Guest Post by YA author Luisa Plaja. In Search of a Yellow Star: Teen Fiction Through the Decades

One of my favourite talks when I do school visits is the one I call “Teen Fiction Myths”. And one of my favourite myths is that teen fiction is a New Thing. I hear adults well under the age of 60 mentioning this all the time. “The kids of today are lucky,” they say. “We didn’t have any books aimed at teenagers in my day.”
“Really?” I always want to say. “You didn’t have fiction with teenaged protagonists, exploring coming-of-age issues and relationships from a teen point of view? Are you SURE?”
I don’t usually say that, though. If the person is lucky, I nod and smile and move on. But the unlucky few get me climbing on my soap box and saying the following, only in a lot more words and animated hand gestures, causing a lot more watch-checking and sudden-bus-arrival in my ‘listener’...
Teen fiction has existed ever since adolescence became recognised as a distinct stage in life, sometime in the late 1940s or early 1950s.
Sure, I can argue the case for books that people don’t necessarily see as teen fiction, such as J D Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle and William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. But I don’t just mean those. I’m talking about all the other, less famous books where the point of view is that of a young adult in the moment, and not looking back. I’m talking about the kinds of books I’ve always loved reading – and writing.
From the age of about 10, I’d scour the spines of the Harrow Library Services children’s sections for the yellow star that meant “teen”. I’d pounce on the books I found, borrowing them many times. In fact, it’s that very yellow star that lead me to reach the above conclusion. Hunting through my old books one day last year, I came across a yellow-starred book I bought for 2p when it was retired from Harrow Libraries in the late eighties – a book called Fifteen by Beverly Cleary. And the publication date? 1956. Yet, in many ways, it could have been written today. Take this quote from when our heroine is in the presence of a boy she likes. “Sitting down and standing up had always been such a simple process until now. Suddenly life seemed unbearably complicated.”
Having said all this, I’ll jump off my soap box and admit that there is probably much more fiction like this now, which can only be a good thing, in my opinion. And also from the point of view of my teenaged, yellow-star-seeking self, who has never left me.
Just for fun, try this quiz. I have one short opening extract of a book published in each of the following decades: 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s and noughties. The books are all aimed at teenage girls. Can you guess which decade they are from? I’ll put the answers and book details in the comments when this is posted, so don’t click the comments yet if you want to try the test!
1. It’s hard to know where to begin telling you this. I wonder if there’s even such a thing as a beginning – or maybe there is, but you can never pin it to one time or one place.
2. Getting to be thirteen turned out to be an absolute and complete bummer. I mean it. What a letdown.
3. I am in a cupboard, and I’m snogging the coolest and most gorgeous boy in the whole school.
4. Penny thought it was a wonderful piece of luck that they were moving house on a Thursday, because nobody, not even Miss Wolff, would expect her to do her arithmetic homework in the middle of a move.
5. As the hot water pounded down on me, I was suddenly aware I was not alone. Someone was standing very close to me, under the same shower. I opened my eyes, blinking away water. It was him.
6. Today I’m going to meet a boy, Jane Purdy told herself, as she walked up Blossom Street toward her baby-sitting job.

Luisa Plaja is author of teen novels including Split by a Kiss, Extreme Kissing and Swapped by a Kiss, and editor of teen fiction site


Geraldine Ryan said...

Lovely little quiz, Luisa. Recognise one very familiar quote there! In the sixties I remember reading the Wells books by Lorna Hill - all full of young teen heroines - and the "Drina Dances in...(name of country) books. Then there were the classics - "Little Women"; "Daddy Long Legs"; "What Katy Did". I think I very quickly jumped from children's stuff to adult and the books that formed the bridge were books like "The L-Shaped Room"; "The Country Girls"; "Bonjour Tristesse"; "A Summer Birdcage" and "Georgy Girl" - books that had they been written today may well be marketed as YA.

Old Kitty said...


Ooooh may I again mention SE Hinton (1969-1970's)- glorious YA writer of classics such as The Oustiders and Rumble Fish?

Yes I can! LOL!

As for the quiz. Deep breath. Here goes.

2)198O's? It's the word "bummer"!LOL
3)1970's "snogging"?

4) 1960's
5) 1990s
6) 1950's!


Now to be shown that I got them all mixed up!

Thanks for a fun post.

Take care

Luisa Plaja said...

Oh, thanks for your comments with excellent book suggestions. Old Kitty, you definitely can mention SE Hinton, and I agree about The Outsiders! Geri, I think you're right that many of those books could be marketed as YA nowadays.

I was going to put the answers up now, but I'm wondering whether to put them up a bit later? Hmm, yes. I'll be back in an hour or so.

