March 19, 2011

YA Through The Ages: 1900-1950

Last week I took a look at YA in the 1800s, before books were even being targeted specifically to teens. They fit roughly into four categories: adventure stories for boys, moralistic stories for girls, fairy tales and fantasy, and Dickens.

In the early 1900s it seems that more books started being written with girls in mind. Some famous examples include A Little Princess (this was originally published as a serial novella in 1888 but republished as a novel in 1905), Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1903), Anne of Green Gables (1908) and The Secret Garden (1909). Some of these still imparted fairly traditional morals, but others — like Anne of Green Gables, with its spunky, spit-fiery protagonist who constantly gets into trouble — seem to be purely entertaining.

It looks like Britain was doing well in cover art...
...but Canada needed some serious help.

More "animal books" were being published as well. Black Beauty had come out in 1877, and this was followed in the first half of the 20th century by The Wind in the Willows (1908), The Yearling (1938; incidentally this was the best-selling novel of that year in the U.S., and won the Pulitzer Prize), and My Friend Flicka (1941).

This time period was also the start of several children's series that became extremely well-known. These included the Bobbsey Twins (1904), the Hardy Boys (1926), Nancy Drew (1930), the Little House series (1932) and several series by Enid Blyton, including the Famous Five (1942). Another of Blyton's, the Naughtiest Girl in the School series (1940; I have a soft spot for this one!) reflected a trend in Britain for girls' boarding school stories, others including the Chalet School series.

Great story, but, um, the cover could definitely be improved upon. I believe that is a picture of, unsurprisingly, a house in the woods.

Once again, the British have the right idea when it comes to covers. They must have some trade secrets...
The creator of the Hardy Boys series, Edward Stratemeyer, went on to produce Nancy Drew to appeal to the girls who were enjoying the Hardy Boys but wanted a heroine to root for. Books featuring plucky girls with attitude and a nose for adventure were clearly rising in popularity — not too surprising given that WWI had happened and women were starting to advocate for more rights and to stretch societal expectations for them.

Fantasy appears to take a backseat here, with one notable exception: The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien (1937). This would pave the way for his even more extraordinary, epic Lord of the Rings.

1922 was a critical year for children's literature, as that was when the very first children's book award was created: the Newbery Medal.

However, despite all of these advances books still weren't being published with teens in mind until 1942, with a novel that some consider to be the very first "YA" book: Seventeenth Summer by Maureen Daly.

The original 1942 hardcover version, and a more recent paperback (photo from an excellent Printmag article).
Daly's Seventeenth Summer was a breakthrough in addressing the young adult experience: there is drinking and smoking by minors, and even (gasp!) sexual references. But just wait, because it's bound to get a whole lot "wilder" in the 1950s...

...which will be the topic of the next "YA Through The Ages" post.

For now — your thoughts? Have you read any of the books mentioned?


  1. What a fun post and a great round-up of some novels released from the 1900-1950 period. I have Anne of Green Gables and The Hobbit but I haven't read either of them yet...

  2. I am loving this series and can't wait to see what's next!

    I'd heard that The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew were written by the same person, but I thought it was the other way around...

  3. I'm just tuning into this series, but I'm so checking out your other post on it. I read The Secret Garden and Anne of Green Gables growing up and loved them. I haven't read Seventeenth Summer, but I think I will pick it up. Can't wait to see what the 50's are going to bring for us :)

  4. Anne! This time period was a good one for girls. Anne, Laura Ingalls, and Nancy Drew. It's interesting to see the changes in YA/J books across the ages. It makes sense with what was going on in the world.

  5. @Midnight Bloom: Thanks! LOL, I tried reading The Hobbit many years ago but I'm not sure I made it all the way through. And Anne of Green Gables is such a Canadian classic!

    @Ashley: Yeah, apparently there was a huge book packager called the Stratemeyer Syndicate that produced the Bobbsey Twins, Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew and other series, published under several pseudonyms. Their aim was to publish children's books that were entertaining, not moralistic as many of the other books were.

    @Just Your Typical Book Blog: Wow, just thinking about it I realize that I haven't read The Secret Garden in such a long time! I should really try reading some of these children's classics again and see what I think of them now :)

    @Small Review: Definitely interesting to think about children's literature in terms of the current events at the time! I loved Little House in the Big Woods, I remember that was one of my favorites when I was quite young :)

  6. There are a lot of much loved girl's classics from this era and so many of them are still favourites now. I love The Naughtiest Girl in the School too! I'm around 10 books into the Chalet School series now even though I have about 45 of the series passed on from my mum. It seems I've been reading them less since blogging because I can't really review all the books in the series. Also, I read an article about how The Railway Children by E. Nesbit (published 1906) was extrmely sumilar to another book published a few years before called The House At The Railway and thought of this series.I'm looking forward to the next post :)

  7. I read so many Nancy Drew/Hardy Boys in Jr. High. This is a great feature, btw! I'm loving it!

  8. Wonderful post! I've read most of these books and I really enjoyed them! :D

  9. @Stephanie: Interesting! I had no idea about the earlier book The House at the Railway. And wow, can't believe you have 45 Chalet School books! O_O

    @Brooke: Thanks! I actually haven't read either Nancy Drew or Hardy Boys...perhaps I should try them just for fun!

    @Sysha: Thanks! :)

  10. What a fun post! Little house in the big woods... awh i remember that series =)

  11. I love A Little Princess and The Hobbit! I think I'll try and buy Seventeenth Summer, it sounds pretty awesome! :)


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