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The History of Young Adult Literature: An Essay By Kristin Otts (Insert Long Pretentious Subtitle Here)

John Newbery
“Young Adult” is a phrase we throw around a lot on this blog. We like young adults in the sense that we like teenagers, and we like “young adult” in the sense that we like the genre which caters to teenagers. That said, the idea of YA as a genre has not been around forever. There was a time when you either a.) wrote for children, or b.) you wrote for adults; and anything in between was likely assigned as mandatory school reading, but it wasn’t given a shiny new title and a Printz award. 

This was a curious thing to me. In the last ten years, YA has become an explosive force in the literary world. While other genres and booksellers have felt the weight of the recession, the YA industry is still booming, with bestsellers and teen movie adaptations coming out of our ears. But when did this all begin? How did we go from having no books for teenagers to having a thriving universe of teen books? 

I’m so glad you asked.

Before there was a genre called “young adult,” there was John Newbery. He was a publisher in England in the 1700s. He produced several adult books, but over time he became interested in selling children’s books - which was, at  that time, a relatively nonexistent market. However, his first book - brightly colored, full of proverbs, songs, and stories - was well-received. Newbery created an entire business based on what children wanted, rather than what their parents wanted for them; and this was a huge part of his success. He is now known as “The Father of Children’s Literature.” 

Fast forward to 1921. Children’s books are sold commercially, and are no longer novelties as they were in Newbery’s day. The Children’s Library Association, founded in 1901, is a force within the American Libraries Association - providing all sorts of awesome library services to kids in the 20th century. And so, being the wonderful organization that they are, the Children’s Library Association (Now the Association of Library Service to Children) instituted the Newbery award as the highest honor given to the best books in children’s publishing. This was the first children’s award in the world. 

Fast forward again to 1957. After more than a decade of discussion and re-organizations, the ALA divided their Association of Young People’s Librarians to include one branch for children’s books and one branch for young adult services. The then-titled Young Adult Services Division spent a good deal of its time trying to define what exactly the YASD would do. It was complicated. That’s all I can tell you. I
One of John Newbery's books

In 1992, the YASD changed its name to the one we now recognize today: The Young Adult Library Services  Association (YALSA).

The first executive secretary for the YALSA, who also managed the children’s division for Association of Young People’s Librarians, was Mildred L. Batchelder. In 1966, her name eventually became the title of the second children’s literature award to ever be instated - the Batchelder Award is “given to the most outstanding children’s book originally published in a language other than English in a country other than the United States.”  The Batchelder Award represents Mildred’s lifelong work to build bridges between books and readers, as well as people of different cultures and beliefs.

Fast forward again to the 1990s. The YALSA is a butt-kicking division of the ALA, raising the standards for YA books all over the literary world. One of the most engaged members is a high school librarian and teacher from Topeka named Michael Printz. He actively pleads with writers to create books for teenagers, as he encourages his own students to become writers who wrote for teenagers. He invites authors to come and speak at high schools and creates programs to foster this practice. He is a mover and a shaker in the realm of YA literature.
Michael L. Printz
Fast forward. The year 2000. Printz died at the age of 59 in 1996; but in the last four years, YALSA has been alight with the passion Michael Printz left them. 2000 is the year the YA community honors a great teacher and visionary with an award - the Michael L. Printz award, the first young adult award in the history of literature. And 2000 is the year the YA market really begins to make a name for itself in the publishing industry. 

Which brings us back to the present: bestsellers like Hunger Games, Twilight, and Divergent earning articles in the Huffington Post and CNN, heated discussions on diversity and LGBQT literature, and more book-to-movie adaptations than I would have thought possible. How do you feel about the journey of YA literature? Are you surprised at how recent this phenomenon is? 

*Note: This article contains rather cursory research. If I have made any mistakes, or if you have more accurate information, please share in the comments! Thanks!
Kristin Briana Otts

Kristin is an aspiring YA author with an abiding love for her dog, ghost hunter tv shows, and rainy days.

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  1. What an interesting post! Thank you for sharing, this was really enlightening. Being a teen myself, I am certainly blest to have so much literature geared toward my age group and am a little shocked it took so long for YA to become an actual category in literature.

  2. Thanks for re-capping all this. Great information to know and makes you feel good being part of YA :)


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