Chris is a professor of English and English education at Brigham Young University (BYU) specializing in young adult literature. In addition to his academic work, Crowe is also a young adult literature author. Crowe taught English and coached football and track at McClintock High School in Tempe, Arizona, for ten years. He attended Brigham Young University on a football scholarship from 1972 to 1976 and graduated with a B.A. in English. He earned an M.Ed. and an Ed.D. in English education from Arizona State University in 1986.
Don’t worry, I’m not going to wax nostalgic about the good old days of YA literature, but because I’ve been teaching—and reading and writing–for so very long, I’m going to share some important stuff about the past, stuff that I believe every scholar or teacher of YA literature should know. In the 4th edition of their YA literature textbook, my old friends Ken Donelson and Alleen Nilsen wrote, “professionals ought to know the history of their own fields” (545), and maybe because I am a Boomer with one foot planted smack in the middle of the 20th Century, I agree. In a field that tends to focus much, if not all, of its attention on what’s new and current, we shouldn’t forget the roots of all these new and current books.
About 23 years ago, I wrote an article for English Journal that traced the family tree of the people who had shaped the teaching of YA literature. In a chapter I have in the forthcoming Oxford Handbook to Young Adult Literature, I took a different angle and wrote about the origin and evolution of our field. In this blog post, I’m going to discuss significant books in YA history that are, whether we recognize it or not (and, of course, I think it’s essential that we recognize it) are foundational precursors to some of the best of today’s YA books.
My YA literature course this fall is entirely based on this premise because I don’t want my students to be like the urban children we sometimes hear about, and laugh at, who don’t know that eggs come from chickens or that milk comes from cows. The first item on my course syllabus is a quotation from Michael Crichton’s novel Timeline (1999): “If you don’t know history, then you don’t know anything. You are a leaf that doesn’t know it is part of a tree.” I won’t have time in a single semester with a bunch of undergraduate English majors to cover all of the history of YA literature, but I can make sure that my students know where this semester’s books come from (and, no, it’s not Amazon). By the end of this course, I hope my students know that the contemporary books they read in my class are leaves from a robust noble, old tree.
The tree of literature has very long and deep roots, and it would be impossible and foolhardy to start a YA literature course with Beowulf or Pamela or even Oliver Twist, Little Women, or Seventeenth Summer. My not-so arbitrary starting point for my YA literature course is The Outsiders, a novel I consider to be the main branch of contemporary YA literature. I’ll have my students read that novel as a genre-defining text whose influences can still be found in nearly all YA novels published today. With each book we read after that, students will look for The Outsiders’ fingerprints in the book they’re currently reading.
I started thinking about using this approach in my YA literature class some years ago when dystopian YA stories dominated bookstores and movie theatres. It seemed that many people believed that the dystopian trend started out of nowhere or out of the creative genius of its authors, and I was surprised that anyone rarely suggested that The Giver (1993) might be a precursor to that current YA dystopian literature trend.
After this opening pairing, we’ll continue our reading with Lisa, Bright and Dark (1969), one of the first YA novels to directly address mental illness/neurodivergence, with Francisco Stork’s Marcelo in the Real World (2009), a novel that broadens the issue of neurodivergence while at the same time addressing other contemporary issues.
Long a mainstay of my YA literature course, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry (1977), is the first book in the next pairing, and it sets the stage for The Hate You Give (2017). Both books feature strong families with fathers and uncles who complement each other with plots thickened by the unrighteous challenges fomented by racism and racists.
Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes (1983) and The Serpent King (2016) are the next pair, both books benefiting from the space created by Cormier’s bleak books. Central to these two novels are close friends relying on their friendship and their own courage to face the conflicts imposed upon them, with Crutcher’s creating a model that’s magnified by Zentner’s book.
YA books in verse have a fairly long history, with Mel Glenn’s books setting the stage for full, unified narratives in free verse, and my students will read Make Lemonade (1993), a novel that raised the stakes and the complexity of verse novels; alongside it they’ll read what may be the pinnacle of YA verse novels, The Poet X (2018) to see how wonderfully the field has evolved in 25 years.
English majors tend to be ignorant of narrative nonfiction, so our next reading combo will be Shipwreck at the Bottom of the World (1998) with Steve Sheinkin’s Bomb (2012). Nearly any one of Sheinkin’s books would serve well in this pairing, but the current blockbuster movie Oppenheimer makes Bomb especially relevant this semester. Both books rely on narrative technique to tell amazing stories, but Sheinkin’s book shows how the expectations for research and the inclusion of extra-textual features have changed.
Graphic novels are another genre that’s unfamiliar to most English majors, and while it might make sense to point to Maus as the root of all YA graphic novels, I choose to have my students read American Born Chinese (2006), a book that’s more explicitly YA, as their intro to the genre, and then students are allowed to select a more contemporary YA graphic novel to pair with American Born.
The final required reading is what might be the pinnacle of recent YA fiction, All My Rage (2022). Students will consider that novel with the perspective of all the YA books sthat have come before it—at least all the YA books we’ve read in the semester. After discussing the merits of Tahir’s award-winning novel, we’ll look for traces from the past, for evidence that shows how this fine novel is a leaf from the grand old YAL tree.