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The Outsiders, Fat Freddy, and Me

Incredible as it sounds, at least to me, I have been involved with young adult literature for thirty-three years now, which makes me and the genre almost exact contemporaries. It began in 1967–68, and I began working with it in 1970. This entitles me, I suppose, to call myself a YA matriarch — or at least an old crock. Matriarchs get to ramble on about the olden days, so that’s what I’m going to do here — share with you some of my personal memories of those first beginnings of library work with young adult literature, as well as some things I found out while researching Two Pioneers of Young Adult Library Services, my book about Mabel Williams and Margaret Edwards.

You’ve all heard, I’m sure, endless versions of that lecture that goes, “In 1967 sixteen-year-old S. E. Hinton founded young adult literature with the publication of The Outsiders.” The lecture goes on to say that Go Ask Alice showed how popular YA books could be; Forever… showed how sexy they could get; and The Chocolate War showed how good they were to become. Like most historical generalizations, these are true, but in retrospect there are a lot of yes, buts. Certainly The Outsiders was responsible for instigating a whole new vision of relevance in books for teens, but it wasn’t alone in that magic twelve-month span. There was also Paul Zindel’s The Pigman; Robert Lipsyte’s The Contender; Gary Paulsen’s first YA novel, Mr. Tucket; and the book that at the time everybody thought was the most controversial and important book of the year, Ann Head’s Mr. and Mrs. Bo Jo Jones. A year later came Zindel’s shocker, My Darling, My Hamburger; Vera and Bill Cleaver’s enduring favorite, Where the Lilies Bloom; and the first YA novel to deal openly with homosexuality, John Donovan’s I’ll Get There. It Better Be Worth the Trip.

What caused this sudden explosion into being of a new literary genre? There had been isolated precursors — Seventeenth Summer in 1942 and Catcher in the Rye in 1951 — and the authors of what were called “junior novels” were getting just a little braver and more real. But there was nothing in the literature that would have forecast a trend.

However, it was the end of the sixties, and the times they were a-changin’, and the social and political climate was exactly right for the birth of exciting new ideas and new literary forms for young people.

It all began for me one fateful evening when I reluctantly went to the movies to see the Beatles in A Hard Day’s Night. I went into that theater a nice middle-class housewife and came out a hippie. A couple of years later I was a divorced hippie, with four teenaged kids, and I needed a job. I had a library degree, but I had used it for only two years, as a cataloger, a job I found so stupefyingly boring that I swore never to work in a library again. So I had stayed home and raised kids, and later had been an organizer with the civil rights movement. But now the wolf was at the door, so I applied to the Los Angeles Public Library. They took one look at my skinny resumé — “An organizer! You can do programs!” — overlooked my headband and bell-bottoms, and hired me as a young adult librarian for the Westchester branch.

Libraries could afford to experiment during this period of prosperity. With the Library Services and Construction Act funds, for example, the Los Angeles Public Library double-staffed its Venice branch, assigning two librarians to each position, one charged solely with finding creative new ways to reach out to its very diverse public. With money from Title IIB of the Higher Education Act and funds from the Office of Economic Opportunity, libraries began to try out a wild range of options against a background of Vietnam war protests, the civil rights struggle, and the Age of Aquarius.

Programming was seen as the key. To the accompaniment of acid rock and Peter Max posters, library YA programs were a circus of speakers, panels, rap sessions, workshops, and exhibitions on comic-book art, horror makeup, yoga, sharks, vegetarianism, astrology, karate, jeans decoration, ESP, filmmaking,  amateur video and cable TV production, and sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll, plus a watermelon-seed-spitting contest in the parking lot…anything that would bring teens to the library and get books into their hands. Actually, we didn’t need to work that hard at it, because that influential population bulge, the baby boomers, were teens in those years, and they came pouring into the libraries.

YA services rode the crest of this population wave, with enthusiasm and federal funding. After The Outsiders hit the  target and rang the bell, publishers were eager to fill this lucrative new market with more and more novels written in the new realistic style. We YA librarians were conscious of being at the crux of something important, as we banded together for support against the people we called “the old biddies” who ran our libraries — and our national association. As the youth culture became more and more alienated from mainstream America, we YA librarians felt ourselves to be a breed apart.

