By Grace VanKirk
Classic literature and young adult novels may seem worlds apart. They’re written for drastically different audiences, are often significantly different in length, and embrace dissimilar messages.
But when we read a little deeper, we can see the influence of classic literature on contemporary YA books. In their own ways, both genres are concerned with the lives of the people in them and the culture they are surrounded by. Whether you’re a fan of YA or a lover of classic lit, these genres are best enjoyed not in opposition, but in conversation with each other.
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What is a classic novel?
According to expert MasterClass writers, there are four elements of a classic novel: a memorable main character, an exploration of the human experience, a richness that rewards rereads, and enduring influence. These four characteristics all share a common basis: the universality of themes. This means that readers from any time and place can understand a classic’s ideas, such as love, sacrifice, revenge, power, and beauty.
Books such as War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, and Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen are just a few examples of classic literature. Each of these has earned the title of classic thanks to their depth of meaning, universal themes, and characters who are so powerful that their names are more well-known than some of our U.S. presidents. Plus, they’re still here and are still studied in classrooms everywhere.
There are also classic YA books such as The Outsiders, A Wrinkle in Time, The Catcher in the Rye, and To Kill a Mockingbird. With themes such as coming of age, wrestling with societal problems, and finding confidence in yourself, these books have remained relevant to teenage readers over the decades.
Though one study suggests that modern authors take inspiration from their contemporaries rather than the classics, the influence of classic literature on contemporary YA books is still detectable.
You may also like: A Short History of Children’s Literature You Need to Know
The influence of classic literature on contemporary YA books
Many popular YA novels take direct inspiration from classic books and classical stories. These books have acquired a loyal fandom by taking the adventures of ancient characters and reimagining them for modern readers.
One such example is the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series by Rick Riordan. These books fuse a modern world with age-old Greek mythology—what would happen if there was a school for kids who were demigods but didn’t know it? By taking the elements that make the Greek myths classic stories and incorporating them with the typical life of a modern YA reader, this take on classical literature has tremendous appeal for a younger, modern audience.
Another example of the influence of classic literature on contemporary YA books is Philip Pullman’s YA series His Dark Materials. In an interview with Slate, Pullman calls this book “a retelling of the Miltonic temptation and fall.” This refers to John Milton’s epic poem, Paradise Lost. In this classic work, Milton envisions the Biblical account of the fall of mankind and the events surrounding it. Lord Asriel in His Dark Materials parallels Milton’s Satan, who is presented as a misunderstood and charismatic being. But Pullman twists Milton’s story to frame the fall as the liberation of humankind.
Because these books draw on the classics to capture the elements that make them so popular, they are poised to become YA classics themselves. The key is modernizing the story to bring in characters, problems, or settings that today’s readers relate to.
Contemporary YA books as retellings of classic literature
And let’s not forget the countless retellings of classic literature. Retellings reimagine classic stories, usually fairy tales, by incorporating a unique twist, telling the tale from the perspective of other characters, or turning the traditional story completely upside down. By the way, this is also common in Disney’s live-action retellings of classic fairy tales.
Many popular YA retellings feature a reversal of characters, where the male protagonist is rewritten as a heroine. Or, stories that portray female characters in an outdated way are reworked to give the female character a prominent role, agency, and a voice. A Court of Thorns and Roses is a loose retelling of Beauty and the Beast with modern ideas of love and a heroine who doesn’t take no for an answer. An older YA book still worth mentioning is The Outlaws of Sherwood by Robin McKinley, where Robin Hood isn’t even a good archer—but Marian is.
But not every retelling is a fairy tale. YA novels also put a modern twist on the classic plot. Olivia Twist for example, is a riff on Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, which follows the life of an orphan left to fend for himself in the impoverished streets of London. Author Lorie Langdon reimagines this story with a lot of creative license and a little bit of romance. By retelling the story in this way, YA readers can appreciate Dickens’ messages about the harsh London setting but in a style that is more appealing to them.
There are endless YA retellings of classic literature, but you get the idea.
Elements of classic literature in YA books
YA books often borrow the genius of classic literature through symbols, phrases, plots, and themes. Classic literature has given us powerful imagery and phrases that have crept into everyday use, both in everyday speech and in YA books.
Robert Burns’ classic poem, “A Red, Red Rose” compares the speaker’s “Luve” to “a red, red rose / That’s newly sprung in June.” This simple but powerful imagery has led to roses being a recurring symbol of love in YA romance. Shakespeare’s sonnets also contributed to the association of love with roses.
“A madwoman in the attic” is another classic element that has become a phrase and popular plot point in YA novels. It refers to a male love interest who has a hidden relationship or secret past. This is based on Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, in which the dark and brooding Mr. Rochester keeps his mad wife locked away while he courts his young governess. The YA novel Brightly Burning gives us a version of this Gothic formula—in space.
In a similar way, the Twilight series took the lore of Bram Stoker’s Dracula (which itself drew on an earlier short story called “The Vampyre” by John Polidori) and turned it into paranormal romance. By starting with the classic idea of vampires but redirecting it towards a YA audience, Stephanie Meyer created a recipe for success.
An instance of classic themes in YA novels is The Maze Runner by James Dashner. This book recalls the classic Lord of the Flies because of the brutal way in which both groups of boys run their society. In Lord of the Flies, a band of British boys descends into violence and terror when they are stranded on an island. While the boys in The Maze Runner are overseen by invisible adults, they still form merciless rules to punish wrongdoers. Both books explore the theme of what happens when human nature is unrestrained.
References to classic literature in YA books
Yet another example of the influence of classic literature on contemporary YA books is references to other books within the book itself. Classic books often overflow with references to other books written earlier or around the same time. This creates a conversation of similar or conflicting ideas and connects the reader of that time with events and names that they would have known.
YA books do the same thing. Maybe a character reads under the covers with their favorite YA romance. Or, they might complain about a classic book they have to read in school. A lovelorn character might dream of Mr. Darcy like Elizabeth Bennet. A restless character might pine for adventure like Jim Hawkins in Treasure Island. In the manga and anime Banana Fish, there are several references to classic novels. This gives the reader insight into characters’ personalities and also provides clues as the plot unfolds.
Whether a YA book references a classic book or another contemporary YA book, it adds depth to the story and resonates with readers who have read the books mentioned.
Reading classic novels can enrich your understanding and deepen your appreciation of YA novels. So the next time you need a book to read, pick up a classic or a YA novel inspired by a classic. Or even try writing your own YA book based on classic literature.
The influence of classic literature on contemporary YA books is an important part of the YA genre. It has contributed to popular plots, characters, and literary devices. Without classic literature, we wouldn’t have YA retellings, references to our favorite classics in YA, or modern myths.