The phrase “young adult” reflects the history of changing perceptions of childhood, adolescence, and adulthood and how these ideas have shaped parenting, education, libraries, publishing, and marketing (Cart 1996; Eccleshare 1996; Campbell 2009). The Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA) denotes ages twelve to eighteen as composing “young adult” readers (YALSA 1994). Given the dominant conception that this period of growth is particularly important, understandings of what constitutes “good” young adult literature vary extensively, for there is a great deal at stake.
Readers often imagine young adult (YA) literature as texts that challenge the status quo. They believe that while children’s literature finds its roots in a cheerful, Wordsworthian Romanticism, YA literature is heir to the more revolutionary strain of Blakean Romanticism with characters who incisively expose society’s ills (Lesnik-Oberstein 1998). An examination of the phrase’s history, however, reveals a more complex Romantic inheritance that can illuminate contradictions within the various communities that coalesce around their interest in YA literature, and in their belief in sheltering these readers from or introducing them to a range of texts.
Oddly, “young adult” is not found in most dictionaries even though it is used in thousands of articles in academic, educational, and library journals in addition to the popular press. Patty Campbell (2003) documents the earliest “use of the term young adult for teen books… [in] 1937, although it didn’t come into general use until 1958.” This move followed organizational changes within the American Library Association, dividing the Association of Young People’s Librarians into the Children’s Library Association and the Young Adult Services Division in 1957 (Starr n.d.), but librarians had already begun creating special spaces and services for their teenaged readers as early as 1926 (Campbell 2003).
“Young adult” is not in the Oxford English Dictionary, but Random House Dictionary defines it as “a teenager (used especially by publishers and librarians).” Improbably, their editors skip the phrase’s adjectival form entirely. Although they gesture toward the textual world—reminding readers that people who work with books use this word—they never remark upon it in the context of YA literature. They also define it as “a person in the early years of adulthood,” a definition that only points to the very end of the age continuum, excluding most of the readership addressed by Random House’s YA imprint, Delacorte. It does incorporate the more expansive understanding of “young adult” that includes the MTV demographic of readers as old as twenty-five, however (Cart 2001).
The dominant way of imagining and marketing YA literature is shaped primarily by the age of the work’s intended reader. Yet “crossover” novels such as Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy (1995–2000) and J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series (1997–2007)—read by children, adolescents, and adults—challenge the categorization based solely on age. Further complicating the often dualistic category of crossover literature, YA literature comfortably houses award-winning “adult” texts such as Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (2003); children’s books like Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith’s The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales (1992; see Aronson 2001); texts that have won awards in children’s and young adult fiction, such as Nancy Farmer’s The House of the Scorpion (2002); as well as literature imagined as young adult, such as Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (2007).
Importantly, defining “young adult” according to what readers between the ages of twelve and eighteen (or twenty-five) would enjoy or benefit from reveals assumptions about adolescent readers that pre-date the “beginning” of YA literature in the 1960s. Sarah Trimmer appears to be the first to have used the concept of a young adult readership in her periodical, The Guardian of Education (1802–6), although she uses the terms “young person” or “young people” (Chambers 1985a; Eccleshare 1996). Trimmer, a deeply religious writer and publisher, loomed large on the intellectual landscape of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries (Ruwe 2001), and upon her death, more than one person publicly urged Britain to memorialize her in Saint Paul’s Cathedral (Myers 1990). Trimmer designed The Guardian to help adults choose “safe and good” books for children and young persons “from the most respectable sources” (Trimmer 1802). Her primary concern was helping readers avoid books influenced by contemporary philosophy, and promoting those that would shape well-behaved, submissive, and God-fearing youth.
Relying on some of the new theories of child development, Trimmer makes what is likely the first distinction between child and young adult readers, explaining how she
shall endeavour to separate [texts] into two distinct classes, viz. Books for Children_, and Books_ for Young Persons … [and shall] take the liberty of adopting the idea of our forefathers, by supposing all young gentlemen and ladies to be Children_, till they are_ fourteen and young persons till they are at least twenty-one_; and shall class books we examine as they shall appear to us to be suitable to these different stages of human life. (Trimmer 1802)_
Although Trimmer’s understanding of young people is remarkably contemporary in its perception of young adulthood as lasting until “at least twenty-one,” and also in how it is conceptualizing young adult readers, The Guardian’s recommended reading is literature that might be enjoyed by adolescents but was not necessarily written with them in mind. (See Trites [1996, 2000] on the distinction between adolescent and YA literature; see Immel’s index  for the list of texts Trimmer recommended to her adolescent readers.) Undeniably, determining whether or not a work is written expressly for young adults is a significant variable in defining contemporary YA literature.