This sense of identity coalesced around “The Young Adult Alternative Newsletter,” a photocopied and stapled labor of love that was enthusiastically published by California librarian Carol Starr. In 1974, leading a revolution of us young turks, Carol became president of the Young Adult Services Division of the American Library Association. Right away, things changed. For example, ALA began to include YA novels on their highly influential “Best Books for Young Adults” list — whereas, before, “junior novels” had been specifically banned. The sense of a developing body of work was joyously celebrated by librarians at a YASD pre-conference in 1975 called “Book You!” (The title came from Carol Starr, who in her early days as a bookmobile librarian had often been annoyed by kids who would write the most common Anglo-Saxon expletive in the dust on her van, until she solved the problem by changing the f to a b and closing the circles of the u and c so that it cheerfully read book you!) At that preconference hundreds of YA librarians happily wrangled and schemed in small discussion groups to choose the best 100 books for young adults — a pattern YASD, now YALSA, has repeated every few years since.

There was a tremendous sense of innovation, and we felt that we had just invented young adult services. Actually, libraries had been offering special services to teens for many years. The very first official young adult librarian was Mabel Williams, who in 1919 was appointed Supervisor of Work with Schools at the New York Public Library by the legendary Anne Carroll Moore, who wanted a way to ease “children” into the adult department after graduation. The first separate young adult room was dedicated in 1926, at the Cleveland Public Library. Other teen services were begun in 1927 at Los Angeles Public Library and in 1930 at Brooklyn Public. The first book about young adult literature was published in 1937 — The Public Library and the Adolescent by E. Leyland — but it was mostly a cataloging scheme for collections in YA rooms. The earliest documented use of the term young adult for teen books is also 1937, although it didn’t come into general use until 1958. And in 1933 the great Margaret Edwards was appointed to work with teens at Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore.

But if there was no young adult literature before 1968, what books did librarians offer to teens? There was a subgenre of fiction for teens, made up of simple school or adventure stories, but as Richard Alm observed in a 1955 English Journal article, those junior novels were “superficial, often distorted, sometimes completely false representations of adolescence,” with stock characters, too-easy solutions to problems, model heroes, saccharine sentiment, inconsistent characterization, and representing the attainment of maturity without development. Needless to say, these books were not taken seriously. Mostly they were regarded as “transitional literature,” useful primarily as bait for reluctant readers, which explains why ALA kept them off the Best Books list for so long. Instead, librarians scoured the adult shelves for books teens might accept, and then promoted them aggressively in the library.

Margaret Edwards was especially passionate in her vision of the librarian as a reading consultant and guide. At Enoch Pratt the goal was “to introduce books to young people which will help them to live with themselves as citizens of a democracy and to be at home in the world.” She believed that the librarian should work the floor aggressively, approaching teens in the stacks with suggestions and remembering what every single one had read before. The shining goal was that each reader should be developed to his or her full potential. She articulated these articles of faith in her only book, The Fair Garden and the Swarm of Beasts, written in 1969, seven years after she had retired.

When I arrived at the Los Angeles Public Library, Edwards’s book was presented to me as the holy bible of YA services, and I was inspired by the example of her devotion to the cause but heavily intimidated by her techniques, which, nevertheless, I put into practice as best I could. (Many years later, in 1994, I got back at her by serving as the editor of a new edition of The Fair Garden and writing a foreword that pointed out several areas where she had missed the boat.)

In the library, I was a devotee of the holy principles of face-out shelving, lots of paperbacks on revolving racks, and messy boxes of comic books under my psychedelic Peter Max sign and cascading greenery from a sweet potato plant in a Mason jar. The Outsiders struck me as melodramatic and crudely written, but I was glad to have a book that kids pounced on as relevant. Teens loved Hinton and the other emerging YA authors, but they also had a litany of adult books they used like passwords with one another and with me: Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein, Siddhartha and Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse, The Teachings of Don Juan by Carlos Castaneda.

And The Lord of the Rings, which utterly entranced the whole generation. We YA librarians had a trickle-down theory (not like Reagan’s economic version) that held that reading fads and enthusiasms began on the college level and then worked their way down through a descending hierarchy of younger siblings to high school and then junior high. The passion for Lord of the Rings was an example: it began in 1965 with college kids when the American paperback edition appeared, but by the early seventies teens were devouring it. All teens, even kids we had labeled nonreaders, worked their way through those three big fat difficult books with a wild joy. (I get a distinct feeling of déjà vu from Pottermania.)

To put the enthusiasm for Lord of the Rings into perspective, it helps to know just how scarce fantasy was at the time, and how this trilogy spurred its development. I chaired a committee in 1973 that set out to produce an annotated bibliography of 150 fantasy novels. We couldn’t do it. Although we tried our best, we could only come up with a total of 147, even including ancient and obscure works like George Meredith’s 1855 story The Shaving of Shagpat. The Lord of the Rings was unique in its time, although that’s hard to remember now, when the pattern of heroic fantasy it established is so ubiquitous.

Then in 1971 Go Ask Alice hit the shelves, and we found out what a monster popularity can be. This supposedly anonymous diary of a girl who descended into the drug culture and killed herself at the end generated all kinds of speculation, about how it arrived at the publisher’s offices scribbled on brown paper bags, and how the author might be Art Linkletter’s daughter, and so forth. All of which was a great spur to sales, of course. You all know, I’m sure, that the author was actually a woman named Beatrice Sparks, who is still doing very well with this anonymous business in many other books.

No matter how many trips we made to the paperback warehouse, there were never enough copies on the shelf. Ultimately, Go Ask Alice forced paperback publishers to recognize the economic power of the new genre in paperback, and we were off in the direction that was to lead to Fear Street and Sweet Valley High. When in 1972 I became assistant to Young Adult Services Coordinator Mel Rosenberg, I got to help fight the sex education wars. The seventies were the height of the sexual revolution, and the specter of AIDS had not yet appeared to spoil the party. Much of young adult publishing was devoted either to trying to keep teens out of the water or teaching them to swim with the current. The “first time” scene was almost obligatory in YA novels, and some of these passages were very graphic — and almost none of them mentioned contraception. Norma Klein, that great advocate of sexual freedom, was in her heyday, writing novel after novel. Sex education manuals were legion, in all styles and levels of audacity.

One that Mel Rosenberg and I found exquisitely funny was Facts o’ Life funnies, a collection of sex ed comics by some of the leading artists of what were then known as “underground comics.” Our favorite was “Fat Freddy Gets the Clap,” in which the eponymous hero arrives at the free clinic with his enormously swollen male member swathed in bandages. The doctor, a large amiable woman, slaps him on the back and advises him heartily, “You gotta watch where you stick that thing, kid!”

This is probably the right time to explain that in the seventies many of us felt that our readers were high school kids, even college students. I booktalked only reluctantly to junior high classes, despite obvious evidence that this was our most receptive audience. We rejected as “too young” authors like Scott O’Dell and Katherine Paterson, and, following Margaret Edwards’s lead, we shooed sixth and seventh graders away from the YA section and kept them out of our programs and discussion groups. Most YA librarians today would admit that they are serving the sixth to ninth grades and losing the older readers.

But a young adult literature aimed at older readers (even if only ostensibly) had its value. In the seventies, by focusing on the older teens and making their protagonists sixteen rather than fourteen, young adult authors were given a freedom to discuss touchy topics we are only just now regaining after the repressive eighties and early nineties.

Forever…, of course, was the bombshell. Not so much because of the content—it was pretty graphic, but we had seen graphic before. No, the reason it caused a furor among teachers and librarians was that Judy Blume’s audience up to that point had been made up of little girls. Bradbury Press, although it published Forever... as an adult book — with a double bed on the cover — left us with a horrendous selection problem, even as we recognized the novel’s greatness. Was it a YA book or not? ALA voted in the negative by excluding it from the 1975 Best Books list. Teens, however, ignored us and read it avidly — and still do, in spite of its problems for the age of AIDS. But it is a misunderstanding to say that Forever… freed YA authors to write about sex. The truth is that it did the opposite: its notoriety brought parents’ attention to the free-speaking that had been going on under their noses in books for teens, so that a wave of censorship challenges followed (not to speak of all the boys named Ralph who were motivated to beg their parents for a name change).

After AIDS there was a ten-year silence in YA books about things sexual, while everyone fretted about what to say to the young about sex, a puzzle we have not yet completely solved. But the seventies were a happier — and in a way a more innocent — time. We could go to YASD conferences on sex education materials and come back with official ALA T-shirts covered with cartoons of copulating couples (a T-shirt I wore for years, even to the grocery store), or we could arrive at work wearing another T-shirt that read “I am a young adulteress”—and the boss wouldn’t make us go home and change.

Finally, in 1974 all of this excitement and rich promise came to fulfillment with The Chocolate War. Oh, there had already been other YA books of lasting excellence — A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ but a Sandwich, Slake’s Limbo, House of Stairs, Deathwatch. Other writers from what was to become the YA canon had already published first works: Richard Peck, Laurence Yep, M. E. Kerr, Harry Mazer, Norma Fox Mazer. But The Chocolate War was something else again — a book that shook us profoundly, a book that nobody could ignore. The critics went wild, some of them foaming at the mouth, others singing the book’s praises extravagantly. Richard Peck said he wished he had written it. Betsy Hearne wrote a negative review in Booklist that was highlighted by a black border. The universe of young adult publishing had been disturbed, and would be, forever after. The door was opened for all the honest, fresh, stylistically daring, startling, terrifying, and wonderful fiction that has been our legacy ever since.

From the March/April 2003 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

About Patty Campbell

Patty Campbell, a longtime young adult literature specialist, is the author of Robert Cormier: Daring to Disturb the Universe (Delacorte, 2006).

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