April 3, 2011

YA Through The Ages: the '60s

The 1960s were really when YA literature started to take off. We've seen how limited (okay, nonexistent) it was in the 1800s and how that gradually started to change through the early 1900s and particularly the 1950s. But the 1960s can be seen as the beginning of a significant number of books being written and published FOR teens. There was definitely some branching out in terms of variety of genres and topics covered (and they were getting pretty experimental with the covers, as you will see), but some clear trends still emerged.

A lot of the books fell into one of four categories:

1.) Books featuring African-American characters, often with themes involving prejudice/racism

The most famous example here is To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1960), which garnered a fantastic reception and won the Pulitzer Prize. I think it was originally intended for an adult audience, but was adopted into high school curriculum because of the strong appeal for younger readers (I read it for school, although I had a really bad English teacher that year, which unfortunately kind of ruined the book for me).

Others that fall into this category include: Jazz Country by Nat Hentoff (1965), The Contender by Robert Lipsyte (1967), To Be A Slave by Julius Lester (1968; was a Newbery Honor book in 1969), The Soul Brothers and Sister Lou by Kristin Hunter (1968), and Sounder by William Armstrong (1969; won the Newbery Medal in 1970).

Given the context – the African-American Civil Rights Movement that was going on in the 1960s – this trend makes a lot of sense. In 1969 the Coretta Scott King Award was created (named after Martin Luther King, Jr.'s wife), which was given for "books about the African American experience, that are written for a youth audience (high school or below)."

In terms of covers, they seemed to tend towards either simple, silhouette images with contrasting reddish, black and white hues...

...or smudgy sketches toned in a dismal combination of grey and washed-out green. I definitely prefer the first choice.

2.) Fantasy, mostly of the epic/traditional bent

We saw this area gain some ground in the earlier 1900s, with J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis and T.H. White. But that was nothing compared to the 1960s, where a bunch of authors took their example and ran with it. Books published in the 1960s that are now known as YA fantasy classics were: A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle (1961; 1963 Newbery Medal winner), The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander (one of these was a 1966 Newbery Honor book, and another won the 1969 Newbery Medal), Over Sea, Under Stone by Susan Cooper (1965), and A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin (1968).

The cover trend here seems to be shades of blue and green. I'm actually sort of liking the plain but symbolic sci-fi design of the A Wrinkle in Time cover.

Of the books mentioned here the ones I really, really adore are the books by Lloyd Alexander. I absolutely love the journey we are taken on with Taran from impetuous Assistant Pig-keeper to thoughtful leader. The characters are all so distinctive and full of life, personality, and humor that you can't help but fall in love with all of them. (Well, maybe not Arawn the Death-lord. But that's kind of the point.)

Admittedly, their first edition covers leave something to be desired. Okay, a lot to be desired.

I realized when I saw these covers that I actually *had* a first edition copy of The Black Cauldron at one point! It was a library discard, falling apart down the middle, and I have no idea what happened to it. I thought the cover was totally ugly so once I got a book of the entire Prydain Chronicles, I have the feeling that this one got given away to charity or something...

3.) Wilderness survival stories

These included Scott O'Dell's Island of the Blue Dolphins (1960) and The Black Pearl (1967; Newbery Honor book), as well as The Cay by Theodore Taylor (1969), The Loner by Ester Wier (1963; 1964 Newbery Honor book), and The Curse of the Viking Grave by Farley Mowat (1966; sequel to Lost in the Barrens, 1956).

I think this is where the "close-up of a face" trend began in YA cover design.

But there were a couple covers that bucked the norm. Case in point:
Why have a close-up of a face when you can have a close-up of a GIANT STINGRAY?
Not to mention what mustard yellow parkas will do for your cover...
Of all these I think my favourite is The Loner cover, because I like that they were trying to make the font a bit funkier, and also because I love the wraparound effect onto the back:

Covers aside, this type of story never seems to get old; we saw them way back in the 1800s in the form of Swiss Family Robinson and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. However, I think these 1960s ones were perhaps a little less about the "adventure" part of it and a bit more about the struggle to survive in the face of nature's dangers. I know Island of the Blue Dolphins is popular but I wasn't a big fan. However, I remember reading The Cay in Grade 6 or 7 and really enjoying it.

