March 14, 2011

YA Through The Ages: the 1800s

Let's face it: while there may still be "gaps" in YA (see my Find the Gap series), it's come a long way. I thought I'd do a few posts looking at the progression of YA fiction from its roots to the present — how has it changed? What's become better? Has anything gotten worse?

So...let's start at the very beginning. According to Wikipedia (the ultimate source of all knowledge), "young adults" didn't even technically exist until 1802, when Sarah Trimmer defined "young adulthood" as the age bracket of 14 - 21, and distinguished between "books for children" and "books for young persons."

Sarah Trimmer, hard at work defining what a "young person" is.
Still, technically YA was not yet a category of its own, and that age bracket was not being targeted in book marketing, so teens in the 19th century were mostly left to read whatever few books there were that might interest them.

These books seem to fall into 4 general categories.

Category 1: Adventure Stories (aka. Books For Boys)

These include The Swiss Family Robinson, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Treasure Island, Kidnapped, The Count of Monte Cristo, and The Jungle Book.

Coincidentally, every single one of these adventure stories features a boy (or boys) as the main character(s).

Category 2: Moralistic Stories (aka. Books For Girls)

These include Little Women, The Wide, Wide World, The Daisy Chain, The Lamplighter, Heidi, and A World of Girls. That last title just about sums up the intention here: letting girls know what sphere they are supposed to occupy (the domestic one).

Category 3: Fairy Tales and Fantastical Stories

Yep, the 1800s were when the Brothers Grimm were touring around Germany collecting those well-known fairy tales in their original, un-Disney-fied form.

The Germans were clearly forging ahead in the cover art side of things.

And fantasy for children got its start in the 19th century, with Alice in Wonderland from Lewis Carroll and The Princess and the Goblin from George Macdonald. Interestingly the main characters are girls in both of these, having wild adventures...Lewis Carroll and George Macdonald were obviously ahead of their time.

Category 4: Dickens

I have no idea why kids were reading the mammoth tomes of Charles Dickens, but apparently Oliver Twist and Great Expectations were quite popular, so there you have it.

Perhaps they read these during bouts of insomnia.
So apart from gender stereotyping; a dearth of minority characters; an overwhelming amount of orphans, seafaring, and tea parties; some major cover design limitations due to cloth binding; and the fact that there weren't any books being published for teenagers at all...

The 1800s were clearly the heyday of YA fiction.

All kidding aside, most of these have become classics and I personally love Little Women. Given that the 18th century mostly had instructional books for children, this was certainly a step up. Still, I can't help but feel sorry for the poor kids who had such limited selection in terms of reading material!

What are your thoughts or observations?


  1. This is such an interesting idea for a series! I have not read any of those books. I can't imagine being that limited in terms of books to read. I read an average of a book every 2 days so I can't imagine reading all of them and then running out of books to read!

  2. Thanks for this post!!! I might actually do a research paper on young adult/ children's books for my history paper this semester. I'll let you know if I come up with anything else!

  3. How interesting! That's something I never would have thought about, but I absolutely love the idea! And really, I'm 'scared' to start Great Expectations myself! Reading it as a youngster?! *shudder*

  4. I never thought of the classics being YA literature. Very interesting. It seems that time period was full of change. Women's roles in literature began changing during the same time period.

    This was very informational. Thanks!

  5. Interesting post. Informative and yet bookishly fun. Is it odd that I've read more of every category there...except number 2? *-* I agree with you on the limited reading options but at the time it was "cutting edge"...though don't say that too loud in this day and age because yeah....there's new books popping up each week, ESPECIALLY in the YA genre. Yay for variety! It is the spice of life after all....happy reading!

  6. Another excellent post! I love how you're always doing something unique and interesting here. I love pointing out all those classic YA books to adult readers who look down their nose at YA.

  7. You could conceivably include A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett. Although not published in novel form until 1905, it was printed as a serial novella in 1888.

    I've read several of the aforementioned books. I loved Great Expectations (as I do most of Dickens) And, Dumas' (The Count of Monte Cristo) Ah, The Three Musketeers - what an adventure!

    One of the the things I find most interesting when reading books written for children/young adults in the 1800's/early 1900's is that the writers expected their readers to have a firm and wide grasp of vocabulary. I spent many an afternoon reading classics with a dictionary by my side! (A good thing!)

  8. Thanks for all the comments!

    @YA Book Lover: I know, I thought the same thing — I have no idea what it would be like to be that limited in terms of books available. I guess those kids were re-reading a lot!

    @Cialina: Cool! If you come across anything else to add, feel free to let me know :)

    @Ashley: Haha, I know, Great Expectations is so intimidating. The only Dickens I've read all the way through is A Christmas Carol, and I'm not sure that really counts, lol :D

    @flashlight_reader: Thanks! I think that time period was a pretty critical one in terms of changes in literature.

    @GMR: LOL, yeah it's funny to think that it was indeed "cutting edge" back then.

    @Small Review: Haha, I didn't think of it quite that way but it does frustrate me when people imply that YA is inferior somehow, and it's nice to be able to point out that yes, these classics *were* essentially "YA" back then.

    @Julia Karr: Great points, thanks! I didn't know that about A Little Princess, but I'll make a note of it in my post on YA in the early 1900s. Definitely agree with you about the high vocab level required - I think that's definitely different from the majority of YA books published these days.

  9. This is such a wonerful and unique idea for a series! All those photos of old book editions remind me of my local second hand bookshop. The only ones I've read out of the ones you mentioned are Little Women and Heidi, which I love. I plan to read Alice In Wonderland though. I think the craze for girls boarding school stories that took off in the early 1900s with Angela Brazil and Elinor M. Brent Dyer was really the big start of books aimed specifically at teen girls.

  10. When did Secret Garden come out?

    Also, I hated the moral twist to Little Women. It nearly ruined the book.

  11. I think this is a great idea for a series!

    I'm just looking at the list of classics you've got and realized I really haven't read many of them. Maybe I'll try and read one this summer.

  12. @Stephanie: Thanks! Alice in Wonderland is a really quirky, wildly nonsensical adventure :) I'll probably have some of those boarding school stories listed in my next post on the early 1900s!

    @Alison: The Secret Garden was early 1900s, I'll definitely be including that one in my next post :)

    @A Canadian Girl: Thanks! LOL, yeah I haven't read a lot of them either. I'd like to be able to say I've read at least one massive Dickens book...maybe one day I will accomplish that! :D

  13. I plan on reading Little Women this year Of this list, I've only read a few Brothers Grimm stories. It's so weird to think that those stories have been around for so long.

    Neat post!

  14. I find this subject fascinating so I'm going to read and comment on every post...

    I'm a fan of Little Women but I usually avoid 'classics', they just don't agree with me.


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