While many mark the beginning of young adult literature around the time The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton was published in 1967, authors had been penning teen novels for many decades by then. To start our look at retro YA, we’re going to go back about a century and then work our way forward from there.
Frank Merriwell was a Yale man who excelled at … everything. He was a teetotaler and didn’t smoke. His adventures were published as magazine articles from 1896 through 1912, and later as dime novels, comic strips, and collections of comic strips. He was portrayed through radio performance and in film.
Fun-loving Patty Fairfield starred in a series of books by Carolyn Wells that began in the early twentieth century. Here’s an excerpt from Patty at Home (1904):
“It’s like the enchanted carpet, isn’t it, Miss Powers?” she said, as they slid through a thick grove and then out into the sunshine again.
“What is? What carpet?” asked Miss Powers, looking down at the floor of the car.
“Oh, not a real carpet,” said Patty, politely repressing a smile at the elder lady’s ignorance of fairy-lore. “I mean, for us to go scooting along so fast is like the travelers on the magicians’ carpet. Don’t you know, the carpet would move of itself wherever he told it to.”
Motor Maids in Fair Japan by Katherine Stokes was published in 1912 and is part of a series about the Motor Maids and their travel. The book opens when Nancy informs her father that she will be missing spring term at high school because she is planning something, “…far more educational than mere books.”
The Seven Sleuths Club by Carol Norton was a mystery and adventure series for girls.
Sue Barton, created by Helen Dore Bolyston, was one of the many teen nurses starring in their own book series. Unlike Cherry Ames (series by Helen Wells), who also solved mysteries, or Sue Merton (series by Louise Logan), who was both a nurse and a secret agent, Sue Barton is all about caring for others — particularly a cute intern named Bill Barry. In later books in the series, Sue marries the now Dr. Barry, has four children, and returns to work.
Judy Bolton was a red-haired girl detective who first appeared in print in 1932 and ended, thirty-eight books later, in 1967. Some believe this series by Margaret Sutton is better than Judy’s counterpart, Nancy Drew. Nevertheless, Judy is nearly forgotten while Nancy enjoys perpetual fame.
R.G. Emery wrote books about teens playing nearly every sport. In T-Quarterback, he follows a high school football team with diffident coaching but a gung-ho team spirit among the players. After they win against a formidable rival, the star quarterback wields his influence to get some changes in school administration.
YA books reflect the prevailing attitudes of the time. Minorities rarely appeared in early twentieth century books, and when they did, the depiction was of the worst stereotypes. The Rover Boys series by Arthur M. Winfield includes derogatory dialects and racial slurs aimed at “Blacks, Germans, Italians, Chinese and Irishmen.” Winfield is a pseudonym for Edward Stratemeyer, whose syndicate would produce hundreds of books for teens, including the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew.
John Tunis has been called the inventor of the modern sports story. He wrote dozens of books spanning the 1940s through the 1970s on baseball, basketball, and even women’s tennis. His only football book, All American, published in 1942, addressed the issue of segregation on the playing field. Football star Ronald Perry first leaves his preppy, private school because of their anti-Semitic attitudes and plays instead for the local public school. They are successful and invited to the play-offs on the condition that they don’t bring their only black player. Perry is at first the only boy to resist this, but ultimately wins the team over, plus parents and fans.
Dorothy Sterling’s book, Mary Jane, was based on interviews with black children who were attending newly de-segregated public schools. Sterling was dedicated to presenting African American history. Freedom Train: The Story of Harriet Tubman was published in 1954 and is still in print.
Mary Ellis Stebbins intended to go to nursing school in Harlem where she would not feel out of place. But she ends up, reluctantly, attending an upstate New York nursing school, Woodycrest, where she is one of three black girls. Mary decides that it is her “duty to others of our race” to attend Woodycrest. The first book in the series, written by Hope Newell, is A Cap for Mary Ellis.
It’s interesting to see the cover mutations of books published and reprinted over the course of decades. We’ll start with Betty Cavanna’s novel, Going on Sixteen:
Here’s Beverly Cleary’s Jean and Johnny:
And Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War:
Robert Lipsyte’s The Contender:
And finally, I Know What You Did Last Summer by Lois Duncan:
I couldn’t resist adding a few random covers that well represent their times.
— Diane Colson, currently reading Imperfect Spiral by Debbie Levy and listening to The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson and narrated by Tim Kang, Josiah D. Lee, James Kyson Lee, and Adam Johnson.