As I’ve hinted before, I’ve been taking a grad school class all about young adult literature this summer. Which means I am reading 3-4 books a week (in addition to textbooks and articles and…) It’s enlightening to go back and read books that I’ve missed and re-read favorites. I’ve divided them into categories and will be doing short reading recap style reviews. First up: classics, or notable vintage YA, as I have decided to call it.
The category of young adult literature has definitely evolved over time, but contemporary authors owe a debt to these landmark books.
This classic of YA literature was first published in 1975. While I’m glad I spent a couple hours this afternoon reading my first Judy Blume YA (I really loved Summer Sisters when I read it years ago) I think it feels really dated (even though I’m guessing this SimonPulse edition had some light editing from the original). I had a lot of problems with the novel both in terms of plot and writing choices.
My main complaint is that it’s only about Kath’s relationship with Michael. Nothing else — her relationship with her family, friends, her goals, her ambitions, are all secondary. I think current contemporary YA does a better job at looking at a wider picture of what it means to be a teenager.
While I realize it was revolutionary for the time, the novel felt very didactic about sex. Sex-positive, in a way, since Kath’s pleasure is a consideration and she wants to be confident in her decisions, but still presenting a very “how-to” approach to sex and relationships. I like that the sex scenes themselves are so frank, but I’m not sure that it’s good literature.
Also, how white upper middle class is it?! There isn’t even an idea about a world beyond their suburban existence where everyone is a doctor or a lawyer. Young adult novels have definitely come a long way—at least now we’re having conversations about race and class even if there’s still not enough YA that depicts different types of people living different types of lives.
Additionally, I really felt that the way body image was portrayed was highly problematic. First of all, Kath says her and her mom are the same size — 5’6” 109 pounds — which is actually underweight for even a small frame. She talks about how her mom can eat tons of ice cream and never gain weight, yet is worried about flabby thighs (even though she is 40 and her husband buys her a bikini for her birthday). Also, Her friend’s cousin is “fat” and acts out by having sex with lots of guys (she doesn’t know who the father of her child is) yet proclaims at the end she is going to lose 50 pounds and go to Smith. As if you can’t be fat and go to Smith, or be fat and have a healthy sexual appetite. I appreciate why this book is considered a touchstone in young adult literature, but beyond it’s frank depiction of sex, it doesn’t have much to offer, in my opinion.
The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton
Though I’d seen the movie before and was familiar with the novel (my partner Mister BS is a HS English teacher and has taught it for several years) I had never read The Outsiders. Again, this was not a book I personally enjoyed reading, but I understand the appeal. I found the writing to be rather sophomoric, with unnecessary description that didn’t seem authentic to a young man’s perspective. The plot also relied heavily on coincidences and improbable events. The use of multiple deus ex machina devices and obvious foreshadowing detract from its literary merits. But despite the book’s failing, it’s obvious why it’s so popular, even to this day. The book doesn’t shy away from depicting the brutal lives that some teenagers experience. I do wonder how the book would have read had another boy from the gang been the narrator, rather than sensitive and well-read Ponyboy (I know I probably would have enjoyed the novel more had it been written from another character’s point-of-view).
I’ve had the plot of this book explained to me several times, and I was always perplexed by its appeal. Now, I see that its plot is just vehicle for a message about the power of peer pressure and how difficult it is to overcome. But instead of turning the main character into a hero for going against the crowd, it revels in the futility of resisting the influence of others. I wished I had read this book as a teenager, because I would have appreciated the bleak ending much more had I experienced it at that age.
When I went to select a book from this list, I was surprised that Lawrence Public Library didn’t own any of the titles. So, I went through the list and chose the book that I thought would have the most appeal and the highest chance of checking out beyond my need for this class and purchased Blood and Chocolate, which was first published in 1997. Paranormal stories, despite being out of fashion in the publishing market, still enjoy popularity with teenage readers in my library. I’ve read a lot of very addictive paranormal YA of dubious literary quality and have no shame about it, but I don’t think that Blood and Chocolate quite measures up against titles like Vampire Academy or Twilight. This novel lacked the distinctive and compelling voice that Rose brings to Vampire Academy, and the supporting characters in Twilight are much more interesting and developed. All the vampires of the Cullen clan have their own backstories and personalities, and the werewolves in the pack in Blood and Chocolate are utterly forgettable. What struck me as odd was the third person perspective, especially with the regular intrusion of the main character’s thoughts in italics. The story would have been better served by first person perspective, in my opinion.
I also thought the world-building to be rather lacking. The Ordeal and The Law and other aspects of werewolf culture were not clearly defined or developed. Perhaps my biggest issue with the novel was how misogynistic it was. While I don’t think an author necessarily advocates or supports the world she creates when writing or approves of the decisions her characters make, the ways of the pack and the ending of the novel were difficult for me as a reader to swallow. I was also put off by awkward metaphors and descriptions that felt out of place, like they were trying to elevate the literary quality of the book, but mostly falling flat. Additionally, the characters were mostly one-dimensional.
I’m not a fan of werewolf novels in general, and as much as I love Maggie Stiefvater, I’ve not even been able to finish the Wolves of Mercy Falls trilogy, although the language and world-building of it are far superior to this book. Ultimately, this was a readable book, but not a stand out in the genre. I can recognize how influential it may have been at the time as the first paranormal romance between a teen and a “creature”, but I’d only recommend it to those interested in the history of the genre or die hard fans of werewolves.
There are several other books from the reading list that I didn’t get a chance to read (we were assigned to pick one from various categories each week) to round out my knowledge of classic and vintage YA. Here’s what I’ve got on my radar:
- The Pigman by Paul Zindell
- I’ll Get There, It Better Be Worth the Trip by John Donovan
- A Hero Ain’t Nothing But a Sandwich by Alice Childress
- When She Was Good by Norma Fox Mazer
- The Buffalo Tree by Adam Rapp
Have you read any of these books? What do you consider notable vintage or classic YA?