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Reacting to NPR’s 100 Best-Ever Teen Novels

I can’t seem to go three posts on a social network this week without hearing something about NPR’s list, Your Favorites: 100 Best-Ever Teen Novels. Reactions to the list have been largely critical ranging from: “How dare you fail to include my favorite book?” to “I can’t believe they ranked that popular book above that more literary book!” I think a bit of an uproar is a good thing. It means we’ve all got great teen books on our minds. But lists are tricky things. They are neither perfect nor permanent. They are informed by their time and their criteria and by the people involved in choosing what ended up there — in this case mostly fans of NPR or folks who found their way to the polls through some other channel. Lists have a great many uses, but what’s best is always changing.

Here are some interesting numbers.*

  • 59 of the books listed were written by female authors.
    42 of the books listed were written by male authors.
    David Levithan (male) and Rachel Cohn (female) collaborated on Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist, which is why there is a discrepancy in the math. While female authors do tend to lead in the YA field, the male authors on this list are relatively close to equally represented.
  • 57 of the books listed are fantasy or speculative fiction.
    43 of the books listed are realistic fiction.
    Fantasy is the beloved genre of the teen years, both now and for the past several decades, but there are an almost equal amount of well-loved realistic books.
  • 67 of the books listed are contemporary fiction.
    34 are classics (defined for the purposes of this comparison as books that were written before 2012 teenagers were born).
    While the phrase “best-ever” suggests the need to include books from a range of years, today’s teens may not necessarily be aware of or interested in many of the classics that made the list. Is this list for and by adults more than teens? Or might current teens discover a new favorite from years ago?
  • 32 of the books listed were the author’s first novel.
    It is interesting how often an author’s first novel is her most beloved or recognized book.
  • 80 of the books listed were written by American authors.
    20 of the books listed were written by authors from other countries, mostly Britain or Australia.
    This is definitely an English-centric list. If we were truly in search of “best-ever” books, I wonder what we might find in translation.
  • 33 of the books listed have been adapted for the screen, or are in process of being made into movies.
    While many hold to the notion that the book is always better than the movie, when we love something we want to see it on the big screen.
  • 3 of the books listed featured protagonists of color.
    5 of the books listed featured LGBTQ characters.
    7 of the books listed featured a protagonist with a serious illness or disability.
    That is a lot of straight, white, able, protagonists. Perhaps it had to do with a straight, white, able voting pool, but it is disconcerting to suggest by omission that only certain types of people are normal. Feminist blog Shakesville reacts to this lack of diversity in On NPR’s Very White Best Young Adult Books List.

    Most of the LGBTQ characters in the books on the list were secondary characters like Alec Lightwood and Magnus Bane from The Mortal Instruments or Nick’s bandmates in Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist. Queer feminist blog Autostraddle created a list of 20 Best Young Adult Novels for Queer Girls in response to the NPR list’s lack of LGBTQ characters. Personally, I was surprised not to see Boy Meets Boy, David Levithan’s quintessential gay romantic comedy. I also would have liked to see My Most Excellent Year by Steve Kluger, a story of three Bostonian best friends, one of whom is gay.

I showed this list to the members of the teen book club at my library. While they scanned the list for favorites and proclaimed their love for many of its entries, they were outraged at others. Classics and “school books” were particularly offensive to their tastes because “adults should not get to vote on a list of teen books.” (I did remind them that it is time to start voting for YALSA’s Teens’ Top Ten).

As fans of the apocalypse in all of its forms, they were particularly missing Jonathan Maberry’s Rot & Ruin and Ann Aguirre’s Enclave. They also worried that voters just picked books that were popular and sold a lot of copies instead of books that are “actually good.” Story is everything to these teens, and compelling action grabs them more than quality of prose. Perhaps we can discuss the intersection of the two, if I complain about the lack of Holly Black’s work on the list.

— Erin Daly, currently reading Girl of Nightmares by Kendare Blake

* Numbers crunched by me with pen and paper, periodically Googling publication dates of books and home countries of authors.

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3 Comments

  1. “a bit of an uproar is a good thing” – agree, completely! It would have been much more upsetting if the NPR list was just a blip on the radar. Reactions (both outraged and joyful) are fantastic in and of themselves!

    However…. as an Australian, I was sad not to see more Aussie YA on the list (‘The Book Thief’ got in there though – in the top ten, no less!) but I would have loved to see at least one Melina Marchetta represented.

    I was also relieved to see that real classics made the top ten – ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ and ‘Catcher in the Rye’. That was a relief, especially because so many of the final 100 seemed to make it because they were still relatively new. I think lots of books were voted for, partly because they were still in the public conscious, and not necessarily for their YA-merit (will those books stand the test of time in 50 years?, like Harper Lee? Doubtful, very doubtful).

    “3 of the books listed featured protagonists of color.” – that does disturb me, but I think it’s more of a reflection of what’s being published rather than what people like.

    Great break-down of this fabulous list :)

  2. The notion that “adults should not get to vote on a list of teen books” seems short-sighted. Adult librarians, friends and parents introduce teens to great literature all the time. If teens only took recommendations from other teens they might miss out on some truly great books that they might enjoy. Plus, we were all teens at some point, and if it’s a “best-ever” list, that likely would include books from many eras.

  3. Sara Sara

    Very interesting statistics. Thanks for sharing!!

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