Thank you very much for having me here, Strictly Writing team!

Ellen Brickley said...

1. 1970s
2. 1980s
3. 1990s
4. 1950s (it's the word arithmetic!)
5. 2000s
6. 1960s

Great post, Luisa. And thanks for name-checking I Capture The Castle, it's one of my favourites!

I grew up in the era of Sweet Valley High and the Babysitter's Club - I know they probably don't have a lot in common with the YA I read today but the market was still there, even if it was a little different.

Luisa Plaja said...

They updated Sweet Valley High in 2008 and the modernised versions are out there, together with some fascinating info about exactly what was changed. (This one is interesting: - extract:

"In 1983, the twins drove a red Fiat- in 2008 it’s a red Jeep. In 1983, Elizabeth was an editor at the school newspaper. In 2008, she is an editor for the school newspaper, which is a website, and also runs an anonymous blog. These updates make sense and I understand why the editors implemented them. However, I was infuriated and disappointed by the first change noted in the memo: in 1983 the twins wore a “perfect size 6″. Today, it’s a “perfect size 4″."

Can you tell that I can talk about this forever? :)

Caroline Green said...

Thanks for a brill post and quiz, Luisa! I've only read a handful of YA [mainly yours, ha ha] but will have a go:

1. 70s
3. noughties!!!
4. 50s
6. 60s.

But I don;t really have a clue apart from one of them!

Gillian McDade said...

What a great post, Luisa.

1. 1990s
2. 1980s
3. 1980s
4. 1970s
5. 2000s
6. 1990s

I reckon mine are totally wrong. Thanks for the Sweet Valley High mention, too! Ah the good ole days.

Luisa Plaja said...

I'm really enjoying all these great guesses, so I think I'll post the answers tomorrow after all. *wicked laugh* ;) I hope that sounds OK!

Thank you for the lovely comments, everyone!

Caroline Green said...

It's funny that we've all gone for completely different answers!

BeckyC said...

Enjoyed reading this Luisa! My guesses below...

1 - '70s
2 - '90s
3 - '00s
4 - '50s
5 - '60s
6 - '80s

Caroline Green said...

Oops, I missed one out:

1. 70s
3. noughties!!!
4. 50s
5. 60s
6. 80s....which is the same as Becky's guess, I see.

Geraldine Ryan said...

Forgot my answers!
1) 70's
2) 80's
5) 90's
6) 60's

Gillian McDade said...

I didn't use 50s or 60s in case it was a trick question!

Debs Riccio said...

Oooh I love quizzes! Now watch me fail spectacularly at this one:
1. 60's.
2. 80's.
3. SBAK - Noughties (memorable opener!)
4. 50's
5. Just read it - 90's.
6. 70's.

Luisa Plaja said...

Well, most of you have at least one of them right. ;)

Fionnuala said...

Thanks Luisa for a really different post. Only one I recognise is the one in the cupboard?! x

Roderic Vincent said...

Thanks, Luisa. Great to see you on here. I won't take on the challenge as this is not my specialist area.

Luisa Plaja said...

Thanks, lovely commenters! :)

Just wanted to add this link, in case anyone is interested. (See, now I'm here, I can't stop!),0,1082099.story?

It's an article from today's LA Times about how Young Adult fiction is increasingly read by adults.

"Young adult lit comes of age:
Authors may gear their novels toward the junior and senior high crowd, but adults are snapping up the books"

Caroline Green said...

That's really interesting...I'm increasingly drawn to reading books in this age group. Mind you, that's because I'm trying to write one. Don;t think I'd necessarily have been drawn to them otherwise...

Luisa Plaja said...

OK, thank you for all the great comments and quiz answers.

Here are the answers:

1. 80s – Second Star to the Right by Deborah Hautzig, 1981
2. 70s – Hanging Out With Cici by Francine Pascal, 1977
3. 00s – Split by a Kiss by Luisa Plaja, 2008 (extra points for this one! Hee hee)
4. 60s – Penny’s Way by Mary K. Harris, 1963
5. 90s – Diving In by Kate Cann, 1996
6. 50s – Fifteen by Beverly Cleary, 1956

I think you all did brilliantly!

Caroline Green said...

I did spectacularly badly there!
Thanks again Luisa. Come back anytime!

Debs Riccio said...

2/6? - shameful!

CentenaryCrew said...

Luisa, I love how much you know about YA fiction. I think they should appoint a Teen Laureate, and it should be you. And I'm happy to say I've read numbers 2, 3 and 6!

Kelley said...

Great info!Thanks for sharing.
Be sure to check out my new book as well!