March 27, 2011

YA Through The Ages: the '50s

In this "YA Through the Ages" series I've been following the progression of YA literature from its very earliest beginnings to today. Previous posts have looked at YA in the 1800s and YA from 1900-1950.

Two books, now considered YA classics by many, burst on the scene in the 1950s. The first was The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, in 1951. I haven't read this one but I know it's required reading in a lot of high schools, and its protagonist Holden Caulfield has become "an icon for teenage rebellion."

The second was Lord of the Flies by William Golding (1958). This book actually apparently didn't sell well when it first came out, but later became a bestseller and was incorporated into the curriculum in schools in the 1960s. (And it still is today...I had to read it in Grade 11). Its message about human nature being inherently violent and self-serving (even in children) made it rather novel for the time.

Despite their popularity among young adult readers, these two books were both written for an adult audience.
Yeah, this cover definitely wasn't created with teens in mind.
Fantasy took quite a step forward in this period, with C. S. Lewis beginning his famous Chronicles of Narnia with The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in 1950.

T.H. White also published his Arthurian retelling The Once and Future King. This contained what became the well-known story of The Sword in the Stone, which eventually got turned into this:

...not quite what I think T.H. White had in mind for his epic tale.

Historical novels for young readers started to gain prominence as well. Several Newbery Medal and Honor novels of that time were historical fiction, including Carry on, Mr. Bowditch (1955) and The Witch of Blackbird Pond (1958).

And the 1950s was also the era of the "Great Comic Book Scare." I'd never heard about this before, but apparently, there was quite a commotion. At that time the U.S. was deep in McCarthyism, and communists weren't the only thing that had the American public shaking in its boots. No, there was a far more dreaded enemy out there...comic books.

A comic book! Run for your lives!
A psychiatrist named Fredric Wertham started things rolling when he published a book called Seduction of the Innocent, lambasting the crime and horror comic book industry (which had gained popularity in recent years) for contaminating the minds of youths and contributing to juvenile delinquency. 

Fredric Wertham, looking shocked as he reads Shock Illustrated.
This sparked the creation of the Comics Code, which regulated the content of comic books. Criteria included "in every instance good shall triumph over evil and the criminal punished for his misdeeds," "scenes dealing with, or instruments associated with walking dead, torture, vampires and vampirism, ghouls, cannibalism, and werewolfism are prohibited," and "no comic magazine shall use the word horror or terror in its title." Oh Dr. Wertham, if you were only here today to see all the paranormal YA novels on the shelves.
Yep, they had their own seal of approval. I bet that didn't get stamped on much, given the rigorous criteria.
In 1957 an important step for YA literature was taken: the American Library Association formed the Young Adult Services Division.

This was pretty huge in that it made a distinction between books for children and books for young adults. Publishing houses still weren't marketing books specifically for teens, but now they were beginning to be recognized as a separate category of readers, and books like Lord of the Flies and The Catcher in the Rye were paving the way for changes in how adolescents were portrayed in novels.

Have you read any or all of these books? Were you a fan of Lord of the Flies? Can you convince me to read The Catcher in the Rye? And does Disney's massacre of The Sword in the Stone make you cringe in anguish?


  1. Loving these posts, Danya! As for convincing you to read 'Catcher in the Rye', you won't be getting that from me. I hated that book.

    It still surprises me that The Chronicles of Narnia has been out for as long as it has! Love that series. My favorite series debut's in your next decade-The Dark Is Rising by Susan Cooper!

  2. I've read The Catcher in the Rye twice. Once when I was "young" and once recently. I just don't get it. I wasn't impressed.

    I haven't read Lord of the Flies, but it was required reading when my son was in high school and it was the only novel they read that he liked (and he's NOT a reader) so that says something, I guess. I suppose I need to pick this one up some time.

    I much prefer the status of today's YA, than the way it was back then!

  3. I can't believe you haven't read "Catcher in the Rye" or "Lord of the Flies"! I loved both books for different reasons. "Catcher" for me personified the disillusionment of growing up- realizing that you will never again be pure and innocent and being an adult isn't all that great. I loved Holden's voice, his vulnerability, his charm, and his head on the nail insight. As a cynical sophomore teen, this book spoke to me and I knew what Holden was going through. As an adult, I reread the book and realized Holden's mistakes yet I still love the book. I do hope you pick it up sometime. :)

  4. I tried to read Lord of the Flies. I hated the way it was written. There were not enough speech attributions, so I ended up having to continually count back to see who was speaking. I couldn't be bothered, so I gave up.

    I've never read Catcher in the Rye, either. I don't know... I guess it never really appealed to me. Then again, I've never been much of a rebel.

  5. @Brooke: Thanks! LOL, yeah, Catcher in the Rye seems to be a 'love it or hate it' kind of book. And I'll be sure to include the start of the Dark is Rising series in my next post :)

    @Annette: Totally agree with you about YA these days - there's so much more variety!

    @Rummanah: Actually, I have read Lord of the Flies. I wasn't really a fan, though – I thought the message was rather heavy-handed. I did find it pretty disturbing, though, which was intended, so I guess it did the job, LOL. Thanks for your thoughts on Catcher in the Rye - it's interesting what different perspectives I'm hearing!

    @La Coccinelle: Interesting, I don't remember having an issue with the writing style of Lord of the Flies, but other books have certainly frustrated me with lack of speech attributions so I certainly get where you're coming from!

  6. I have Lord of the Flies sitting on my shelf right now. Trying to read a few of those classics this year. Keep the posts coming-I'm really enjoying the history of YA. Good work!

  7. Great and very informative post, thanks! Good to see other history geeks here (I love history myself)!

  8. What a fascinating history! I do love The Once And Future King, it's long but brilliant.

  9. We had to do a whole unit on Lord of the Flies in Grade 10 and I remember that I did like it. We read Catcher in the Rye in Grade 9 but I wasn't really a fan of it. From the books you've mentioned though, The Chronicles of Narnia series would be my favourite.

  10. Oh boy, well, you won't get me to convince you to read The Catcher in the Rye! I couldn't stand that book and still cringe at the thought of reading it. If it weren't for the fact that it was a school assignment I would have DNF-ed that one.

    I did DNF The Lord of the Flies. Three times. I love the premise and message, but I could never get through the writing. Bored me to tears.

    The Sword in the Stone actually came out in 1939 first and in a slightly longer version than the one found in The Once and Future King. I love those books so much, but I also adore the Disney version :)

    Do I say this every time? I probably do, but I love your features so much. You must put so much time and thought into these.

  11. I said 1939, didn't I? I meant 1938.

  12. @Tammy: Thanks, glad you're enjoying them!

    @anachronist: LOL, I'm not sure I'm a history geek generally but I am actually learning a lot by delving into the history of YA!

    @April: I actually haven't read The Once and Future King but I did thoroughly enjoy The Sword in the Stone :)

    @A Canadian Girl: Yeah, I think Catcher in the Rye is often required for Grade 9, luckily for whatever reason it wasn't for my class :D

    @Small Review: Thanks so much! I do put a bit of time and 'research' into these so I'm so happy to hear other people have been enjoying them. And thanks for the head's-up on Sword in the Stone, I didn't realize it was published separately earlier.

  13. I won't start talking about my love for The Chronicles of Narnia. I just think they're amazing. I love the first book, The Magician's Nephew and how it explains so many elements of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe...


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