“We cannot permit young adult literature to be silenced,” writes Michael Cart in From Romance to Realism: 50 Years of Growth and Change in Young Adult Literature (Harper). His study celebrates the history and the glories of adolescent literature but also takes a hard look at the current controversies and crises in publishing for young adults. Among the issues Cart examines are the rise of romance and horror paperbacks, multiculturalism, the need for more honest fiction about sexual identity and AIDS, and the general need for risk-taking fiction for an at-risk generation. Risk taking has gone the way of smoking, sadly (although not glass smoking pipes, of course). But Cart’s overarching theme is the demise of novels for older YAs and the potential demise of all quality young adult fiction.
One of the most perceptive and knowledgeable observers of the YA literary scene, Michael Cart brings to this book a lifetime of immersion in the practicalities of publishing, buying, and promoting young adult literature. His career as the director of the Beverly Hills Public Library brought him closely in touch with the needs of young patrons, and his long involvement with the American Library Association has given him access to editors and writers and the behind-the-scenes world of publishing. His column of YA commentary in Booklist consistently brings fresh insight to librarians, and last year he published two other books of literary criticism, Presenting Robert Lipsyte for Twayne’s Young Adult Author series and What’s So Funny?: Wit and Humor in American Children’s Literature (Harper).
Cart himself admits that a comparison is inevitable between From Romance to Realism and the longtime definitive work in the field, Literature for Today’s Young Adults (Harper) by Alleen Pace Nilsen and Kenneth L. Donelson. The latter has a pedagogic orientation – suggestions for class assignments and so on – and aims at a comprehensive but sober and objective analysis. Cart’s book, on the other hand, is impassioned and personal, and very much of the moment – qualities that are supremely appropriate for a book dealing with adolescent literature. For the most part Cart limits himself to fiction; Nilsen and Donelson include nonfiction, poetry, and drama. Literature for Today’s Young Adults has managed to stay on top of changing developments since 1980 with frequent new editions; and while the up-to-the-minute topicality of From Romance to Realism is its strength, it may ultimately weaken the book by dating it. Yet Cart’s work will appeal not only to the college students reading Nilsen and Donelson’s textbook but also to working professionals, especially the increasing number of library generalists who suddenly find themselves assigned – without any background – to work with young adults.
The dimension of From Romance to Realism that may allow the book to reach beyond professionals to the general public is the wit and elegance of the writing. Cart has a talent for the apt phrase, the delightfully oblique spin on an idea. As a sesquipedalian stylist, he can throw a word like eponymous into a sentence without missing a beat. But more, the book is disarmingly personal and conversational, often even idiosyncratic. Cart lists the four great themes of YA literature as alienation, sex, violence, and what Richard Peck calls “the tribalizing of the young.” Cart also invites controversy with his reaction to the sacred idea of popularity as a criterion for inclusion on ALA’s Best Books for Young Adults list: “I think that if popularity is to be a major consideration, then we might as well declare R. L. Stine and Francine Pascal to be the greatest young-adult authors of the century and have done with it.- But it is as a literary critic that Cart excels. Unlike Nilsen and Donelson, he makes little attempt at brief annotations on a large number of books, choosing instead extended and discerning analysis of a select few authors and works that illustrate his points.
From Romance to Realism is structured in two parts, labeled (in a sly allusion to an S. E. Hinton novel) “That Was Then” and “This Is Now.” Living up to the promise of the book’s subtitle, the first section traces the history of the genre. Cart begins with the obligatory wrestling with the origin and definition of the terms “young adult” and “young adult literature.” He agrees with Margaret Edwards that “it was in 1942 that the new field of writing for teenagers became established” with the publication of Maureen Daly’s Seventeenth Summer (Putnam), a book that Cart admits is seminal but faults for being “glacially slow” and sexist.
