The history of young adult literature is tied to the history of how childhood and young adulthood has been perceived. One early writer to recognize young adults as a distinct group was Sarah Trimmer, who, in 1802, described "young adulthood" as lasting from ages 14 to 21. In her children's literature periodical, The Guardian of Education, Trimmer introduced the terms "Books for Children" (for those under fourteen) and "Books for Young Persons" (for those between fourteen and twenty-one), establishing terms of reference for young adult literature that still remains in use. Nineteenth century literature presents several early works, that appealed to young readers, though not necessarily written for them, including The Swiss Family Robinson (1812), Walter Scott's Waverley (1814), Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist (1838), Alexandre Dumas' The Count of Monte Cristo (1844), Tom Brown's Schooldays (1857), Dickens' Great Expectations (1860), Alice in Wonderland (1865), Mark Twain's The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), Robert Louis Stevenson's Kidnapped (1886), Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book (1894), and Moonfleet (1898) by J. Meade Falkner.
In the 1950s, two influential adult novels, The Catcher in the Rye (1951) and Lord of the Flies (1954), which were not initially marketed to adolescents, still attracted the attention of the adolescent demographic.
The modern classification of young-adult fiction originated during the 1950s and 1960s, especially after the publication of S. E. Hinton's The Outsiders (1967). The novel features a truer, darker side of adolescent life that was not often represented in works of fiction of the time, and was the first novel published specifically marketed for young adults as Hinton was one when she wrote it. Written during high-school and published when Hinton was only 17, The Outsiders also lacked the nostalgic tone common in books about adolescents written by adults. The Outsiders remains one of the best-selling young adult novels of all time.
The 1960s became the era "when the 'under 30' generation became a subject of popular concern, and research on adolescence began to emerge. It was also the decade when literature for adolescents could be said to have come into its own". This increased the discussions about adolescent experiences and the new idea of adolescent authors. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, what has come to be known as the "fab five" were published: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969), an autobiography of the early years of American poet Maya Angelou; The Friends (1973) by Rosa Guy; the semi-autobiographical The Bell Jar (US 1963, under a pseudonym; UK 1967) by poet Sylvia Plath; Bless the Beasts and Children (1970) by Glendon Swarthout; and Deathwatch (1972) by Robb White, which was awarded 1973 Edgar Award for Best Juvenile Mystery by the Mystery Writers of America. The works of Angelou, Guy, and Plath were not written for young readers.
As publishers began to focus on the emerging adolescent market, booksellers and libraries began creating young adult sections distinct from children's literature and novels written for adults. The 1970s to the mid-1980s have been described as the golden age of young-adult fiction, when challenging novels began speaking directly to the interests of the identified adolescent market.
In the 1980s, young adult literature began pushing the envelope in terms of the subject matter that was considered appropriate for their audience: Books dealing with topics such as rape, suicide, parental death, and murder which had previously been deemed taboo, saw significant critical and commercial success. A flip-side of this trend was a strong revived interest in the romance novel, including
young adult romance. With an increase in number of teenagers the genre "matured, blossomed, and came into its own, with the better written, more serious, and more varied young adult books (than those) published during the last two decades".
The first novel in J.K. Rowling's seven-book Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, was published in 1997. The series was praised for its complexity and maturity, and attracted a wide adult audience. While not technically YA, its success led many to see Harry Potter and its author, J.K. Rowling, as responsible for a resurgence of young adult literature, and re-established the pre-eminent role of speculative fiction in the field, a trend further solidified by The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins. The end of the decade saw a number of awards appear such as the Michael L. Printz Award and Alex Awards, designed to recognize excellence in writing for young adult audiences.
The category of young adult fiction continues to expand into other media and genres: graphic novels/manga, light novels, fantasy, mystery fiction, romance novels, and even subcategories such as cyberpunk, techno-thrillers, and contemporary Christian fiction.