Best or Favorite? A look at the NPR “Best” Young Adult Novels list
I watch So You Think You Can Dance every week without fail. Here is a show where you can call in and vote for your “favorite” dancer. This favorite part is important, every year they make a point of making this distinction: it is not the best dancer, but your favorite. Because that’s how voting works usually, it’s subjective.
Best implies perhaps the highest quality while favorite implies the most popular. And, truthfully, if you are asking the people to vote you are going to end up with the most popular. So when NPR puts out it’s list of the Best 100 Young Adult Novels that have been voted on by the public, what you are really getting is some combination of both the best and everyone’s favorites.
|NPRs Best Young Adult Novels
Did your favorites make the list?
One look at the list and you see the truth of this statement. The Twilight series by Stephanie Meyers appears at number 27. Had the vote been taken just a few years earlier, before it became fashionable to hate Twilight, I am sure it would have appeared in the top 10. But still, in terms of quality of writing and storytelling, even 27 seems incredibly high when you compare it to some of the other books that made the list farther down – and some of those that didn’t make the list at all. My favorite comment on Reddit: “List totally invalidated by the presence of Twilight.”
If you are on the Yalsa-bk listserv, then last week you saw a really informative post by author David Lubar. He took a quick moment to do a Google search and found that many authors and fans actively campaigned for others to vote for their favorite books. As someone who spends a lot of time on the Internet, this is not surprising to me at all. But it does remind us all that the Internet voting is not a perfect mechanism for developing lists, unless of course your goal is popularity. So perhaps if they had just changed what they called the list, not the “best” but “favorite”, it would have been an accurate statement.
I’ll be honest, I did not vote. Not because I don’t care, I obviously care very much about teen literature, but because as soon as I realized the mechanism they were employing to create the list I realized that it would be a deeply flawed list. Compare the idea of the NPR Best Young Adult Books list to the Teens Top 10s put together each year by Yalsa – and voted on by the public. The Teens Top 10 list explicitly states that it is a “teens choice” list where teens nominate and then vote on their favorite books from the previous year. You see the distinction there? They aren’t saying they are the best, but that the teens declare these their favorites. Semantics are important.
If you have looked at the NPR list you probably will have noticed what Debbie Reese, Laurie Halse Anderson and others have noticed: the list is incredibly white. I mean super white. There are only a couple of titles that have a main character that it a person of color. I won’t talk a lot about that because the previously mentioned people have covered it so well, but it is disappointing. And not at all reflective of the literature that I see on my shelves. Don’t get me wrong, I think there needs to be a lot more diversity on our library shelves, but this list totally neglects longstanding popular authors like Walter Dean Myers and Sharon Draper and Jacqueline Woodson. In fact Monster by Walter Dean Myers is a groundbreaking – and award winning – book and definitely deserves to be on this list.
I haven’t seen it mentioned elsewhere, but the list also doesn’t seem to include many LGBTQ titles at all. Where is Boy Meets Boy by David Levithan? How about Annie on My Mind? A brief look at the list shows that it includes The Perks of Being a Wallflower (without a doubt an amazing read), Will Grayson Will Gryason and the Dangerous Angels series. Is the lack of LGBTQ and POC titles representative of who votes, what we read, or what gets published? Whatever the issue, it is clear that we need to work harder on reaching diversity goals. (Side note: I actually think that the problem novel, one of the classic mainstays of young adult literature, is under represented on this list as well. I know right now that fantasy and dystopian is super popular, but where are the problem novels? Thankfully Speak made the list.)
My other question regarding this list would be around the voting mechanism, which I can’t actually speak about because as I mentioned, I didn’t vote. But I would have loved for them to have kept track of the age of voters and created separate lists. What does the list look like if only teens vote? What does the list like if only librarians and educators vote? What does the list look like if all adults – including educators and librarians – but no teen votes are counted? It would be interesting to compare the various lists, and I suspect there would be some major differences.
And finally, I am interested in some of the titles that they classify as young adult. To Kill a Mockingbird is without a doubt one of my favorite books and I would say one of the best books written, but is it young adult? I would ask the same of The Lord of the Rings series? Something can be popular with young adults but not be actually a young adult book. We can all look back at what we read as a teen, and look at what our teens often read now, and recognize that a lot of teens like to read adult authors, which is cool. Just because something is popular with young adults doesn’t mean that it is in fact a young adult novel. Of course what, exactly, constitutes a young adult novel is probably the guts of an entirely different post and is further complicated by the introduction of the New Adult genre.
Overall, I think the list is a great starting place for new readers of young adult books to begin reading; it definitely is a good look at what is popular with my teens over the last few years. As much as I love John Green, I would knock a couple of his books off the list – leaving The Fault in Our Stars and Looking for Alaska – and add some multicultural authors. I was ecstatic to see the Delirium series and Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children on the list. I kind of felt that Miss Peregrine didn’t get the love that it deserved when it came out. There is some good stuff on the list. There is some fun stuff on the list (I LOVE the Gallagher girls series). But is this list representative of THE BEST? I guess it depends on how we are defining the best.
About Karen Jensen, MLS
Karen Jensen has been a Teen Services Librarian for almost 30 years. She created TLT in 2011 and is the co-editor of The Whole Library Handbook: Teen Services with Heather Booth (ALA Editions, 2014).
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