The distinction between young adult novels and adult novels with a teen main character (MC) is simple: is it now, or is it then? Adult books with teen MC are usually retrospective narrators—someone telling the story of their teen years; a clear-cut example is The Hotel New Hampshire by John Irving (definitely not for kids, but the narrator is a teen for the majority of the book).
But when did YA become YA? The definition might be: when young adults started telling the story as it happened to them—or, without any clear future. Although many argue that it was 1967’s The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton that marks the change, I find that a few other, earlier books, had a strong impact on the young adult fiction we read today.
- Anne of the Island by L.M. Montgomery often gets lumped in with all the Anne books, but this one in particular achieves a certain YA-ness through voice and action that is highly resonant of what the best young adult writers are writing today. (Love triangle, much?) It’s possible this book was the influence for the more famous Twilight vampire-wolf-human love triangle.
- The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank (1947). The diary format is one that is still highly effective in young adult novels today, and it’s done no better than in Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl. Beyond the immeasurable historic importance of the novel to the world, the longing and heartbreak of one teen set the stage for books like Thirteen Reasons Why to use similar beyond-the-grave voices.
- Romeo and Juliet by that Shakespeare guy. So, this is a complete cheat because this is a play and not a novel at all. But I feel safe in arguing that there’s a lot of teen angst in this play. I mean, a lot. And who hasn’t been fifteen and felt like they would die if someone didn’t love them back, or if you were not allowed to go to a dance or to Rocky Horror with a certain someone? No one, I tell you. No one. This play echoes in the halls of YA today. Echoes. Like the slamming of lockers.
- The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger (1951) wasn’t meant for teens—but it’s one of the first books with a teen main character who speaks directly to the audience in the way many of today’s book do. The voice of Holden is one of the most distinct in fiction, and the impact of his coming of age makes this a story one to return to over and over.
- Little Women by Louisa May Alcott may not have been meant for teens, but the impact of this book on young adult authors is immense. The book’s sister relationships set the stage both for new novels to reimagine those deep friendships (like Beth and Amy by Virginia Kantra) as well as to revise the love stories, as Margaret Stohl and Melissa de la Cruz do in Jo & Laurie. The original is still worth returning to for inspiration.
Make sure to also check out my latest book spotlight post on the newly released YA book – Wider than the Sky.
I love reading and have been doing it forever. I created this site so that you can get ideas on what to read. You can also share your thoughts and ideas on any books. I would love to hear from you and see what books you love.