Teen Librarian Toolbox
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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.

So here’s my question to you: If we made the list again in 10 years, what titles from 2012 do you think will stand the test of time and make an appearance?  And what diversity titles do you think should have made the cut this year?
Also, what is the most surprising title on the list for you?  For me it is The Bartimaeus Trilogy by Jonathan Stroud.

Race Reflections, Take II

I first read Rot & Ruin by Jonathan Maberry a couple of years ago when it was first released – and I loved it!  In my mind, as I read the book, I could picture actor Jensen Ackles playing the quietly strong bounty hunter Tom Imura.  This seemed like a no brainer in my mind as he was perfect for the part.

Fast forward to 2012 and my friend and mentor is listening to Rot & Ruin on audio as she drives back and forth to her library job, largely because she got sick of me saying you gotta read this book you just gotta.  So she’s listening to it (and liking it) and one day she calls me and we’re talking about it.  We’re both Supernatural fans and I say to her, “Don’t you think Jensen Ackles would be perfectly cast in the role of Tom.”  To which she sagely replies, why yes, perfect casting (I told you she was wise).  But then a few days later we’re talking and she is all, “Jensen can’t play the part of Tom.” Gasp! How dare she?

It turns out that the character of Tom Imura is described as being Japanese.  I honestly didn’t recall that fact and in truth, it is in many ways an irrelevant fact.  You see, sometimes race matters in a story.  Take, for example, If You Come Softly by Jacqueline Woodson.  This is the story of a young Jewish girl who falls in love with an African American boy and the struggles that come from being in a mixed race relationship in a world with deeply entrenched prejudices against each of the cultures.  In this story, race matters.

In Rot & Ruin, race doesn’t matter.  No, what matters is whether you are dead or undead.  But, here is the genius of it, it is important for teens to read books about people outside their race where, in fact, race doesn’t matter.  And it is important for Japanese American teens to read stories where race doesn’t matter.  And it is important for African American teens to read stories where race doesn’t matter.  As Stephanie mentioned earlier this week, not all African American stories need to be about inner city life, drugs and teenage pregnancy because this does not reflect the life of all African American kids.

But, more importantly, if we want to continue to break down racial barriers in our culture than we must read and see positive portraits of people of different cultures and beliefs where those very cultures and beliefs don’t matter one single bit – where they are in fact the norm and it’s just no big deal.

I feel the same way about GLBTQ lit.  It seems like every book I have read in the past was about a teenager trying to determine if he/she was or wasn’t gay and the great, huge issue that was and how friends and family reacted to them.  But lately I have noticed that in some of the teen fiction I have been reading there are gay and lesbian characters, normally supporting characters, who are already out as gay or lesbian and are pretty comfortable with it as are their families and friends.  This is important because teens need to know that you can get to a place where your friends and family love and accept you for who you are.  It doesn’t always have to be about “the struggle”; when every book out there depicts the struggle it gives the message that this is how it always is and is always going to be, but that is not true for all families and that needs to be reflected in the literature.

Now, if you spend anytime reading around the Internet you know that many people were very upset when they went and saw the Hunger Games movie and realized that Rue was in fact African American.  I personally thought this was very clear in the books and, more importantly, it was not an issue.  The Hunger Games is not a book about race, no it is a book that examines the violence that comes about from class warfare.  In many ways it is a look at the current struggle between the 1% and the 99%, although that terminology wasn’t the vernacular at the time, and this struggle is of course both an age old and universal struggle.  The brilliance of Collins is that she took the struggle and mixed it with some reality TV and exaggerated it just enough that we could talk about it without feeling the withering glare of judgment upon ourselves.  So in the Hunger Games it didn’t matter that Katniss was white and Rue was black; no, it mattered that Katniss and Rue had the severe misfortune of being born to parents in their various districts and they had a common enemy in the capitol.  So the fact that movie viewers would react the way that they did was heartbreaking as they missed the important message of both the books and the movie – and this shows how much race is in fact an issue for many people still today.

When authors write and we read stories with a diverse cast of characters where that diversity is not an issue, we begin to realize that it doesn’t have to be.  I grew up in Southern California and to be honest, as a child issues of race never occurred to me.  I loved the people I loved and one of my first shared elementary school crushes was on the singer Prince with my best friend Kumi.  We sat around for hours watching Purple Rain and listening to the album and mooning over Prince.  We also sat around for hours listening to Duran Duran and listening to their music.  There were no barriers for us; we were at “that age” and that’s just what we did – lusted after pop stars.

So here is what I would like to see more of in teen fiction . . .

A more diverse cast of characters in stories where race and religion is not an issue

I recently read Lia’s Guide to Winning the Lottery and in it our main character has a Muslim friend which is basically a non-issue.  There are some discussions about faith differences when it comes to dating people outside the Muslim faith, but in terms of their friendship it is just a complete non-issue.

A more diverse cast of characters on book covers

There have been numerous articles written about book covers and race in ya lit so google them, they are interesting and heartbreaking.

For teens of various racial and ethnic or religious backgrounds to be able to read positive stories about themselves

I work in a branch library where probably 80% of our service population is African American, but we are definitely not inner city.  These teens are coming in after school, more often than not, with parents who are engaging with them as they look at and select books to read.  It is actually the first time I have worked at a library with such engaged parents and the difference is not race but economics I believe.

For teens to read GLBTQ stories where they are past the coming out stage and comfortable with who they are

For those teens who are in fact struggling with issues of sexual identity, because I think for a lot of people the teenage years are in fact when this happens, to be able to read stories where they see that it does in fact get better and it doesn’t always have to be about the struggle.  We need stories where we are passed the struggle and a teen has found a way to be comfortable in their own skin.

As for me and Rot & Ruin – well I think as I was reading and saw the character traits of Tom a picture began to form of him in my mind and in that picture, Jensen Ackles was the actor who seemed best able to fully embody those character traits.  It didn’t matter to me as a reader that the character was not white because it didn’t matter to the story.  It probably helps a lot that I am a huge Jensen Ackles fan, he does the whole range from comedy to broody pathos well.  But as a librarian, I love that he wrote a story with a non-white main character where it didn’t matter that he wasn’t white.  These are exactly the kinds of stories we need more of.

As a Christian and a member of the human race, I believe that love should be our guiding principle and reading is a phenomenal tool to help make that happen.  So let’s write and read stories that help make that happen and get them into the hands of our teens.