YA Fiction: Past and Present


Next Spring I’ll be teaching a class on young adult fiction. The class will examine themes which run through both classic and contemporary YA novels, and also study the way in which the genre has evolved over time.


I’m looking for your input! What one book defined you during your teenage years? Had the greatest emotional impact? A few lines describing exactly why that particular book meant so much to you would be helpful. If there’s more than one, even better!

I’d like to receive input from all age groups, but no need to reveal your age unless you want to. Your favorite book, by the way, can be from any time period. Many of the classics have been loved by succeeding generations–Little Women is one example.

And for those of you who read/write YA novels, which books among today’s writers resonate with you?

Can’t wait to hear from you!

hardlove practicallyperfect


41 comments on “YA Fiction: Past and Present

  1. Most influential were:

    6th grade: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

    about 9th or 10th grade: Sexual Politics by Kate Millet

    about 10th grade: Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison

    6th grade: Jungle Books (never thought it was for kids), Kipling

    between 4th and 7th grades: Call of the Wild, White Fang, Jack London

  2. So many YA novels ended up defining my love of history as well as a sense of female empowerment that remains with me to this day. Anne of Green Gables, Little Women, Jane Eyre: these classics helped me to realize how difficult things were for women in the past and how so many overcame obstacles to find their way in the world. Anne Rinaldi books as well as American Girl stories (I am embarrassed to say) reinforced my love of American history. I also loved Juniper, Wise Child, and Sabriel. I read ridiculous romance novels that took place in the Great Lakes (embarrassed again). Who could forget the Yearling, Bridge to Teribithia, the Giver, Tolkein stories, or Number the Stars? I loved YA lit when I was young, and I think those books remain with me so much more than most I have read as an adult.

    Good luck with your class! I would love to take it!

  3. Hey Pam,

    Remember me, Katie’s Maine roomie… When I was an early teen, A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle was my all time favorite book. I think I read it at least 8 times. I was also a fan of The Island of the Blue Dolphin and James and the Giant Peach


  4. Thanks, Claire. You read very challenging books for one so young. This gives a new slant–I hadn’t even thought about non-fiction.

  5. Sixth grade, definitely A Wrinkle in Time. Somewhere in junior high, To Kill a Mockingbird. No need to explain why I liked those! In high school, the book that absolutely blew me away and made me see that fiction was more than just a nice story was Native Son. It was the civil rights era, of course, and could we have lived in a lily-whiter community? It was an emotional experience and set me on the path to question a whole bunch of what I had been taught in that lily-white community. And just for a knock-out great story, I loved (and still love) Rebecca.

    Practically Perfect?! Where’s Practically Seventeen?? I’m certain those books did irreparable harm to generations of young girls! But I still loved them and will always be grateful to my big sis for letting me read hers.

  6. mom, you probably remember better than i do what books i was reading as a teen. to your great chagrin (an now mine) i wasn’t reading nearly as much as i should have been. but books i remember loving were ‘Hatchet’, ‘The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe’.. I devoured ‘Forever’, by Judy Blume but only because it had tons of sex in it. The first book that I remember having strong political effect on me was Upton Sinclair’s ‘The Jungle’.. though not until 9th grade.

  7. “I Want to Keep my Baby”…no seriously, the book that most influenced me as a young adult was Judy Blume’s, “Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret!”. I LOVED that book. It spoke to me…it helped me love reading. I realized I could connect to something in a book that would touch me deeply…..make me feel and think of things in a different way. It left me wanting more….

  8. I loved The Awakening by Kate Chopin. I read it in 10th grade and could read it again and again. It was a book about a mother trying to find herself and independence. Forever by Judy Blume was also a fun book and very memorable.

