The Outsiders, by S. E. Hinton
The classic of all classics, Hinton’s tough,
tender story about teenage outcasts unassumingly threw down a gauntlet that
has lasted half a century. Showing a deep
sympathy and understanding for teen
characters, Hinton—a teen herself at the
time—rewrote the rules for teen lit, a clarion call to future YA authors: be honest, be
brave, and, above all, respect your subjects.
The Earthsea Trilogy, by Ursula K. Le
Guin (HMH, 1968–1972).
Le Guin’s magic-infused archipelago
brims with diversity and meaningful cultural and religious interplay as readers
follow the journeys of wizard Geb and
priestess Tenar. Comprised of A Wizard
of Earthsea (1968), The Tombs of Atuan
(1970), and The Farthest Shore (1972), this
displays stunning depth and complexity.
The Pigman, by Paul Zindel (Harper,
High-schoolers John and Lorraine think
it will be fun to scam old Mr. Pignati out
of a few bucks, but when they meet him,
they find a friend who gives them the parental support they’ve been missing. Their
betrayal of his trust leads to disaster. One
of the earliest YA books to show teen life in
all its darkness and complexity.
The Friends, by Rosa Guy (Holt, 1973).
Phyllisia, a well-to-do West Indian girl
who has just moved to New York, befriends
Edith, a desperately poor African American classmate, whom she ambivalently
loves and feels ashamed of. Several scenes
are jolting, but Guy makes the situation
starkly real while showing how Phyllisia’s
hardships lead to realizations about herself
and her relationships.
A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ but a Sandwich,
by Alice Childress (Penguin/Puffin,
Benji is a 13-year-old heroin addict. But
he knows he can quit. Characters from
his mother to his drug dealer comment in
short, first-person monologues that show
how family life, neighborhood, racism,
and poverty have affected his decisions.
Childress’ stylistic choices, including street
vernacular, offered fresh perspectives, and
the intensity of Benji’s life hit readers hard.
I Know What You Did Last Summer, by
Lois Duncan (Little, Brown, 1973).
A master of thrills and suspense, Duncan
was equally admired for populating her
novels with believable teenage characters
and for not talking down to her readers. In
this heart-pounding novel, four teens accidentally kill a boy in a hit-and-run and
are sinisterly stalked by a vengeful witness.
The fear is real.
Forever, by Judy Blume (Atheneum, 1975).
It’s remarkable that a book candidly
portraying responsible, consensual sex provoked such controversy, but the story of
high-school senior Kath was emphatically
banned. That didn’t stop young teens from
passing around Blume’s sex-positive and
distinctly feminist novel, in which Kath
explores her sexuality on her own terms.
Beauty: A Retelling of Beauty and the
Beast, by Robin McKinley (Harper, 1978).
Future Newbery medalist McKinley’s
debut, her first of two “Beauty and the
Beast” retellings, was also one of the
earliest YA fairy-tale adaptations. This
luscious, carefully constructed fable follows homely, curious Beauty as she travels
to an enchanted castle to save her father
and slowly befriends the beast that lives
Gentlehands, by M. E. Kerr (Harper,
The Holocaust is the basis for many fine
YA novels, but this book did something different. In a contemporary setting, it brought
the subject home in a way that raised questions about personal morality as well as
collective guilt. When Buddy and his new
girlfriend meet his grandfather, they find
him erudite and cultured. They are shocked
to learn he may be a Nazi butcher.
Homecoming, by Cynthia Voigt
When their mother abandons them in
a shopping-mall parking lot, 13-year-old
Dicey Tillerman and her three younger siblings set out on foot to find a new
home with another relative. Emotion-
“That’s not a bad word . . . hate and war are bad words, but fuck isn’t.”
—Judy Blume, Forever.