After a brief look at the trivial romances by Daly’s imitators of the fifties and early sixties, Cart moves on to the landmark year of 1967, when S. E. Hinton’s The Outsiders (Viking) – and a spate of influential essays – marked the rise of the new realism. Although Cart grants that Hinton is, as Richard Peck has called her, the “mother” of young adult authors, he finds The Outsiders to be “an odd hybrid: part realistic novel and part romantic fantasy that, at its self-indulgent worst, exemplifies . .. morbid adolescent romanticism.” Of the two other books that are generally agreed to be the models for the genre, Cart praises J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (Little) as “a marvel of sustained style and tone,” but considers Paul Zindel’s The Pigman (Harper) improbable and contrived. Instead, he suggests Robert Lipsyte’s The Contender (Harper) as a more viable model.
Realism, however, “would be an uphill battle … for not only are young adults inherent romantics, they are inherent reality deniers, too.” During the seventies, literary taboos were broken in subject matter and language, but the initial impulse toward realism soon deteriorated into the “problem novel,” in which the social issue “too often became the tail that wagged the dog.” Much of the new realism of these years celebrates “conventional morality and an insistence on happy resolution,” says Cart. “This kind of manipulation transforms realism into romance.” By contrast, Cart offers Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War (Pantheon), which he names “the single most important title in the history of young adult literature to date,” and the undeservedly forgotten novels of John Donovan.
The eighties brought a resurgence of the romance novel, which Cart sees as a throwback to the “junior novels” of the sixties. He documents the “adult, handwringing response” to this phenomenon and finds the real reason for the success of the paperback romance accurately described by Pamela Pollack in School Library Journal: “Mass market paperback publishers gave teens what they ‘want’ as determined by market research, rather than what they ‘need’ based on their problems as reflected by social statistics.” This same attitude later gave birth to the overwhelming publishing commitment to young-adult horror paperbacks and other series.
In spite of this trend, a number of important new voices were beginning to be heard in the eighties. Changing immigration patterns created a need for fiction drawn from a wide range of cultures and ethnicity, and writers began to respond. But the multicultural movement is not without its problems. Cart describes the academic revolt against reverence for classics by dead white European male authors, and poses the insiderversus-outsider controversy in the unanswerable question, “Can a writer’s imagination be powerful enough to create a viable work of fiction about a culture the writer has observed only from the outside?” Cart also deplores the dearth of Latino fiction for young adults, noting that “the Hispanic-American experience .. may be the most underexplored in young adult literature,” in spite of the prediction that Hispanic Americans may comprise a fifth of the U.S. population by 2050. He asserts that not only do young people need to see their own culture reflected in books, both in English and their own languages, but that “‘established’ Americans … urgently need a crash course in understanding the new crazy quilt of cultures covering them in the nineties.”
Today YA has become a literature at risk, Cart posits, or at least in turmoil. A key factor is the commercial success of horror and other genre paperbacks. Although “the popularity of genre series is perhaps the most durable phenomenon in the ongoing history of publishing for young readers,” the difference now is that the market is teenagers themselves, via chain bookstores in shopping malls. “This is tremendously important, because it is now the buyers for the chains – not librarians, not educators, and not psychologists – who dictate how we define ‘young adults.”‘ These marketers have defined YAs as eleven to fourteen years old, and publishers must follow; thus “fifteen-to-eighteen-year-old readers have become the endangered species.” Furthermore, chain bookstores limit their stock for YAs to the most profitable series paperbacks. Independent bookstores, which manage to maintain a durable market for hardcover YA novels through hand-selling, are threatened increasingly by the growth of superstores and chains. And the conglomeratization of publishers means that people with no background in book publishing are now in charge; profit is all-important and the “product” has replaced the book in their thinking. Cart sees a glimmer of hope in niche publishing and the whole-language movement in schools, although the declining number of quality hardcover YA titles and the declining number of professionals trained to select them, as well as the budget crisis in schools and libraries, do not augur well for the future of the literature.