First, Margaret Willey has a tremendously interesting and very honest essay on L’Engle’s Camilla and the long history of YA girls at the Horn Book website right now, and you should read it. It’s a window into why she is a joy to edit and publish.
I remember a long-ago conversation with my sister while we were still young women, and before I had written a novel of adolescence. We swore that we would not forget, if and when we had our own daughters, the power of first love. And I did not so much forget it as I was uneasy writing about it — the mother in me perhaps. I did not want to encourage my readers to enter that place of obsession and treachery and, yes, sometimes ecstasy, without having a clear way out. And I did not know yet, as a writer and an adult woman, how to faithfully re-create the misery and confusion of my own early sexual experiences. For these reasons, I was very well-suited for the phase of young adult literature that I came up in, an era of sensitive and articulate girl narrators who wanted romantic connection without the complications of having sexual intercourse. In love with love, yes. Sexually curious, perhaps. But sexually active, never.
Now, though, for extra credit, I’d like to poke and prod at the girls-in-towers premise. I don’t think every 1950s teenage girl was up in a tower, and I do think the tower itself is a mark of certain kind of privilege and class. And I think those 1950s tower/penthouse dwellers looked out their windows, not only at the familiar and tidy streets of their own neighborhoods but at the alleys of the distant, unknown neighborhoods as well. Here, for example, young Humbert and Annabel look down from their tower enviously in Lolita:
All at once we were madly, clumsily, shamelessly, agonizingly in love with each other; hopelessly, I should add, because that frenzy of mutual possession might have been assuaged only by our actually imbibing and assimilating every particle of each other’s soul and flesh; but there we were, unable even to mate as slum children would have so easily found an opportunity to do so.
Sexual desire, opportunity, and experience are functions not only of biology and age but of class and race and many other other social factors. I understands Margaret’s fondness for a thread one finds less and less in today’s YA tapestry:
I could comfortably celebrate the innocence of these trysts. I could create girls, and also boys, who were longing for a partner, something beyond friendship, certainly, but also with the understanding that they were not ready for sex and did not need it.
But at the same time, I would argue the preeminence of that thread of innocence in the YA of ages past was also a flaw in that it became a constraining orthodoxy. If the YA of today is capturing that truth of adolescence more fully than the YA of times past because that orthodoxy is no more, then something good is happening—just so long as adolescent sexual precociousness and skill don’t take their turn in crowding out other experiences.
In so many words, I want to see it all.