Carolyn Steele Agosta
Sweet Teen Romance Novels, 1940s-1960s
Teen Romance Novels of the 40’s, 50’s & 60’s
The 1940’s saw the emergence of teenagers in a new way – as a target audience. Prior to that, most of the time, teenagers were seen as old children or young adults. They didn’t have their own fashions or music or literature, for the most part. A girl dressed as a girl until she was suddenly a ‘woman’, and she wasn’t supposed to have thoughts of romance until she was old enough to actually be thinking about a suitable husband. And then, along came Frank Sinatra, rolled-up blue jeans and the Andy Hardy movie series.
Of course, girls did have thoughts of romance, sometimes from an early age! I’m pretty sure my sister Lori had romantic crushes as early as kindergarten. I was more of a late bloomer in that way – until the Beatles came along and I had a mad crush for George Harrison.
Popular literature tended to be for children or for adults – not much in between, although teens had always appropriated certain stories as having extra interest for them. What girl reading Little Women didn’t sigh a bit over Laurie? Who didn’t secretly have a crush on Gilbert from Anne of Green Gables? But the books weren’t specifically written as ‘romances’.
In the 1940’s a new category of books came on the market, following the success of serialized stories in magazines for girls. Betty Cavanna was one of the writers who made a success out of teen romance stories. She was incredibly prolific, with over eighty titles, not counting her magazine stories. I specifically remember Going on Sixteen, Paintbox Summer, and Love, Laurie. She wrote from the mid-forties all the way up through 1987. Some of the books were mystery novels, but most were teen romance, where the right dress and the right boyfriend were the key to happiness. The books were often read by girls younger than the protagonists, so dating was something they aspired to at that point, rather than experienced themselves. They're designed to play on their hopes and dreams.
Anne Emery was another such popular author from the late forties to the early eighties. She wrote almost forty “malt shop novels”, as they were called, and I remember reading Mountain Laurel, Senior Year, First Orchid for Pat, and the Dinny Gordon series.
Rosamund du Jardin and Janet Lambert wrote a ton of books between them. Janet Lambert wrote over fifty-four books during the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s, and du Jardin wrote seventeen books, including Showboat Summer and Class Ring.
One thing all these books had in common is that the romance is front and center, but it’s a chaste romance, full of longings but also full of virtue. The girls face common life situations that call on them to make that step into adulthood of deciding how to act on something and dealing with the consequences. They were part of that whole American Virtues mindset following World War II, when all the Baby Boomers were being born and given our All-American names of Karen, Janet, Judy and Susan. Somehow, I don’t think we turned out as expected…
There were many other novelists writing for the teenage girl market, but to my way of thinking, Beverly Cleary was the best. Her teen books included Fifteen, Jean and Johnny, The Luckiest Girl, and Sister of the Bride. I loved them all and read them many times over. I could identify with the girls’ uncertainties and I loved the humorous situations. They seemed the closest to what my own life might be like (I hoped). I wasn’t someone who dreamed of her wedding day long in advance, but yes, I loved to imagine some cute boy holding my hand and seeing me as special. So these innocent books suited me to a T. By the time I was actually dating age, my reading had passed on to adult fiction, but these books certainly made their impression on me during my adolescent years.
A few other popular authors from this era and genre include Beverly Butler who wrote Light a Single Candle, Lenora Mattingly Weber who wrote the Beany Malone books, Maureen Daly, Madeleine L’Engle, Jeannette Eyerly, and Elizabeth Ogilvie.
Interesting factoid: L. Frank Baum, who wrote the Oz books, also wrote a series of books with teenage and young adult women as the main characters. He was hired by the publisher specifically to write books in the Little Women mode – with young female characters having adventures, some of which involved romance. He wrote ten novels in the Aunt Jane’s Nieces series, under the pseudonym Edith Van Dyne, between the years 1906 and 1918. Not exactly teen romance novels, but meant for the teen girl audience, for sure.
Another interesting factoid: Booth Tarkington, author of The Magnificent Ambersons, Penrod and Alice Adams, wrote the book Seventeen, which is a teen romance novel written from the boy’s point of view. Not surprisingly, the book was more popular for adult readers than for adolescent boys. Adults found the situations humorous and enjoyable, but I think most boys would have found them humiliating and ‘mushy’. But it fit pretty well with Tarkington’s Penrod series of boyhood adventures, comic sketches that tended to appeal mostly to adults.
Also, during the forties through the sixties, there were a large number of high-school romance comic books. Not just Betty & Veronica, but series such as Young Romance, Sweethearts, and A Date with Judy. These were more teen-specific than other romance comic titles, which tended to be more on the True Confessions level, but they were very popular with readers, especially those were looking for comic books that weren’t just super-heroes. My sister and I had collected Katy Keene comic books, and sometimes Millie the Model. Neither of these characters were teenagers, but it was mostly kids and adolescents who read the comics, so the tone was kept at that level. Katy Keene comics had paper-doll pages which my sister and I coveted. Her clothes were so glamorous!! And possibly what led to the Barbie doll, I’m thinking.
My sister Jacki has collected a good many of these books and the photos for this blog post are thanks to her. I personally plan to reread The Luckiest Girl and reminisce about my sweet teenage years.