Adolescent Fiction: What is It?

CatcherInRyeAdolescent fiction is one of many ways to categorize novels. It is a category determined by specific tastes. These six themes seem to speak to adolescence . . .

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What is Adolescent Fiction?

This is a genuine question for me. I’ve asked university professors, and had this answer: “Oh, you know. Teenage novels. Drugs and sex. You’ll find them in the drugstore next to complexion remedies.” I’ve asked book dealers, who take me to a back section of the store and point out novels by Virginia Hamilton, Julia Cunningham, Paul Zindel, S. E. Hinton, Paula Danziger, Robert Cormier, and—after a lot of eyeballing to gauge my mettle—Judy Blume. When I ask professors and book dealers if there is any classic adolescent literature, anything written before 1940, they all scratch their heads in puzzlement. That is where I’d like to begin—with the classics.

I refer to my teaching specialty as children’s literature. I teach the classics of children’s literature (since I have most students for so short a time I can’t, in conscience, do anything else). When I teach my courses, I make two observations: first, children don’t have to appear in children’s literature; second, some children’s literature was not originally intended solely for children (Robinson Crusoe and Pilgrim’s Progress can serve as illustrations). So, I call children’s literature the literary works children also or particularly like.

It seems to me that this is a sensible model to use in defining adolescent fiction. Adolescent fiction does not require the appearance of an adolescent, nor does the work have to have been originally intended for adolescents. Adolescent fiction is composed of the novels that adolescents also or particularly like.

Now, what are those works? For the last couple of years, my friend Amy Wallace and I have been collaborating on a study of what famous people read when they were young. We have been writing to people and also, looking at similar surveys—notably, Evelyn Byrne’s Attacks of Taste, Otto Penzler’s Books I Read When I Was Young, and a survey conducted by the Public Library of Mobile, Alabama. This research indicates one way of answering the question, “What is adolescent fiction?”

See Griswold and Wallace, "What Famous People Read." Parade Magazine (13 March 1983), 21-25.

See Griswold and Wallace, “What Famous People Read.” Parade Magazine (13 March 1983), 21-25.

Two letters in particular mention most of the books that come up most often in responses others have made. The first is from Marianne Moore:

As a teenager, I liked: Howard Pyle’s The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood; Kidnapped and Treasure Island by R. L. Stevenson; Lorna Doone by Blackmore; Grimm’s Fairy Tales; Lang’s Fairy Books (the Red and Yellow in particular); the Brownie books by Palmer Cox; Captains Courageous by Kipling; Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm by Kate Douglas Wiggin; nearly all of G. A. Henty; What Mother Nature Told Her Children; Hawthorne’s Tanglewood Tales; The Pied Piper of Hamelin; Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates; and Dickens’ David Copperfield.

The second letter is from Henry Miller:

The following authors gave me delight during my teens: Jack London, Conan Doyle, Henry Sienkiewicz, Rider Haggard, Rudyard Kipling, Mark Twain, Sir Walter Scott, Ernest Thompson Seton, Edgar Allan Poe, Lew Wallace, Ouida, G. A. Henty, and James Fenimore Cooper.

To this catalog, we would have to add two selections of books that were frequently mentioned by others and that were particular favorites of Tennessee Williams: the Alice books of Lewis Carroll and the Oz books of L. Frank Baum. Allen Tate and Gore Vidal insist upon the inclusion of The Arabian Nights. Vidal also mentions all of the books of E. Nesbit—an author who was a favorite on Madeline L’Engle’s list right next to L. M. Montgomery (of Anne of Green Gables fame) and Oscar Wilde (for his fairy tales). Wind in the Willows is a favorite of both Lloyd Alexander and Julia Cunningham, though Cunningham’s own favorites also include The Secret Garden and James Thurber’s The Thirteen Clocks.

I have, of course, deliberately chosen the responses of writers. To show that these are representative, let me mention the adolescent favorites of another person—Ronald Reagan. During his adolescence, Reagan used to make twice-weekly trips to the public library in Dixon, Illinois. Out of these visits emerged these favorites: stories about Sherlock Holmes and Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, books by Zane Grey and Horatio Alger, The Count of Monte Cristo, and The Last of the Mohicans. Reagan goes on to say: “Then I discovered Edgar Rice Burroughs, not only his Tarzan stories, but his science fiction, John Carter Warlord of Mars and all the other John Carter books.” [See my essay “Ronald Reagan’s Childhood Reading.”]

Burroughs, I would like to note, is an author that many other people mention, and often they feel impelled to add an observation about his importance. Donald Sobol says, “To this day, no superhero has replaced Tarzan.” And Arthur C. Clarke echoes this opinion: “Burroughs’ influence has been enormous—and he is, even now, underrated. A writer who can create the best-known character in the whole of fiction is not to be ignored.”

As complete as this list may seem, there are still two books missing which were among my own adolescent favorites. Like myself, Paula Danziger was drawn to Holden Caulfield and Catcher in the Rye. Paul Zindel mentioned my other favorite—Kon-Tiki —which Zindel describes as the Jaws of its time.

Adolescent fiction is one of many ways to categorize novels. It is a category determined by specific tastes. While I do not feel competent to define that taste with any precision, I cannot hesitate, having assembled this catalog here, to begin to sketch a few themes that seem to link these works. These six themes seem to speak to adolescence:

  1. Time as Moratorium. Adolescence is a breathing space before one has to enter the Real World. Hence the appeal of escapist literature, historical romance, the island.
  2. Worlds of Possibility. Adolescence is the time of the undeclared major, a time of exploration rather than closure. Hence the appeal of science fiction and fantasy, the wilderness and the frontier in both geographical and social forms.
  3. Heightened Narcissism . Passions and emotions are, even biologically, such an undeniably strong part of adolescence that they suggest they are themselves proper subjects for attention and not to be discounted. Hence the appeal of romances, the predominance of first-person narrators.
  4. The Mixed Emotions of Generational Conflict. Complaints against adolescents are a staple of conversation, but along with that hostility comes a secret envy and nostalgic self-recognition. Tom Sawyer and Mowgli are a pain, but Aunt Polly and Bagheera secretly love them for it; Twain and Kipling know their characters must grow up, but they can scarcely conceal the fact that they do not wish it.
  5. Issues of Dominance. Adolescents lack worldly power and are, in some sense, an underclass subordinated to the old; mirroring this in their own peer worlds, adolescents are often concerned with such things as pecking orders and cliques. Hence the appeal of books about royalty (e.g., The Prince and the Pauper), about the aggrieved and bullied and dispossessed (e.g., Dickens).
  6. Criticism of the Established Order. Adolescence is traditionally associated with holding private as opposed to public values, of being romantic or idealistic instead of pragmatic; it is a period of sanctioned rebellion, tipping over outhouses. Hence the appeal of Holden Caulfield’s condemnation of phonies, of pirates and rascals, of outsiders who escape the Real World (that is, the Adult World) forever.

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These remarks were originally delivered at a panel on Adolescent Literature at the Modern Language Association Convention in Los Angeles, December 1982. Then, with Lois Kuznet’s okay, they were then published in Children’s Literature Association Quarterly (Winter 1983): subscription required.  Let me add that a friend has suggested that, given my pursuit of classics, a better title for this article might be “What Was Adolescent Fiction.”


08. April 2015 by Jerry Griswold
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