The History of YA Literature (Part One)

Young Adult Literature as a Genre

Defining Young Adult Literature as a genre, especially when looking at the history of the book, requires understanding for who the books were written. Stephenson (2011) notes that, “Some materials aimed predominately at young readers, such as 18th century’s novels, target people we’d now consider fully adults, and the 20th century’s creation of the young adult genre expanded the categories of non-adult readers” (p. 180). Further, Stevenson quotes Darton’s work Children’s Books in England in defining children’s (& young adult) literature, “printed works produced ostensibly to give children spontaneous pleasure, and not primarily to teach, nor solely to make them good, nor to keep them profitably quiet” (p.180). Therefore, tracing young adult literature of the past requires looking at books that were not solely meant to teach a lesson and the culture of youth readers.

Medieval Youth Readers, c. 500-1500

Anglo-Saxon young adults differed from today’s youth in that they were often sent away to learn a trade. Many working as servants, farmhands, or in apprenticeships. Meanwhile, continuing education was reserved for the wealthy who typically would study religion, law, and business. Military training was another option for young aristrocrats. Of course, during this period it is likely that books were mostly only available to the wealthy, ministry, or students. Orme (2005) states of youth literature, “Children seldom feature in literature from England before 1400…After that date, however, children’s literature begins to survive on a significant scale in the English language…notably a comic tale in verse called The Friar and the Boy. There is also evidence that adolescent children read adult fiction such as romances, the works of Chaucer, and Ballads of Robin Hood “. (Orme)

Check out The Friar and the Boy below (source: Hazlitt, 1899), or click the link above. It can be assumed the protagonist is around 14-15 years old, since his father is seeking an occupation for the youth. Meanwhile, the tale certainly includes a lesson: be respectful , kind, and giving to your elders. Still, the young man in the story is given some spectacular agency. He is able to exact some pretty twisted and dark revenge on enemies/bullies. Also pictured below is an early 18th century copy of The Canterbury Tales from the Boston Public Library (Rare Books Department). This is piece is printed on sprinkled calfskin. Finally, check out the Ballad of Robin Hood, from The Ballads of Derbyshire. (Source: Jewitt, L., 1896). Notice the woodcut used for the cover of the Ballads of Derbyshire from 1706.


Please see the fourth post in this series “The History of YA Literature” (Part Four)

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