    -April (one of Dana’s staff :))

  9. Go Ask Alice absolutely horrified me. Aside from being a generally lame teenager myself, I think it’s a large reason why I never experimented with hard drugs. As I remember it, Alice was so innocent and trying to fit in, but found the drug world was an unescapable pit. She was a victim and died a broke hippie in San Francisco all because of one lousy game of “Button, Button where is the Button” when someone laced her bottle of coke at a party with LSD. As an adult I assume it’s a fictional diary, but the 12 year old inside of me is still a little afraid of somehow accidentally falling victim to the dark side. I immediately thought of this book when I heard your question.

  10. I was a slave to Jean Slaughter Doty novels about young, horse-obsessed girls. Looking back they had beautiful titles: “The Monday Horses,” “If Wishes Were Horses,” and my all-time favorite, “Can I Get There by Candlelight?”. In the world of Judy Blume I returned again and again to “Tiger Eyes” – maybe for the exotic (to my Ohio-drenched upbringing) southwestern setting. I guess all of these books feature ‘independent’ young women who are largely misunderstood by the cruel, cruel world. No wonder they resonated. Dramatic sigh.

    Have fun with the class…

  11. I’m ashamed to say I’ve never heard of Jean! But over the years, books about horse-obsessed girls have been very popular! Judy Blume has great staying power–now with the children of her original fans! Thanks, Julie.

  12. Erin,
    What a profound effect this book had on you! It was one of the classics of the 80’s–I remember my step daughter Dana reading it (and me not being too happy about that!).

  13. April,
    The Awakening became a kind of feminist classic, didn’t it? I think I read it for a class in grad school. Thanks for your input!

  14. Hi Dana,
    I smile every time I think about “I Want to Keep My Baby.” I remember you loving Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret. Girls today love it still. I think my class will be reading it!

  15. Hi Katie,
    I’m sure your sister got you on to reading Forever! I actually remember you talking about The Jungle, and the horrors it depicted. I was thrilled you were talking about a book! You weren’t too happy when you had to read Jane Austen, though.

  16. Jan–I don’t remember you loving A Wrinkle in Time, but I was probably away at college then. I love Rebecca, too, and watch the old movie whenever it’s on TV.

    Was Practically Seventeen a Rosamund Du Jardin? I’m sure I never would have allowed my little sister to read such stuff.

  17. Hi Colleen–Of course I remember you! Good to hear from you. A Wrinkle in Time keeps turning up–Madeleine L’Engle’s books still intrigue. My fifth graders loved it–well, the very advanced readers! Thanks for chiming in.

  18. Hi Heather,
    I loved Anne of Green Gables, Little Women, The Yearling, and Jane Eyre too! And my students over the years devoured the American Girl books–you shouldn’t be embarrassed. I don’t think I remember any Great Lakes romance novels, but I’ll have to look them up!

    It’s funny how those books stay with us, isn’t it?

  19. Hi Pam,
    Anne of Green Gables. Little Women. Jane Eyre. To Kill A Mockingbird. The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. My Friend Flicka. A Swiftly Tilting Planet.

  20. Thanks, Victoria. The same books are turning up again and again. Interesting information for the class.

  21. No surprise, Pam, the definitive book for me as a teenager was P&P. I read it first at about age 12, when I asked my mother for grownup book to read. I finished it, and then started it over again immediately. I read all of Austen by the time I was out of high school, but P&P helped shaped me–from Elizabeth Bennet, I learned to be patient and not criticize my parents (out loud), I learned that family loyalty is important, I learned that friends sometimes surprise you, and that most people deserve a second chance and that we all make mistakes.

    I also reread constantly the AoGG books, Little House books, Gone with the Wind, and Jane Eyre. My love of classics started early, and I regularly read Dickens, R.L. Stevenson, Thomas Hardy, and Henry Fielding before I left for college.

    These days, the YA authors I like (I don’t read that much in the genre though) include Sharon Creech, the author of The Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants, and Karen Cushman.

    BTW, I have nominated you for a Let’s Be Friends award. Visit my blog for details.

  22. Hi Janet,
    I was wondering when P&P would show up! Thanks for chiming in on this discussion. I’ll check out your blog.

