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A Censored History of Ladies in YA Fiction

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Kelly Jensen


Kelly is a former librarian and a long-time blogger at STACKED. She's the editor/author of (DON'T) CALL ME CRAZY: 33 VOICES START THE CONVERSATION ABOUT MENTAL HEALTH and the editor/author of HERE WE ARE: FEMINISM FOR THE REAL WORLD. Her next book, BODY TALK, will publish in Fall 2020. Follow her on Instagram @heykellyjensen.

The first woman of YA — and the first person to be recognized as a YA author — started out as many first women in history do: downplaying the fact she was a woman.

the outsiders by se hintonIt wasn’t entirely by choice that S. E. Hinton didn’t publish under her full name. She was urged by her publisher to use her initials in order to avoid being readily dismissed by male reviewers who would potentially be turned off by her real name, Susan Eloise. It didn’t matter that her book featured male main characters.

Hinton published 1967’s The Outsiders when she was a mere 18 years old because she wasn’t satisfied with the books being written for readers like her: young adults. She has kept her name to her initials, publishing numerous YA and adult titles since. Today, The Outsiders remains one of the most widely-read, widely-recognized, and widely-challenged YA books.

S. E. Hinton’s story foreruns those of other women in YA fiction. While YA was allowed to grow and develop, too often, the work women did laying down the tracks to its success was recognized not on its own merits but because of the approval of their expressed work by men. Books like Twilight — written by a woman and enjoyed primarily by female readers, both teen and adult — become easy targets, rather than symbols of recognition and/or status, for any discussion about YA fiction. Everything is problematic when Twilight is involved, despite the fact that that book, and its author Stephenie Meyer, did and continue to do tremendous things for the category at large.

Like The Outsiders, Judy Blume’s books — which feature female main characters — expanded crucial framework for YA. Like Hinton’s, her books were, and continue to be, challenged.

The American Library Association, which began tracking most frequently challenged books by decade in the 1990s, lists Forever (the sex book), Blubber (middle grade mean girls book), Deenie (the masturbation book), Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret (the sexual references book), and Tiger Eyes (the violence book) in the top 100 most-challenged books from 1990-2000. All but Deenie remained in that top 100 most-challenged list between 2000 and 2010.

The most challenged books list reads like a history of women in YA: Lois Duncan (Killing Mr. Griffin and Daughters of Eve), Caroline B. Cooney (The Face on the Milk Carton and The Terrorist), Lauren Myracle (ttfn, ttyl, and l8r g8r) , Laurie Halse Anderson (Speak, of course), Phyllis Reynolds Naylor (the Alice series), Nancy Garden (Annie on My Mind), Sonya Sones (What My Mother Doesn’t Know), Caroline Mackler (The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things), Louise Rennison (Angus, Thongs, and Full-Frontal Snogging), Patricia McCormick (Cut), and J. K. Rowling (the entire Harry Potter series).

Within the pages of these books, we have girl stories. That is, stories about what happens to girls, not books for girls. There’s physical violence, romance of all shades (between a girl and a boy, a girl and more than one boy, a girl and a girl), sexual violence, self-harm, tough but real language, and sex/sexuality. And sure, many of the books written by women that are challenged have male main characters, but the problem goes back to what S. E. Hinton was told when she launched this ship in the first place: you can’t be a woman and be taken seriously.

Call them by any name you want, but these challenges stem from fears about girls’ stories coming to the front and being told. Men have their novels challenged, too, but less frequently and, more likely than not, for reasons similar to why women’s novels are: the fear of something different (anything outside the “mainstream” white, straight male standard). Blume has more titles on the most-challenged list than any other author — even Robert Cormier could only muster three — because being female and writing about issues girls face are challenge- and ban- worthy actions indeed.

Men write universal stories. Women write stories for girls. Men write Literature. Women write chick lit. Even in a world where women do publish in heavier numbers than men do, they are underscored, underseen, and undervalued. Twilight is and will remain a crucial part of YA’s history — YA’s female-driven history — despite or in spite of the fact it doesn’t garner the same praises that those held up as idols within the community do. Men like John Green become symbols of YA’s forward progress and Seriousness as a category, whereas Stephenie Meyer gets to be a punchline.

Take a look at the New York Times list. Since the beginning of the separate YA list, women have never held the same number of spots as men; the average number of women who appear on the YA list is two to three.

Then take a look at the New York Times list for children’s series fiction. When you look at the YA titles on that list, it is predominantly women. Between Veronica Roth, Suzanne Collins, Cassandra Clare, Marissa Meyer, Marie Lu, and Richelle Mead, women are ruling. They are ruling not just series. They’re also ruling in genre fiction.

Genre fiction, which exists on the periphery of “real” fiction.

Which exists outside capital-L-Literature that tells universal, rather than niche, stories.

between shades of gray by ruta sepetysThrough that lens, we know precisely why it is that women and their influence within YA fiction — their building of YA fiction — falls into the margins. We know why it is that men like John Green write Love Stories and women like Sarah Dessen write Romances. We know why it is that a World War II novel like Marcus Zusak’s The Book Thief sees much more recognition and receives more accolades than Ruta Sepetys’ World War II novel Between Shades of Gray. It’s not the quality. It’s the way the system is built that makes women the outsiders in the category of fiction they made.

We know why it is that women like Veronica Roth, who garner early success, are put under an unfair scrutiny, where her accomplishments are heralded in one breath and in the next, her ability to ever do it again is questioned (note: she gets to decide what she does next, and any speculation as to what that path may be is up to her, not to the public). We also know why it is that women like Ellen Hopkins or Meg Medina or Rainbow Rowell find themselves uninvited from school visits or book programs. We can say it’s because their books tackle topics that are “unsuitable” for teens, but that’s not the real reason.

All of these challenges and all of the reasons behind them are what make these books and these authors so important. They are what built the history of YA because they reflect history. They also hold a mirror up to what it is we fear, and it’s not that the books aren’t “age appropriate.” It’s that the contributions of women, whether female-driven stories or male-led stories written by women, are regularly considered “lesser,” non-universal, problematic. They’re forgotten, pushed to the edges, overlooked. They are labeled as what’s wrong with YA, when they are really what YA is.

YA is an ever-growing, ever-diversifying category of stories. It is thanks to women like Meg Cabot and Jacqueline Woodson and A. S. King and Sara Zarr and Ally Carter and Tamora Pierce and Cecil Castellucci and Ann Brashares and Ellen Emerson White and Diana Wynne Jones and Libba Bray and Holly Black and Angela Johnson and Gayle Forman and Robin McKinley and Shannon Hale and Coe Booth and Francesca Lia Block and Beth Revis and Julie Anne Peters and E Lockhart and Laini Taylor and Maggie Stiefvater and Malinda Lo and Melina Marchetta and Sarah Ockler and Elizabeth Wein and so many others that YA expands, rather than contracts.

It is because female YA authors ignore the voices telling them their work isn’t serious, isn’t literary, isn’t valued, isn’t anything but kid stuff, isn’t “good enough” that the roots keep growing deeper and it becomes clearer and clearer that women play a major role in not only the expansion of YA, but the amplification of the female voice more broadly.

We can turn back through history and see, time and time again, women like Hinton and Blume are the reason we can even make such statements.