Author: Sara Zaske
Young adult books have come of age. They’re everywhere. Young adult, or “YA”, is now one of the fastest growing genres in publishing, and both kids and adults are reading—and writing—YA by the thousands.
This is absolutely fabulous! And I’m not just saying that because I write young adult fiction. The YA explosion means more kids are reading, and more adults are reminded of that all-important time in their lives, when their eyes were first opened to the “real” world—and not necessarily liking what they saw.
Teenagers are some of the best critics of society for the simple fact that they are new to it. There’s a reason why so many young adult books are dystopian. And it’s hard to find one YA fantasy that doesn’t have some heinous evil character to battle. Fight the power, indeed.
Magic themes aside, YA didn’t just pop into existence. Serious books with a young protagonist have a long history. Yes, there were YA books before Twilight, The Hunger Games, and Harry Potter.
Here are few of the most influential from the last century:
1. The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger (1951) gave us one of the first modern, disaffected teens, Holden Caulfield. Holden takes a few confused days to run around in a seedy adult world only to realize his real dream is to catch the other kids before they fall into the trap of adulthood.
2. The Lord of the Rings trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien (1954) Frodo and his quest to destroy the ring of power resonates with people of all ages, but it has entranced generations of young adults—many have read the entire trilogy multiple times. LOTR’s influence is so pervasive in YA that you’d be hard pressed to find a fantasy that doesn’t reference its mythology in some way.
3. The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis (1956) sent four children tumbling through the back of a wardrobe into the another world, where they helped a lion battle for power against the evil White Witch. The Chronicles have inspired many YA writers. Philip Pullman’s heroic cold world in His Dark Materials is almost the opposite of Narnia.
4. To Kill A Mockingbird, by Harper Lee (1960) showed that no topic is off limits for a young audience. Young Scout narrates the story about the trial of a black man accused of raping a white woman, giving a child’s wide-eyed view of racism and justice in America.
5. The Earthsea Cycle, by Ursula LeGuin (1968) begins with a mistake. A wizard-in-training releases an evil shadow into the world, setting him on a lifelong quest to make it right. Earthsea is a classic and his premise influenced many later books, including Harry Potter.
6. The Princess Bride by William Goldman (1973) has made it almost impossible to tell a fairy tale with a straight face. It makes fun of all the fairy tale clichés—sword fights, monsters, daring rescues, and the triumph of true love—even as it uses these same elements to weave an enchanting story.
7. Carrie by Steven King (1974) will scare the bully out of any teenager. Sure, Carrie is strange and has a crazy mom, but she also has telekinetic powers which she uses to take revenge on her tormentors. Maybe, King isn’t known as a YA writer, but many of his stories feature young characters, and you can’t ignore his influence on today’s teen horror books.
8. Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card (1985) shows a dark futuristic world where politicians use kids for warfare. The book follows the battle education of Andrew “Ender” Wiggins who is particularly gifted at war games. Sound familiar Hunger Games fans?
9. The Giver, by Lois Lowry (1993), one of the earlier YA dystopian novels, tells the story of young Jonas as he discovers that the peace of his very ordered world is based on a secret evil. Veronica Roth’s Divergent and Lauren Oliver’s Delerium owe a huge debt to this novel.
10. Harry Potter , by J.K. Rowling (1997) just comes under the 20th century mark, but from the first book, this fanciful story of a young wizard battling a fearsome sorcerer so evil he cannot be named, has had an astounding impact, riveting readers of all ages and starting a revolution in YA lit.
Sara Zaske is a young adult author and blog host of the YA Fantastic Book Review. Her debut novel, The First, a YA eco-thriller fantasy, was released in April.