  23. I was trying to remember what I loved… and then I remember reading all of the Alice series by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor. Is that lame? Probably. I also loved a book that I am drawing a complete blank on right now but I’ll ask my mom about it. Also, The Giver, but that’s a given! 🙂

  24. Em,
    I remember when you were reading the Alice books. I read one to my fifth graders, but had to censor some of it to protect their delicate little sensibilities. They were very funny!

  25. KATIE- “Hatchet”?? YOU are so like dad! Actually, Austin (my 17 yr old son) loved Hatchet too!
    Pam i really like “Go Ask Alice” and yes, you had reason to not be happy.
    One more book that really effected me and i think contributed to me going into social/work psychology was “Lisa Bright and Dark”….not sure of author, not even sure if that was the name but it was about a teen with bi-polar disorder…..and i was totally fascinated!

  26. I think Lisa Bright and Dark is a Paul Zindel. I’ll have to check. I remember reading it, and I must have passed it on to you. Notice how I consider myself the “decider” of all your reading. I’ll even take responsibility for I Want to Keep My Baby–nah, that was your father.

  27. Hi Pam!
    Friend of Heather here. We met at the SALT graduation.

    I would love to take this class! Some of my favorites are:

    Harriet The Spy– this book made me want to be a writer, and I started keeping a notebook religiously. I also love what an independent girl Harriet is. Lots of my favorite YA books are about independent girls.

    True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle–more girl power– she becomes a sailor!

    A Wrinkle in Time (the whole series)

    Libby On Wednesday– another book that made me want to become a writer and be weird and collect strange things.

    The Giver

    The White Mountains (trilogy)– sci-fi about post-industrial society.

  28. The few books that really stand out for me are The Lovely Bones, Go Ask Alice and The Great Gatsby. I love them all for different reasons.
    The Lovely Bones still sends chills up my spine. I loved reading the story from the victims point of view.
    Go Ask Alice – is great becuase she was just an average girl sucked in to the life of drugs. It was an eye opener. She could of been any one of us.
    The Great Gatsby – my 11th grade English teacher MADE me read this and I am so glad he did. I don’t know what stood out about it all I know is it kept me interested and I kept reading.

    Hope this all helps

    Kelly (BWS Staff)

  29. Hi Emily,
    Thanks for sharing this. Charlotte Doyle–isn’t that an Avi book?–was really powerful, and full of adventure. I love The Giver, a classic for our time, I think! When I was a school librarian, The White Mountains trilogy was very popular, though I have to admit, I’ve never read them!

  30. The books I remember reading in the late 60’s and early 70’s that changed my thinking and/or awareness were Anne of Green Gables, Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury, Christy by Catherine Marshall, Catcher in the Rye, Scarlet Letter, Silas Marner, Great Expectations, To Kill a Mockingbird, Shiddharta, Hiroshima, Animal Farm, Gone With the Wind (sexy and hot compared to Christy), several James Bond books (first awareness of causal sex. I had no idea). Short stories of Edgar Allen Poe appealed to my dark side, and short stories by O’Henry. The Gift of the Magi and the Ransome of Red Chief were favorites. Romeo and Juliet and other Shakespeare(Is that considered YA?) Willa Cather’s My Antonia, I cannot remember the others.
    I remember not liking Little Women, until I was much older.
    Lots of poetry by Emily Dickinson, Robert Burns, Carl Sandburg, Robert Frost, others.
    There was a book I read in high school that was non fiction about a young woman lost in the social welfare system and her drug abuse. The title was the first name of the girl, another non-fiction Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex but Were Afraid to Ask, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, Black Like Me, Autobiography of
    Margaret Mead and I think a biography of Katerine Hepburn.

  31. Jacqueline,
    You were really an ambitious and voracious reader! Thanks for your input. Lots to consider.

  32. Typical teacher, I just read the directions. My favorite was Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury It is a rite of passage story, not the science fiction he was famous for.