4.) Realistic fiction, many of which were "problem novels"

The book that arguably made the biggest splash in YA literature in the 1960s was The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton (1967). Written for teens, about teens, and BY a teen (she was 18 when it was published!) made it exceptionally different from everything else. Also, it contained content that led it to be banned in some places: gang violence, minors smoking/drinking, mature language, and...wait for it...FAMILY DYSFUNCTION. Shocking!

I have a confession: I don't think I've ever read The Outsiders, at least not cover to cover. I know it's often required for school, but for some reason it wasn't part of our curriculum, and I think I may have tried it but not gotten very far before putting it down. But perhaps I could be convinced to give it another try...

Not a copy with this cover though...it creeps me out. It looks like either several people joined at the hip or a very mutated spider. Anyone else getting that?

Others that could be considered "problem" novels (I guess these are what we call "issue" books now), portraying adolescent life in a more realistic manner, include Paul Zindel's The Pigman (1968) and My Darling, My Hamburger (1969), as well as It's Like This, Cat by Emily Cheney Neville (1964; Newbery Medal book) and Mr. and Mrs. Bo Jo Jones by Ann Head (1967). These books addressed topics like teen pregnancy and abortion, drinking, body image, and family strife.


I like the use of perspective in both of these covers, but I have to wonder: what's up with all of those benches in The Pigman cover? It's been a long time since I've read it but I don't recall that wooden benches played a crucial role...

This is giving off a major 'psychedelic '60s silhouette' vibe. Also, BEST TITLE EVER.

So, how many of the books mentioned here have you read? Any you would strongly recommend? What cover is your favourite? (Or, um, the one you least dislike?) And anyone want to take a stab at convincing me to read The Outsiders? :D


  1. I loved The Outsiders! I never had to read it for a class, but I seriously loved it. It's one of those books that sinks in and just... changes the way you view things.

    I've read quite a few of the others you mentioned, and have a bunch more on my tbr.

    I seriously love these posts, btw. I think they are made of awesome!

  2. Aw, thanks very much, Ashley! The Outsiders does sound like a pretty revolutionary book for its time.

  3. To Kill a Mockingbird is still one of my favorites. I just re-read A Wrinkle in Time a few months ago. I had read it when I was probably in elementary school but I didn't realize that it was only the first in a series of books! I have plans to read the rest of them sometime.

  4. @Meg: I haven't read A Wrinkle in Time in so long...perhaps I should re-read it too! Have you read the Vicky series by L'Engle? I especially liked A Ring of Endless Light and Troubling a Star in that series.

  5. I enjoyed The Outsiders. Of course I also read this edition, so I may have been influenced by the mega-hot eye candy on the cover. (or, ok, they were mega-hot when I read it in middle school and the other book covers I had around to compare were The Pigman and To Kill a Mockingbird, so, yeah).

    If you won't read the book though, at least watch the movie. It's filled with funny '80's acting, but it's also filled with hot 80's guys ;)

    Basically what I'm getting at here is that The Outsiders = Hot guys (with the weirdest names ever) Is that incentive enough?

    You would also then be able to go around telling people to "Stay gold." But I think I've just exposed myself as a huge superficial 80's dork, so I'll stop now :)

  6. @Small Review: LOLLL The Outsiders has never quite been presented to me in that light before! I did think they had some of the weirdest names ever from what I've heard (Ponyboy? What?)...but if they're hot, I guess I can overlook that... ;) And I didn't realize you were such an 80's fan! :D

  7. I just studied To Kill A Mockingbird at school although I think some of the analysation and picking apart the text I had to do would affect my enjoyment if I read it again. It's really intereresting to see how cover design has progressed and the kind of trends tht seem to reoccur.

  8. @Stephanie: Yeah, I think we did To Kill a Mockingbird to death in Grade 9 (pun intended :D) - I would likely have appreciated it more if I hadn't been made to study it so intensively. And I am also finding the changes and trends in cover design quite interesting!

  9. To Kill a Mockingbird is one of my all time favorites but I didn't read it till I was an adult. I remember two books from that time period on your list that I read, the Island of the Blue Dolphins and The Outsiders. At this point I don't remember much about them but I remember that I loved them!

  10. I haven't read any of these books and only vaguely heard of a couple... ~gasp!~


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