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Coming of Age on the Printed Page : Some give young adult fiction an 'A' for the familiar voice it gives young people. Others flunk it for 'dumbing down' literature.

January 25, 1994|IRENE LACHER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Paul Zindel never set out to make cultural history. So he was as surprised as anyone when he ended up a hero in the literary potboiler that became known as young adult fiction.

That chapter in Zindel's career opened in the mid-'60s, when his Pulitzer Prize-winning play, "The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-In-The-Moon Marigolds," was making a splash in theatrical circles. One of the zillions who saw it was Charlotte Zolotow, a legendary editor and author at Harper & Row. She saw beyond the play's portrait of a brutal mother and her two anguished daughters to a resonantly true voice that had only rarely been heard in fiction--the Angst- filled adolescent.

"She asked me if I had any stories to tell for young people," says Zindel. "She saw that in my work before I was aware of it. I said, 'I do,' because I had been a chemistry teacher on Staten Island for 10 years and I'd kept notes on the kids, which should have told me I was interested in the kids, but I didn't know."

His faculty for student-speak materialized in his 1968 novel, "The Pigman," a cruelly realistic tale of friendship, betrayal and death told from the perspective of two high school outsiders. The book helped spawn a new literary genre--young adult fiction.

Indeed, the turbulent '60s saw not only the emergence of the new brash voice of youth but also a literature to contain it--and, when it was very, very good, to give it immortality. Seminal young adult novels such as S.E. Hinton's "The Outsiders" and Robert Cormier's "The Chocolate War" have joined "The Pigman" on middle-school reading lists nationwide. Educators hope to lure kids into the elusive reading habit with books that hold up a mirror to their own often fractured lives.

"What those books have in common are . . . someone feeling isolated, alone, misunderstood, separate, alien from authority, and that seemed to be the beginning of what became known as the world of young adult books," says Beverly Horowitz, editor in chief of Bantam, Doubleday, Dell Books for Young Readers Division.

Young-adult-paperback sales have soared over the years--Time magazine reported a 300% jump in a two-year stretch in the early '80s--partly because of the wild popularity of softcover series and teen horror novels (a relatively new subgenre that sprang up in the wake of Stephen King's huge teen following). But sales of hardcovers, primarily bought by schools and libraries, have declined, publishers say, partly because young adult fiction goes first when public-library budgets are slashed. As childhood seemingly gets shorter, so too, the age of the genre's audience has gradually dropped from high school to middle school and even younger.

While young adult fiction's essentially linear plots have come under fire from critics who complain they're simplistic, the same quality has captured the eye of Hollywood for its storytelling ease. The current monster hit "Mrs. Doubtfire" sprang from the young adult novel "Alias Madame Doubtfire" by Anne Fine, and other novels of the genre resulted in such critically esteemed films as "The Outsiders," featuring a younger Matt Dillon and Tom Cruise, and "Gas, Food, Lodging."

"The case for (young adult fiction) is that people want to read about themselves," says Roger Sutton, executive editor of the University of Illinois' Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books.

Karen Velasquez, 13, an eighth-grader at Southgate Middle School, says that's precisely why she reads teen fiction.

"Adult books don't tell much about kids, so I just read teen-ager books," she says. "Sometimes they teach lessons of what we're going through during our teen years, like people making fun of you because of the way you are. It makes me feel that there are other people going through the same things I'm going through."

Young adult fiction (YA, in the trade) came of age at a time when the divorce rate was spiking, when drugs and experimental sex were burrowing into a typical adolescence. And novels that gave that tumultuous reality an accurate voice have sometimes been controversial, drawing criticism from some educators, some religious groups and some parents. Censorship attempts have peppered the field.

"I gave a presentation in Missouri and talked about the most exciting books in 20 years," Sutton says. "A woman came up and was telling me, 'Thanks for telling me what not to buy in my library.' She'd get in trouble if she bought books about homosexuality or two kids smoking a joint and nothing happened.

"I said, 'Have you ever had trouble?' And she said, 'No, because I'm careful.' She's dug herself that pit."

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