Tracing the Birth of the YA Subgenre: Seventeenth Summer in Context
By Emily Maceda (2022)
Young adult novels consistently top best-sellers lists, stock YA shelves, and remain a starting point to many budding romance readers. Although the subgenre exerts mammoth influences on the publishing industry and readers, scholars’ tracing young adult romance’s roots unanimously identify Maureen Daly’s 1942 Seventeenth Summer as the impetus to the abundant young adult romance books seen today. The study investigates the reasons why Seventeenth Summermaintains its title as the first young adult romance novel, which sparked the creation and popularization of the accompanying subgenre. Here, I will argue that the novel’s unprecedented popularity and categorization as the first young adult romance novel arose from its appeal to a previously untapped teen readership, which sparked a national reaction that publishers and distributors identified as the beginning of a distinct genre. Commentary from librarians and critics, fan letters, market research performed at the time, as well as modern scholarship will be utilized. I will argue first that social changes in the perceptions of adolescence coupled with the budding unified youth culture provided teens created untapped readership in the industry, which Daly’s novel appealed to. Furthermore, I will demonstrate how the national reaction and readership Seventeenth Summer ignited then incentivized publishers and distributers to respond by formally labeling and creating the distinct subgenre known today as young adult romance.
Emergence of a Distinct Youth Culture & the Idea of the Teen
The social changes in youth culture and the scientific revolution in defining adolescence at the time proved instrumental in organizing and creating the readership underlying Seventeenth Summer’s success. Prior to the 1940s, the young adult audience in America was not acknowledged. Society and science viewed adolescence as a part of adulthood rather the modern-day view held of the teenage years being a crucially transitory life stage between childhood and adulthood. The young adult label, in literature or society, remained fundamentally incompatible with the view of teens as small adults. Adolescence did not constitute a distinctly separate developmental stage until renowned German American psychologist Erik Erikson (Lowe, 22). In his renowned stages of development, he identified the unique conflict, Identity vs. Role Confusion, faced during the teen years when an individual must navigate their rapidly maturing bodies to make sense of their own identity and their place in the world (Erikson, 247). Although Erikson officially published his theory in 1950, the conversations predating his printed work subtly changed the academic and non-academic communities in the two decades before. Now that teens were considered distinct with unique interests, inclinations, and challenges, the entertainment industry saw the new potential audience. Though Seventeenth Summer holds the title as the first book with the label of young adult romance, several other non-romance works tested the new readership. For instance, Pep Comic’s introduction of the 1941 comic Archie provided a prime example of the creation of teen icons (Cart, 6). Seventeenth Summer’s young adult leads would also later be seen as similarly influential icons of the time as well.
While the entertainment and publishing industry first took note of a new youth readership with the scientific revolution, the movement of teens into schools both facilitated the growth of youth culture and the free time to read and talk about Seventeenth Summer. Before to the early 1940s, teens didn’t much time to read or a particular interest in uniquely teen experiences like the high school love seen in Daly’s novel. Teens would work alongside their parents in mines and factories until the aftermath of “the Great Depression finally pushed teenage youth out of the workplace and into the classroom” in the early 1940s due to the widespread unemployment (Palladino, 5). Free from the adult commitments that work entailed and thrust into institutions filled with similarly aged peers, adolescents used their newfound leisure time to explore hobbies like reading and diverted attention to their relationships with others, whether romantic or platonic. The high school space and classroom hours led to “the emergence of a youth culture centered on high school life… which provided context for the newish wrinkle in courtship rituals: dances and dating” (Cart, 5). Such youth culture not only facilitated unity, but also formed a social network where news, media, and information could spread rapidly within the community. However, teens found their hunger for literature featuring young adult love unsatiated because “there was no such thing as adolescent literature in the day” as Maureen Daly commented in an interview (Richardson, 425). Despite non-romance genres like Pep Comics producing works marketed towards teens, nothing featuring teen love circulated widely. 1940s best sellers including Eric Knight’s 1941 This Above All, Kathleen Winsor’s 1944 Forever Amber, and Daphne du Maurier’s 1946 The King’s General all featured the romance that teen audiences craved, but only with adult characters (Immerwahr). Thus, a gap within the industry formed with an enthused and untapped readership eager for material. The lack of representation of teen characters and teen love within literature and romance that younger audiences craved, however, soon came to an end.
Seventeenth Summer & Its Reception
Published in 1942 by Dodd, Mead & Company, Maureen Daly’s debut novel Seventeenth Summer featured two teen characters, heroine Angie Morrow and male lead Jack Duluth. Narrator Angie revealed in the opening how she’s seventeen and Jack is eighteen. Set in Wisconsin during the early 1940s, Seventeenth Summer followed the teens’ first dalliance with love and the relationship that ensued when high school basketball star Jack asked Angie out on a date. Once the two confessed their feelings and established a relationship, conflict ensued when college the following fall beckoned Angie to Chicago and family obligations pulled Jack to Oklahoma. Following emotional turmoil intermittently peppered with the unfolding of a summer love story, the two decided to temporarily part ways. Although the book concluded with the pair separating as they said goodbye before Angie boarded the train to Chicago, readers received a happy and emotionally satisfying ending when the two exchanged love tokens and made a promise to keep the memories of their time close until they reunited in the future. Seventeenth Summer, thus, delivered much anticipated and desired representations of teen characters, teen love, and teen struggles to waiting audiences.
