Judging by the shelves upon shelves filling our libraries’ teen rooms, you’d think that the “YA” or “teen” genre has been a fixture in literature for forever. But it’s actually a fairly new phenomenon– before sometime in the 1920s, “teens” didn’t even really exist. You were a child… and then you were an adult. Just like that. And “teen” as a genre wasn’t really a thing until the seventies, steadily growing through the eighties and nineties before really blowing up in the last 15 years or so.
There is an in-between for almost everything, but the experience of being somewhere between childhood and adulthood is a hugely formative time in anyone’s life. That’s why, before there was YA, before people thought of teens as teens, even– writers were writing about that in-between time. Read on to see my list of books written about teens… before they ever had their own genre:
Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, 1861
Great Expectations is what English teachers like to call a bildungsroman— in other words, a coming-of-age novel. It’s about a poor orphan, Pip, who grows up and inherits a lot of money. It’s got all the adventure and drama and romance a person could want, and most of it follows Pip’s teen years.
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, 1868
This is one of my favorite books. Little Women tells the story of four sisters growing up in America during the Civil War. Alcott, who had three sisters herself, skillfully explores the characters’ relationships with each other– sometimes filled with anger and hurt; always ending in love.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, 1884
This is a sequel to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, with the same characters, now a bit older. The same antics ensue, but Twain goes a little deeper in this book, exploring themes of morality and identity.
Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson, 1886
Kidnapped is historical fiction, set in Scotland in the 18th century, with many of the characters portraying real people. The story follows a 17-year-old on a journey in a time of huge political conflict.
Captains Courageous by Rudyard Kipling, 1897
This book is great if you like reading about unlikable characters who learn lessons the hard way. (And become likable in the end.) Also, stories about seafarers are always a win in my book.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith, 1943
Besides having an awesome title, this book highlights the still-relevant topic of a recently-immigrated family making a life for themselves in America. The book focuses on the teen years of Francie, a third-generation immigrant growing up in New York.
I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith, 1948
This is one of my favorite books of all time. I already talked about it here, in a more lengthy review than I could fit in this post. Go read the review or better yet, just check out the book. You won’t regret it.
The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, 1951
Boarding-school dropout Holden Caulfield is the picture of teen angst in this modern classic. The writing style is unique; most of it is a sort of stream-of-consciousness that’s actually readable. Bonus: lots of mid-century American slang.
The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton, 1967
The Outsiders follows two gangs living in Tulsa, Oklahoma. I, personally, consider this to be the first major YA novel. The best part of this book is that the author was a teenager when she wrote it– you can’t get more authentic than that.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou, 1969
This is Maya Angelou’s autobiography, covering her life from birth until age 16. She had a traumatic childhood, and that makes this book hard to read– but the beauty of the writing and Angelou’s methods of dealing with her pain make it all worth it.
The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros, 1984
This book is a must-read. It follows Esperanza, a Latina living in Chicago. Written in short segments that read like poetry, we get a beautiful first-person look at Esperanza’s current life, and her dreams for a better one.
All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy, 1992
If you want to read McCarthy, but aren’t sure about the bleakness of his other novels, this one is a great place to start– it’s a little more friendly. John is a 16-year-old traveling by horseback, looking for work as a cowboy alongside his best friend. Think of it as a road trip novel, except with literal horsepower. It’s wonderful.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky, 1999
This one is obviously relatively recent, but I included it because I think it signified a turning point for YA literature. Most “books for teens” that I read when I was younger felt like what they were… Entertainment for teens, written by adults. Perks felt different– like literature, not written down to me, but respecting me at my level, dealing frankly with themes and issues that I definitely dealt with as a teen– but that no other author seemed to want to explore. After this book was written, a whole world was opened to YA authors and readers alike, and YA keeps getting better and broader as the years go on.
Note: All of the information here is accurate, to my knowledge, but I’m not a historian and you shouldn’t use this post as a research source. I recommend reading the Wikipedia page on YA lit and also these articles for more information on the history of YA.