The years fly by, and suddenly it’s the eighties, widely called the “me” decade, a fact that had little impact on young adult literature, since—for teens—every decade is
a me decade. But teens are also a dynamic lot and, yes, fickle,
so change visited the literature nevertheless. Its earliest manifestation was the decline of the problem novel and the unlikely
renaissance of the forties romance.
Why this should have been is moot; it may have had something to do with a trickle-down effect, for the previous decade
had seen an explosion of adult romance fiction. It may have been
an exercise in nostalgia; after all, a forties movie star and former
host of the fifties’ TV show Death Valley Days was now resident
in the White House. Or it may simply have been that teens had
endured a surfeit of problems and longed for a simpler, more
benign world. Be that as it may, romance once again ruled the
roost as it had in the forties; one major difference, however, was
that while teens in the forties looked for romance novels by their
authors’ names—Janet Lambert, Betty Cavanna, Rosamond du
Jardin, etc.—it was series titles they searched for in the eighties:
Wildfire, Caprice, Sweet Dreams, and—far outpacing all the
rest—the phenomenal Sweet Valley High (by the end of the decade,
there were 34 million copies of
SVH books in print, and in 1985,
the first YA novel ever to reach the
New York Times best-seller list was
Perfect Summer, a Sweet Valley High
While romance was on the rise, public and school library
budgets were on the wane; the taxpayers were, er, revolting, and,
accordingly, institutional budgets were busily becoming the incredible shrinking man. Where could publishers look to market
their product? Why, to the teens themselves, targeting them in
the chain bookstores found in America’s ubiquitous malls, the
teens’ home away from home. “There is a teenage consumer
force out there, and the only way to reach them is to go where
their action is,” declared Beverly Horowitz, then editor in chief
of Pacer Books, a new line of paperbacks, a format that became
a hallmark of the decade. Indeed, it quickly became a fact of
publishing that a book would no longer be issued in hardcover
unless it promised fat prospective sales as a paperback a year or
Meanwhile, as boy-girl romances remained epidemic, another
kind of romance, involving same-sex love, began, cautiously, to
emerge with the landmark 1982 publication of Nancy Garden’s
Annie on My Mind, the first gay romance—with a happy ending, no less. Annie sparked a flurry of LGBTQ fiction in its wake.
Consider that throughout the entire decade of the seventies only
nine books with gay content were published (and, in the sixties,
only a single one!). The number quadrupled to 36 in the eighties,
a modest total but an indication that a new genre was aborning.
Speaking of new genres, near the end of the decade, romance
was joined in the lists by a new kid on the series block: horror.
Christopher Pike’s 1985 novel Slumber Party is generally regarded as being the progenitor of the form, but Pike must share
the spotlight with R. L. Stine, whose Blind Date was published
in 1987, a forerunner to his immensely popular Fear Street and
Goosebumps series. Though different in story content, romance
and horror shared something in common: their characters were
almost all lily white, middle class, and suburban.
Fortunately, that was about to change, thanks to the effect
of Congress’ having passed amendments to the Immigration
and Nationality Act in 1965 that placed a ceiling on immigration from European countries while raising it for the rest of the
world. The result was a major change in immigration patterns
as the number of immigrants from Asia and the West Indies increased dramatically. In the meantime, the eighties had seen the
largest wave of immigration since the nineteenth century: 8. 9
million people entered the U.S. legally between 1980 and 1990,
and another 3 million, illegally. Was there a literature to give
faces to these new Americans and other people of color?
Well, yes and no. It was 1965, the same year as the amendments to the Immigration and Nationality Act, when educator
Nancy Larrick published her seminal article “The All-White
World of Children’s Books,” which found that of the 5,206
books for young readers published between 1962 and 1964, only
6. 7 percent of them featured characters of color. Happily, that
was about to improve. Thanks to Larrick’s article and the burgeoning civil rights movement, a black literary renaissance got
underway, and over the next decade, authentic African American
characters began to appear for the first time in books for young
But what about those immigrants? Their story is less salutary.
Though their sheer numbers cried out for a literature by and
about them, they continued to be notable by their absence.
Asian faces, for example, remained invisible until the nineties,
as, largely, did those of Latino young people. Why? Well, there
are a number of reasons: one is that there have never been sufficient editors of color working in publishing, and two is that
the editors who were there didn’t publish enough authors of
We’ll return to the issue of multicultural literature soon. But
before we examine that, it’s time to turn our attention to the
nineties, dark days for young adult literature, as we will discover
in my next month’s column. See you then.
“Where could publishers look to market their product? Why, to the
teens themselves, targeting them in the chain bookstores found in
America’s ubiquitous malls.”
YA IN THE EIGHTIES
MICHAEL CART is the editor of Taking Aim: Teens and Guns (Harper Teen, 2015).