The fanatic popularity of both the female protagonist as well as it the novel itself can be traced through a wide range of reader and critic reactions. Seventeenth Summer proved enormously popular. Gorge Norvell, New York Supervisor of English, in his survey of thousands of middle and high school students titled The Reading Interests of Young People found that 84.2% of girls in seventh to ninth grade had read Seventeenth Summer (Norvell, 404). By tenth to twelfth grade, the statistics had risen with 90.8% of female students having read the novel (Norvell, 286). The popularity among teen girls may in part stem from the unified youth culture’s interest in relationships and dating, but also in the sense of intimacy and relatability the young heroine cultivated in similarly aged readers. Angie’s white, middle-class background who refrained from romantic actions beyond kissing mirrored the middle- and upper-class teens who could afford to attend school and pursue leisure activities. The dozens of young adult romances following similarly reproduced white, middle-class characters with modest romantic actions (Carpan, 91-2). The continued reproduction of such female protagonists speaks to the synergy between such characters and their readers. Teen Joan Donaldson expressed in a fan letter that Seventeenth Summer and its young lead resonated with her because “it seemed like you were writing it for me to read and no one else should read it, because they wouldn’t understand it the way I did.” Critics at the time also agreed with Donaldson’s sentiments in believing “Seventeenth Summer, perhaps captures better than any other novel the spirit of adolescence… [and gives a reader] the impression that he is peeping into a high school girl’s secret diary” (Burton, 363). However, just as teens are not the only consumers of young adult romance today, several critics commented on the nostalgia evoked by the young love and characters featured in Daly’s novel. Many revealed how “Maureen Daly tells one how youth in love really feels – how it felt yesterday and how it feels today. The emotion…is a timeless one” (Walton, 7). Thus, the genre proved inclusive, a feature which may have further contributed to its acclaim and success. Seventeenth Summer’s popularity among its wide readership arose from its placement of the universally relatable experiences, namely the individual struggles of the teen years and the experience of first love, as its focal point.
A Response to Reader Demand in Libraries and the Industry
Seeing the nationwide attention and conversation surrounding Seventeenth Summer, several parties within the industry saw the potential for sales and creativity in an expansive yet untouched market. Daly commented on the change in an interview that “Seventeenth Summer proved to the publishing world and writing world that a lot of money could be made in the young adult romance market. Many talented writers turned to writing for adolescence. (Richardson 84).” In such a way, a robust cycle began when authors and publishers produced more young adult romances in response to the increased demand and the demand among readers furthered upon the growing selection. Modern day scholars echo such sentiments by commenting that historians have traced how in “following the tremendous success of Maureen Daly’s romantic Seventeenth Summer in the previous decade, publishers produced mass market romance novels for teens” (Carpan, 84). Thus, young adult novels became a staple mass-produced product rather than a niche trope, trend, or subgenre only available or accessible to a select audience. Writers and publishing houses certainty played an instrumental role in popularizing the idea and availability of teen characters and young love, but another group exerted a more subtle yet impactful influence on forging the flourishing young adult romance subgenre seen today.
Librarians, who interacted with readers, provided recommendations, categorized books, and worked with publishing houses and stores to stock product, served as an instrumental factor in elevating the growing trend into a subgenre by assigning it a unique label. Noticing the distinct teen readership disinterested in children’s books but fascinated by adult and adolescent topics, librarians altered the content and name of their reading lists to Adult Books for Young People (Cart, 9). Margaret Scoggin, a particularly notable New York librarian credited with expanding the concept of librarianship for young adult readers, garnered national attention when she stated “occasionally a book appears which meets all the criteria for a good girls’ story and a good novel. Such a book is Maureen Daly’s Seventeenth Summer” (Scoggin, 149). Another librarian working from Baltimore named Margaret Edwards spoke to how teen girls wanted to know “how kissing fits into the picture; and the advisability of going steady… [but it was] only since 1942 that librarians have been able to satisfy this need [with] the publication of Seventeenth Summer” (Edwards, 335). Librarians, who saw the gap identified by readers prior to the novel and Seventeenth Summer’s revolutionary take on teen love, furthered the popularization and distribution of young adult novels through their ability to provide trusted recommendations to readers. Teen Frances De Conca commented in a fan letter to Daly that “all my friends are reading that book Seventeenth Summer…. this is how I came across Seventeenth Summer through her” with “her” being the local librarian Miss Morrison. Seen as authorities within their local literary communities, librarians possessed an authoritative and trusted voice among their readers as well as the position to strengthen trends or movements. Libraries as institutions along with individuals like Scoggin and Edwards popularized and enhanced the distribution of novels like Seventeenth Summer by categorizing and labeling them as a distinct subgenre, while also recommending them to readers.
Closing Thoughts and Future Investigations
Maureen Daly’s 1942 debut Seventeenth Summer seemed almost perfectly situated within in the economic, social, scientific, and literary moment, as if poised to revolutionize the romance book industry and create the much beloved and influential subgenre modern readers know as young adult romance. The Great Depression’s aftermath and emerging scientific distinction of adolescence as a life stage gave teens more free time to read and form a youth culture hungry for representative characters and romance. Seventeenth Summer’s publication amongst such sentiments produced widespread national attention and acclaim, which led to the substantially increased production and distribution of young adult romances. Charting the novel’s rise to fame and its subsequent influence provides a striking picture of various, vastly different stakeholders and players within the industry working together to birth a new subgenre. Young readers, adult readers, critics, librarians, authors, publishers, and statisticians all played a role in granting Seventeenth Summer its recognition as the first young adult romance novel. While the individual case study into the formation of the subgenre provides fascinating insights into the workings and parties in the larger industry, such investigation also provides a sequence of events that may hold similar or different when compared to other genres and subgenres. Such further research would provide deeper look into the definition of a genre and how it comes into being.
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