Most librarians love a booklist. But when major media outlets cover young adult fiction, the results are sometimes…mixed. So it was with a healthy dose of skepticism that many young adult librarians viewed Time Magazine’s release of its list of 100 Best Young Adult Books.
While the list does include many fantastic young adult novels, and many other books that are classics in their own right, it is not without its deficiencies. For your convenience, I’ve made a spreadsheet of all the titles (no clicking through slideshows!) and added the publication date and any ALA awards the title has won.
By my count, about half of the books are best described as middle grade or adult fiction, and some very important and influential authors and books were not included. As many have pointed out, the list is almost all white. The list only includes nine books written by seven different authors who are people of color or American Indian:
- Sherman Alexie
- Isabel Allende
- Walter Dean Myers
- Marilyn Nelson
- Pam Munoz Ryan
- Mildred D. Taylor
- Gene Luen Yang
In a time when the community of young adult and children’s publishing is advocating for diversity, the lack of it seems even more egregious.
But perhaps the issues with some of the titles can be attributed to the shifting definition of young adult literature.
What is “young adult literature?”
As I’m sure everyone reading this knows, young adult fiction is tricky to define and difficult to categorize—especially when trying to assemble a “best of” list spanning literature from the mid 19th century to today.
YALSA acknowledges the amorphous nature of young adult literature, and discusses not only its importance, but also its history, in the The Value of Young Adult Literature, written by Michael Cart and adopted by the YALSA board in 2008. “The term ‘young adult literature”’ is inherently amorphous, for its constituent terms ‘young adult’ and ‘literature’ are dynamic, changing as culture and society — which provide their context — change.“ Which demonstrates the challenge of compiling a list of “best” young adult novels of “all time” especially when neither terms are defined.
Currently, young adult literature is defined most often as being written for teenagers from 12-18 years of age. These are often coming-of-age stories, where characters come to an understanding about not only themselves, but their place in the world. They can be dark and gritty, and when appropriate, contain violence and sex. In contrast, middle grade fiction, aimed at readers 8-12, focuses more on character’s relationship with self and family, spend less time on self-reflection, and almost always end on a hopeful note. And of course, young adult fiction differs from adult fiction, not only because the protagonists are teenagers themselves, but the voice and style of the narrative is more immediate, while adult fiction where teenagers are the main characters often have a reflective tone.
Of course, these lines are blurry. Many books receive a 10-14 age designation from the publisher, which straddles the middle grade/young adult divide, and many adult books have crossover appeal to teens. In fact, YALSA has an award to recognize adult fiction with teen appeal—the Alex Award. Some younger readers are ready for young adult fiction, some readers are more comfortable with middle grade fiction even as they age. These labels are only guides.
Some books I’m confident are clearly children’s literature: Beezus and Ramona, Charlotte’s Web, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of Nimh, and Matilda, for example. Some books on the list fall into this gray area and there are arguments to be made in favor of them being labeled adult or middle grade.
But just because there isn’t always a definitive answer as to whether a book is middle grade or young adult doesn’t mean that a separate category for young adults isn’t important. When teens are able to see themselves reflected in fiction, it supports their development of a positive identity, social competencies, and cultural values.
What is “best”?
Time Magazine doesn’t make any attempt to define why these books made the cut and others didn’t. There doesn’t appear to be any consideration for longevity, as a handful of very recent publications make the list, and literary merit is certainly not the only factor, as several books will be remembered more for their popular appeal than their fine prose. Both elements are relevant to the discussion.
YALSA produces several lists and bestows awards in an attempt to help readers identify “best” books written each year, particularly Best Fiction for Young Adults list and the Printz Awards. YALSA also honors authors who have made significant contributions to the field of young adult literature with the Edwards Award, a sort of “lifetime achievement” award. They all have varying criteria.
Best Fiction for Young Adults policy and procedures define the list as “a general list of fiction titles selected for their demonstrable or probable appeal to the personal reading tastes of the young adult. Such titles should incorporate acceptable literary quality and effectiveness of presentation.” This criteria balances quality with popular appeal. This list has also evolved over the years and the criteria for eligible titles has changed. The list, prior to 2010, included nonfiction titles and graphic novels, and was called Best Books for Young Adults. The following books from Time Magazine’s list appear on top ten lists of BFYA or the earlier BBYA top ten lists:
- A Monster Calls (2012)
- The Hunger Games (2009)
- The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian (2008)
- The Invention of Hugo Cabret (2008)
- American Born Chinese (2007)
- The Book Thief (2007)
The Printz Award honors the “best” book published for young adults, and “best” is defined soley by literary merit. These Printz winner or honor titles appear on Time Magazine’s list.
- Where Things Come Back (2011)
- Looking for Alaska (2007)
- American Born Chinese (2007)
- The Book Thief (2007)
- An Abundance of Katherines (2007)
- A Wreath for Emmett Till (2006)
- A Northern Light (2004)
- Speak (2000)
- Monster (2000)
The Edwards Award honors authors “for significant and lasting contribution to young adult literature… [and] recognizes an author’s work in helping adolescents become aware of themselves and addressing questions about their role and importance in relationships, society, and in the world. The following Edwards Award winners appeared on the list (which means that half of them did not):
- S. E. Hinton
- Robert Cormier
- Walter Dean Myers
- Judy Blume
- Chris Crutcher
- Ursula K. LeGuin
- Francesca Lia Block
- Laura Halse Anderson
- Susan Cooper
- Marcus Zusak
- Madeleine L’Engle
- Gary Paulsen
“Best” is hard to define. Some question the inclusion of certain books, like Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight. But few other books have has as much influence on the genre and its position in the wider landscape of literature. If cultural effect is a component of the criteria, it certainly deserves its place on a list. While this list does highlight many titles that may have been forgotten, it also promotes stories that are better suited to a juvenile audience and overlooks many modern classics.
The journalists responsible for Time Magazine’s article did consult who they deemed experts in the field: “Children’s Poet Laureate Kenn Nesbitt, children’s book historian Leonard Marcus, the National Center for Children’s Illustrated Literature, the Young Readers Center at the Library of Congress, the Every Child a Reader literacy foundation and 10 independent booksellers.”
Which means they didn’t ask any librarians. So I’m wondering: who do you think this list left out that should be included in a best YA novel list, if the audience of this list is today’s teens or readers of modern young adult literature?
- Jay Asher
- Neal Shusterman
- Maggie Stiefvater
- Nancy Garden
- Alex Sanchez
- Ellen Wittlinger
- Benjamin Aliré Saenz
- Tamora Pierce
- Jacqueline Woodson
- Libba Bray
- Rick Yancey
- E. Lockhart
- Melina Marchetta
- Marcus Sedgwick
- Ruta Septys
- Laini Taylor
- Andrew Smith
- A. S. King
- Sara Zarr
I suggest the above authors, who have all been honored by one of the YALSA awards discussed above, but I want to know what you have to say. Leave your thoughts in the comments. Perhaps the next time a major news outlet decides to publish such a list, journalists will consult the dedicated young adult librarians who serve on committees, read widely, and are sympathetic and responsive to the needs of the people who young adult books are intended to reach—teenagers.
— Molly Wetta, currently reading Where Things Come Back by John Corey (again) and Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas