unflinching regulations and strict uniforms which boil their wearers down to their position and rank.
Enter Yelena, a young woman awaiting execution for the murder of a general’s son. Per the code, she is offered a choice, hang or become the Commander’s taste tester. Not a fool, Yelena chooses option number two, and apprentices in poisons under the Commander’s right-hand man and spymaster Valek.
While one might be tempted to dismiss Poison Study as escapist in comparison with Gurtler’s Who I Kissed, it also deals with hard-hitting issues, except in a more veiled context.
Trapped in constant fear for her life, either from poisoned food or from the poison Valek uses to keep her in check, Yelena finds herself at the center of a moral conundrum. Is the new government evil, and does it need to be overthrown? Or, is it justified because the monarchy was riddled with corruption? On this point, parallels can be drawn with the Hunger Games books. Fans of Suzanne Collin’s works will enjoy Poison Study–although, I personally find Synder’s book more compelling. Strong, well-rounded characters, and well-researched details make Poison Study a fun read.
Want to know more about the history of YA? Take a look at: