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YA from the Olden Days

Two novels from the late 1960s dawn of “the new realism” have resurfaced. Will they find new readers? The first thing that strikes me about John Donovan’s I’ll Get There. It Better Be Worth the Trip (originally published by Harper in 1969) and June Jordan’s His Own Where (Crowell, 1971) is how short they seem—Donovan’s book is just under two hundred pages in its new paperback edition from Flux, and His Own Where, newly reissued in paperback by the Feminist Press, an even more slender ninety-two. And while each was viewed as groundbreaking in its time, they both seem kind of quiet in today’s world of high-concept YA. I’ll Get There is about a boy learning to live with his alcoholic mother after the death of his beloved grandmother; His Own Where is a tender romance between two black teens living on the rough side of Brooklyn. What got the Donovan attention was its matter-of-fact inclusion of a nascent homosexual relationship between the hero and another boy, and it was in later years vilified as one of several teen books with gay themes that used a car crash as a way of resolving the story. (What critics frequently missed was that many 1970s YA novels used a car crash as a way of resolving the story!) His Own Where was celebrated for its use of what was then called Black English, but as Horn Book editor Paul Heins pointed out, Jordan did more than that, “combining words and phrases of dialect in a stream-of-consciousness style that attempts to remove the barrier between words and experiences.”

With its allusive poetic style, His Own Where is the more lastingly radical of the two books, where I’ll Get There. It Better Be Worth the Trip is more of a landmark, its influential place in the YA canon acknowledged by the three essays, all worth reading, appended to the Flux edition. Both books remind us that the big business of contemporary YA publishing began more than forty years ago with a very brave start.

Roger Sutton About Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.



  1. LaurieA-B says:

    >"What critics frequently missed was that many 1970s YA novels used a car crash as a way of resolving the story!" HA. Thank you.

    I haven't read either of these novels, and from your post I know that I want to. What about my teen readers–do you think THEY will want to?

  2. Roger Sutton says:

    >I can certainly see a teen audience for His Own Where (although, interestingly, the Feminist Press edition does not mention that it was first published for young people). The love story is great and the story does not seem dated, nor does the language, and the ending (which I won't give away) is as edgy as anything you might see in a contemporary YA. Edgier, in fact.

    The problem with I'll Get There . . . is that its protagonist is young (thirteen) by today's YA standards and the story almost completely interior. I don't see it as a big draw for today's teens, although the cover certainly tries to work it with its photo of two dreamy guys (one an Rpattz lookalike and both definitely older than thirteen) staring intensely into each other's eyes. But it's required reading for anyone with more than a passing interest in the history of the YA novel. Gay teens who have heard about it might be curious, but it's not a reader-pleaser like Annie on My Mind. Which makes me ask: is there an Annie for gay boys?

  3. >Yes, Roger, the very first thing that struck me about this Donovan cover was, "My god, they look college age or even older; wasn't that kid around thirteen?" I read the book in the 1970s and thought it was only okay.

    Strangely enough (well, maybe not so strange), one of my very favorite treatments of the gay condition is found in Laura Z. Hobson's CONSENTING ADULT, told mostly from the viewpoint of the mother of a college boy who is discovering his sexuality (some of the story is from his viewpoint but the mother seems to be the main character). I invariably return to reread certain passages and the last page never fails to move me to tears. I have tried to get a lot of people to read it, with varying results. Do you know it?

    Lyle Blake Smythers

  4. Roger Sutton says:

    >I read that, Lyle, but so long ago I no longer remember it. How do you think today's teens would like it?

  5. Anonymous says:

    >Some of them might have a problem with it because so much of it is told from an adult's viewpoint, but I remember reading portions told from the viewpoint of the son and thinking, "Yes, she's nailed it, that's EXACTLY what it feels like to be young and gay and not know how to tell anyone." Of course, this was the early 1970s and a lot has changed. Not enough, unfortunately.

    Mostly I remember it as a terrific story full of empathy and extraordinary insight. It was published as an adult novel — well, it IS a novel for adults, I believe. Good stuff.

    Lyle Blake Smythers

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