Did anyone else read this amazing interview with YA writer A.S. King? Well, you should. In it, she talks about the history of YA books, and her teenaged love of Paul Zindel, a YA writer who wrote some amazing books in the late 60s and 70s. His most well-known novel is probably The Pigman. In this interview, King talks a lot about the tendency of the YA genre to forget its own history. A quick snippet to give you the big idea:
Brenna: Ok, I’m going to just frame this up. You and I were talking on Twitter one day about Paul Zindel and his influence on YA and how he seems to be lost in the conversation about young adult literature.
A.S. King: At the moment, yeah. I mean, we have a lot of people like that, and there were people before that. Judy Blume, of course, and so many people even before that who I can’t name right now because it’s a little early in the morning! But Paul Zindel, for me, was my biggest influence.
And, as the best interviews do, this one immediately made me go HUH.
I grew up with a small town library that was drastically underfunded and usually about ten years behind any other library in the world. So in the summer, I read a LOT of YA lit from the 60s and 70s…even though I myself am not from the 60s or 70s. And during the school year, when our slightly-better-funded school library was open, I read a lot of 80s and 90s YA. I have always considered many of these books to be the “classics” of YA lit. And yet, when I read this article, it occurred to me that none of my students have read most of the authors I grew up loving. And isn’t that what makes a book classic? That it’s read by generation after generation after generation?
I’m not sure why those of us who read and write YA allow our history to be forgotten. It doesn’t seem to me that other genres do this. Mystery has its Agatha Christies; fantasy has its Tolkiens. But in YA-land, we so often seem to live in the moment. What lessons are we missing—both the readers and the writers of YA—by letting go of decades of great literature?
You all know by now that I love a good list, so here’s a short list of my "classic" YA authors. This list certainly isn’t comprehensive—there are so many books with names I can’t remember, because they’ve since gone out of print or were probably never in great circulation to begin with. But it’s a list of the authors I remember best—the ones that influenced me at different stages of both my reading and writing life.
Okay, caveat: Paula Danziger hasn't really been forgotten. Just today I was in a store looking at a copy of her middle grade book Amber Brown is Not a Crayon. But I almost never see a teenager reading a Paula Danziger book. And dude. DUDE. During my teen years, Paula was MY Judy Blume. No offense to Judy, of course. She’s awesome, and I definitely still worship at the alter of Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. But Paula Danziger was definitely my go-to author for whatever angst plagued me from ages 13-17. When I was lonely, I read This Place Has No Atmosphere and remembered that loneliness is really relative. When I felt ugly, I read The Cat Ate My Gymsuit and felt instantly supported. To this day I will randomly utter “Hoo ha, six-o-clock” for virtually no reason in very random situations. (Bonus points if you have any idea what book that quote is from.) And this woman’s penchant for puns! I think I owe any and all punning ability I have solely to her.
Plus, Danziger deserves some serious credit just for naming a book Can You Sue Your Parents for Malpractice?
Did anyone else think, when they were 13, that The Day They Came to Arrest the Book was the most insightful thing they’d ever read? This book was my Farenheit 451 before I read Fahrenheit 451. I imagine you can guess the premise of the story from the title, but I’ll throw you a bone and add that The Adventures of the Huckleberry Finn plays heavily in the plot line.
The sad part of adding Hentoff to this list was that when I searched him on Amazon, I couldn’t find any of his other YA titles besides that—and he wrote so many more. A jaunt down Wikipedia reminded me that Jazz Country , Does This School Have Capitol Punishment, and This School is Driving Me Crazy were some of my other faves from him. I remember Hentoff as being one of my first dives into character diversity in literature, as he often set his books in cities with more diverse populations than the small Vermont town I was living in. Sure wish I could still read ‘em.
Robert Newton Peck
If you live in Vermont, Peck actually might still be part of your reading life. Otherwise, I tend to doubt it. A Day No Pigs Would Die is still one of my all-time favorite books, but it’s really the Soup series that I’d like to see in more middle grade libraries today. Great stories, great characters, and usually some great built-in American history lessons. What’s not to like?
John D. Fitzgerald
Was anyone else OBSESSED with The Great Brain books during your middle grade years? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller? These books had everything: a conniving brother, important lessons about loyalty and true intelligence, and a few more built-in history lessons. (I apparently really liked my history lessons when I was a kid.) Fitzgerald is a lesson for all writers in how to build younger morally ambivalent characters in a very authentic way. And his HUMOR. I laughed all the ways through most of his books.
Frances A. Miller
I WORSHIP AT THIS WOMAN’S ALTER EVERY SINGLE DAY. When I struggle with plotlines, I look back at how she constructed hers. When I’m concerned about character development, I re-read passages from her books for inspiration and ideas. All of which makes it quite sad that my favorite series of hers, The Truth Trap series, has been out of print for years. This depressing fact makes me constantly wonder how many amazing books there are that, for some reason, just never got read by enough people
Okay, I don't actually think Robert Cormier is all that forgotten. I mean, we still teach The Chocolate War in the schools I work in—because it’s amazing. But in her interview, A.S. King references the fact that so many people talk these days about how dark YA literature is getting. And really, if ANYONE on the planet is saying that, they don't know how long Robert Cormier's been around. Because really. His books are about as dark as it gets. And anyone who says that YA always has happy endings clearly doesn’t know the history of Robert Cormier’s literature. Also, fun fact: I recently learned that the T.S. Eliot quote “Do I dare disturb the universe?” is a big part of the Delirium series by Lauren Oliver. (Haven’t read it, but I’m getting there soon. I promise.) Well, guess what? That was a central quote of The Chocolate War when Cormier published it…in 1974. I bet Lauren Oliver knows that, so we all should.
What’s your YA history? I’d love to know of other “classics” that I haven’t read yet. Let’s make them true classics and ensure the best YA books are read for generations to come.