The Changing Landscape of Literature for Youth: An Historical Perspective about Realistic Fiction

By Hayward, Susan | Ohio Reading Teacher, Fall 2005 | Go to article overview

The Changing Landscape of Literature for Youth: An Historical Perspective about Realistic Fiction


Hayward, Susan, Ohio Reading Teacher


A Brief History

Realistic fictional stories for youngsters and young adults have historically captured the essence of societal issues of the times. For example, in the 1800s literature for children was didactic. Morals, values, and expectations were taught to children through parenting and teaching and supplemented through the use of books. However, in 1919, John Newbery saw a different need for the writing of children's books; he felt the child should be entertained. Soon after, in 1922, the Association of Library Service to Children initiated the annual John Newbery Award for the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children [for stories]. According to Melcher, the purpose was "to encourage original and creative work in the field of books for children and to emphasize to the public that contributions to the literature for children deserve similar recognition to poetry, plays, or novels" (Parravano, 1999, p. 434).

Societal changes, however, continued to influence the changing status of children's literature and a new venue of "realism" occurred. The period between 1950 to 1990 was about "child liberation." From the 1950s to the 1970s a second golden age of children's books occurred. "The novels moved from outward to inward; from concern with the young adult's relationship to the larger community to a nearly exclusive emphasis on the adolescent's inner feelings" (MacLeod, 1997, p. 125). During this time period, the "problem novel" became popular. These were stories of misfortune for youth with little control of their situation. Catcher in the Rye, by J. D. Salinger, was an influential and widely acclaimed story (originally intended for an adult audience) that reflected the experiences of some young adults. This book detailed two days in the life of 16-year-old Holden Caulfield after he was expelled from prep school. In his confused search for truth against the "phoniness" of the adult world, he related his experiences to the reader. Also during this time of "new" realism, the book Harriet the Spy was published. This book showed 11 -year-old Harriet as she wrote perceptions and impressions about her parents who seemingly ignored her in a journal. This book was significant at the time, because "many long-standing taboos in children's literature came tumbling down" (Huck, Hepler, Hickman, & Kiefer, 2004, p. 97).

Near the end of the second golden age, a turning point occurred in children's literature. A new type of book for adolescents became more prominent. Books in the 60s and 70s depicted realistic fiction that included: child abuse, violence, drugs, and other topics that were previously taboo. Townsend (1996) suggests that young people during these decades were reacting against adult values. Hence, realistic literature emerged in the form of depicting young adults' social experiences and conflicts in novels, as opposed to the "nice" families who were the main focus in previous children's stories. In addition, the cultural revolution of the 1960s brought significant change with the inclusion of minority groups, women, and social issues that were represented in the writings for children. Also, with the integration of schools, controversial issues regarding African-American literacy came to the forefront. In fact, for a brief period from the 1960s to early 70s, racial groups fought an intensive "war of position" within the educational institution. The 1960s was a time of transition in literature, and social and political events continued to shape the novel. This evolvement continued to change because of the dramatic shift in beliefs and lifestyles taking place in America. Realistic fiction often reflected war, depression, and contemporary social problems in our country.

S.E. Hinton's book The Outsiders, was published in 1967. Young adults of the 1960s wanted books that did not "keep going back to their own turn-of-the-century childhoods, or... tepid little stories of high school proms, broken and mended friendships, phony-sounding conflicts between parents and children, and boring accounts of what they consider 'problems'" (Wojciechowska cited in Cart, 1996, p. …

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