Contrary to Trimmer’s understanding that good literature should fashion young readers into deeply moral people, contemporary YA literature ostensibly shuns that didactic impulse. And while Trimmer’s periodical provided children and young people with models of near impossible virtue in order to shape more upright adults, today’s YA literature could hardly be said to advance this agenda—indeed, the “adult” in “young adult” is often code for its euphemistic meaning of mature content. Yet, as many have pointed out, the problem novel in the 1970s, a staple genre within YA literature, was freighted with deeply didactic impulses (Cart 1996; Trites 2000). Undeniably, the conventional association between YA literature’s beginnings and realism privileges both verisimilitude and a strong sense of moral purpose (see Cart 1996; Tribunella 2007; Campbell 2009; Nilsen and Donelson 2009). For if we take Raymond Williams’s (1983a) important articulation of realism as “a description of facing up to things as they really are, and not as we imagine or would like them to be,” then we arrive at a dominant theme in much of contemporary YA literature. While Trimmer’s understanding of “things as they really are” is grounded in readings that reflect a prerevolutionary world order and a divine transcendental signified, the foundational texts of YA literature, such as S. E. Hinton’s The Outsiders (1967), Paul Zindel’s The Pigman (1968), and Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War (1974), are anchored in an equally fervent—though more subtly articulated—commitment to “‘facing facts’” (Williams 1983a).
S. E. Hinton (1967b) calls for a young adult literature fashioned against romance—those novels about the “horse-and-the-girl-who-loved-it” as well as the “fairyland of proms and double dates.” Instead, she insists that texts address the real “violence of teen-agers’ lives… [such as] the beating-up at a local drive-in” or the “reality” of “the behind-the-scenes politicking that goes on in big schools, [and] the cruel social system” that defines popularity. She demands this realism because of her belief that young people “know their parents aren’t superhuman,… that justice doesn’t always win out, and that sometimes the bad guys win.” Her understanding of fiction has an implicit moral imperative: to “face facts,” certainly, but also to show that “some people don’t sell out, and that everyone can’t be bought.” Jerry Renault, the protagonist of The Chocolate War, could be held up as an example of Hinton’s latter claim. (Anita Tarr’s  vital rejoinder to this dominant reading extends Hinton’s insistence on the importance of exposing the real violence of teenagers’ lives. For Tarr reveals that Jerry does not make a conscious choice to “disturb the universe,” and asserts that academics’ and teachers’ attention to his “decision” to resist the chocolate sale shifts critical focus away from the novel’s deeply troubling and virulent misogyny—another “fact” readers need to face.)
Many contemporary YA writers, even those not allied with realist works, are also committed to this politics of realism, which often addresses ethical concerns. M. T. Anderson’s Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing novels (2006, 2008) present eighteenth-century American society in new and ominous ways, ingeniously illuminating the horrors of slavery, and melding rich historical realism with new imaginary perspectives. Octavian Nothing pushes readers to contemplate what it means to be human, and has stirred debate about the nature of youth and what they should be reading. Other significant YA texts also advance a realist agenda ineluctably bound up with a sense of the moral possibilities of literature. Francesca Lia Block’s magical realist fiction reminds readers of the transformative potential of love and art in stories that address topics such as sexual abuse and AIDS, all the while challenging heteronormativity by consistently providing readers with gay characters. Other, more realist writers advance similar agendas and illuminate the limits of Block’s more utopian yearnings. Jacqueline Woodson makes alarmingly clear that race still clouds how people see other humans in If You Come Softly (1998) and reveals the particular challenges facing biracial youth in The House You Pass on the Way (1999), as well as presenting a range of sexual identities and experiences for her characters. Walter Dean Myers’s Monster (1999) scrutinizes flaws in the American judicial system while also trenchantly examining contemporary constructions of masculinity. And Catherine Atkins’s When Jeff Comes Home (1999) considers sexual violence against boys and men, crucially illuminating effects of trauma as well as the intensely gendered ways we conceptualize victims of sexual violence (Pattee 2004). Other texts that examine rape, such as Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak (1999), work to show young readers that adults are not “superhuman,” to use Hinton’s phrase, but significantly depict them as human and humane—unlike the remote, distasteful, and sometimes sadistic adults presented in The Chocolate War. If sex and death are the two primary concepts from which we shelter children (Mills 2000), and then introduce young adults to in texts that reflect their burgeoning maturity, Jenny Downham’s Before I Die (2007) considers both. Yet her novel and Cynthia Kadohata’s Kira-Kira (2004) are as much about living fully as they are moving examinations of young people succumbing to terminal illnesses. Aidan Chambers’s masterful Postcards from No Man’s Land (1999) also addresses death, but pushes readers to contemplate the possibility of euthanasia for an aged protagonist, as well as challenging them to think about the Dutch and British legacies of World War II, teenagers’ fascination with Anne Frank, and bisexuality.
Novels such as these reflect the breadth of the best of contemporary YA literature, but some would prefer these—and a host of others—to be censored. The disagreements reveal interesting ideas about young adults that recall the phrase’s dual Romantic roots: YA readers are innocents in need of further shelter or last-minute instruction, or are readers who need to “face the facts” about the world, ideally becoming more enlightened, democratic world citizens. While contemporary YA writers have largely used literature to advance Western notions of adolescence as a time to question the power structure, rebel, or embrace one’s “individuality,” scholars should not forget this term’s occluded Romantic inheritance of narrower reading practices and antirevolutionary sentiment. The rich field of YA literature is indebted to a number of revolutions, including but not limited to the social movements of the 1960s and the backlash that followed them; it is also heir to the French Revolution and reactions against the Enlightenment philosophies that brought it about. Both legacies reflect people’s comprehension of literature’s ability to shape, define, expand, and alter experience. Given the considerable changes in mind and body that mark adolescence, and our belief in the significance of this liminal state between childhood and adulthood, it is no wonder that YA literature is viewed—positively or negatively—as potent and transformative.