  33. Hi Pam, My favorite was Are you there, God? It’s me Margaret. This book was one I read over and over and thought Judy Blume must have been able to read my mind. How could she know and understand all the feelings I was experiencing as a young adult? She put into words what was sometimes bottled up inside of me as well as put words to what was already in my heart… love to you. Jane

  34. Hi Jane!
    How good to hear from you. My step-daughter Dana said the same thing about Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret! That book keeps coming up again and again, so I’m thinking it’s one my class should read.

    Hope to see you soon.

  35. I definitely read and enjoyed Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret, but the book I remember being the most moved by was The Thorn Birds by Colleen Mccullough – I don’t think it qualifies as YA, though. And, I am not even sure I remember what it was about – except the priest thing – but it definitely made some kind of impression.

    I also loved the Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster, but again, not sure if that is YA (this time scaling younger), but maybe it is and I was just younger than YA when I read it.

    The books I have enjoyed most as an adult, reading YA, were rather extreme between them: Katherine Paterson’s Jacob Have I Loved and Louise Rennison’s series starting with Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging: Confessions of Georgia Nicolson.

    I can’t help it, I love that series – I laughed all the way through it. Oh, and yes, I am a big Harry Potter fan and am not afraid to state it!

    Hope you have fun with the class!

  36. Hi Bethany,
    Glad you joined in the discussion! Thorn Birds–I remember it, especially the mini-series. It’s a “crossover,” I guess you’d say. So many fit into that category, like To Kill a Mockingbird, Jane Eyre, P&P, etc. I’m having fun putting the class together, and it’s great getting the dialogue going on here!

  37. What a great topic to ruminate about! The first important book memory was of my mom reading Alice and Wonderland aloud to me when I was five. What great visuals that book created in my mind. The next book memory that came to mind was The Phantom Tollbooth, which I remember reading in third or fourth grade and loving. It just struck me as being so clever and so different from anything I had ever read. (Black Beauty ranked right up there, but more on that later) From there, I can picture A Wrinkle in Time sitting next to my bed when I was in the fifth grade. I think it was the first book I actually read more than once. Now writing this, it is obvious I really enjoyed the fantasy genre! (Might explain my love for the Harry Potter books and The Historian). Middle school brought on a love for Judy Blume books (couldn’t wait to read Forever since my mom said I had to be “old enough”). In high school, I was fascinated by Anne Sexton’s poems, since I (like numerous other young girls) had an obsession with horses (hence the love of Black Beauty) in grade school. Favorite high school book–Of Mice and Men. Fascinating look at human nature (hence my major of sociology in college).

  38. My memories of reading in elementary school revolve around the reading programs from the library. Quantity was the name of the game, and I read plenty. But do I remember what…nooooooo.

    I do remember many of the books I read to my fifth graders. LLoyd Alexander was a fav. I read all of the series to one class. They kept asking for the next one after I finished reading. What was I to do but comply. Fantasy isn’t my fav. genre but I loved the series. It was so well writtern. I plodded through the first Harry Potter book. It was a tough one to read aloud and some kids hated it. The Great Brain books were popular.. Wrinkle in Time was a fav and I read that many times. One year I read two of the Little Britches books and the kids loved them….old fashioned as they were. Kids loved Tom Sawyer. Lois Lowry was another author I loved. Summer of the Monkeys and books by Avi were winners too.

    I will try to think of more later but right now my brain is tired.

  39. Hey, Gin,
    Avi and Lois Lowry are definitely two of my favorites. I’m thinking of using The Giver for the class, but there are so many outstanding books to choose from, it’s hard to narrow it down to five or six.

    Thanks for sharing!


  40. Hi Jen,
    Thanks for your post! It’s amazing how many people mentioned books they read in high school as favorites–even though we probably hated reading them and writing the inevitable essay at the time! A Wrinkle in Time and Judy Blume’s Forever have both been singled out numerous times, too.


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