Before thinking much about the Young Adult novel, it’s important to consider the state of young adults. First: What even is a young adult? When it comes to genre fiction, a young adult is an adolescent, ranging in age from eight to 16 approximately. When it comes to real life, a young adult is more often used to describe someone in their early 20s, perhaps still in college, perhaps not far out. This age differential between the young adult as a target audience and the young adult as a member of society is of particular note because of the fact that the literary descriptor “young adult” is itself a relatively recent construct; books used to be for adults or for children, and that was that. There was some overlap, to be sure, but there was no defined target audience in between the two.
All that changed in the mid-20th century as the American conception of youth transformed dramatically, revealing a whole new demographic that could be marketed to. The rise of the teenager in American popular culture can be clearly tracked in mediums like television, film, music, and, of course, literature. And while the teenage years might previously have been not much more than a time to prepare and practice for adulthood, they bore their own unique responsibilities and importance; these years were newly identified as being incredibly formative, a time of creation and even recreation.
And there is no figure who more clearly demonstrates the powers of transformation than a teenage girl. By her very nature, a teenage girl is going through radical, often painful transformations—both physical and mental. And while it is a collective process—every grown-up was at one point a teenager—each journey toward adulthood is still singular; every trauma and every triumph exists on an individual level. There is, then, no better time to seek representation outside of one’s social circle, in television shows representing similar struggles, movies with recognizable character tropes, song lyrics that are identical to our most secret thoughts, and, always, in the pages of a good book.
As the notion of what it is to be a teenage girl has changed over the decades, so has the way in which she’s been represented on the page. There is perhaps no better reflection of the shifts in our society’s ideas of what character traits are most important in young women than by examining how they are portrayed in popular culture. Of course, there is—and always has been—plenty of room for subversion in literature; while books geared toward young adults have often been disdained for being “easy reads” and low-brow, the genre has, in fact, been a fertile ground for laying the seeds of cultural dissent. Or, at the very least, YA novels have served to help their readers question the traditional roles young women have been expected to play, and demonstrated through vibrant, intelligent characters all the ways in which young women can exist in—and even change—the world.
This is not to say that the evolution of the teenage girl in Young Adult novels has been flawless—or even close to it. It’s only in recent years that there has been anything even resembling accurate representation of real diversity in these books; historically, culturally marginalized groups were left off the page much as they have been shunted to the fringes of American society. But that’s started to change, and will only continue to do so as readers demand more and more to see themselves represented, their voices heard, their voices shared, and the stories of their lives told.
Here then, is a look at the evolution of the teenage girl in the Young Adult novel.