NPR’s 100 Best-Ever Teen Novels?

This summer, NPR conducted a poll to ascertain what its listeners considered their favorite YA books; the results were then whittled down to a top 100 list that was published in early August.  Perhaps you even voted in it.  I know I did.  However, since the list’s release, NPR has received some backlash for a lack of diversity among the titles.  To quote Laurie Halse Anderson,who found two of her books in the 100, “This just might be the whitest YA list ever.” Anderson’s blog response refers to a different blog post by an outraged school teacher, Shaker Laurie, on why NPR’s list is such a travesty, chief among her reasons are that it normalizes white experiences and values: “good reading=whiteness.”  Both blogs were discussed by NPR’s Edward Schumacher-Matos, writer of NPR’s Ombudsman blog, this past Monday in a post that takes a closer look at the skewed results, the makeup of the NPR listening audience, and the problems inherent to popularity polls in general. (For those of you unfamiliar, “The Ombudsman is the public’s representative to NPR, serving as an independent source regarding NPR’s programming.”)

Take a couple of minutes to skim through the list if you haven’t already.  What do you think?  White, right?  However, I was not surprised by this at all, as the list was the result of a popularity poll given to a predominantly white audience (87% white, according to Schumacher-Matos).  Please read 3  blog posts referenced above for more on the whiteness debate.  Perhaps I would have more outrage at the lack of diversity within the results 1) if I were not white, myself, and 2) if I could take the list more seriously.  I was much more struck by the fact that the “Best-Ever” books are a mash-up of best-sellers, excellent literature, and dusty old “classics.” A few titles were not ones I would even consider “young adult,” literature, Tuck Everlasting and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, for example–the first being too young, the last an adult book that teens may enjoy.  Anyone who voted in this poll knows that there were no evaluative criteria other than, pick 10 titles you love!  The results reflect the subjective selection process perfectly.  Let’s look at a few titles, shall we?

At #4 we have YA super-star, John Green’s, A Fault in Our Stars.  This book didn’t come out until January 2012 and already it has secured a position in the top 5 best-ever!!!  You won’t hear me knock Green’s writing or what an important presence he is on the YA scene, but perhaps this particular novel ranks so high because of his considerable popularity at the moment and the fact that this new book is so fresh in people’s minds?  He has five books on the list, by the way.  Similarly, at #19 comes Jessica Roth’s Divergent, which was released February 28 of this year and is considered a “must-read” for those Hunger Games fans.

#5 & #7: The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkein.  These are not YA books, in my opinion.

#27: The Twilight Trilogy.  HA!  Did that really get in there ahead of Scott Westerfeld’ Uglies series, Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Ellen Hopkin’s Crank, and Markus Zusak’s I Am the Messenger?!  I’m sorry Twilight fans, I have yet to hear anyone discuss the writing in these books as better than “poor” or in a capacity other than “guilty pleasure.”  But you know what?  That’s okay!  It’s a list of what people like to read best, not a statement of quality.  So when Shaker Laurie says,

Clearly, audience-selected “Best Ever” lists are dangerous and problematic, but the absence of any indication of NPR’s awareness of the glaring neglect on their list is also troubling. A list of “Best-Ever” books that declares only two books about teens of color worthy keeps all of these amazing stories in the margins, and arguably marginalizes them even further. When the world of reading remains so predominantly white, children and teens of color receive the clear message that they don’t belong. It sends a message directly from readers as well as NPR that writing about people of color is not valuable or valued, that their stories aren’t as important as the trials and tribulations of Edward and Bella; the Twilight series ranks #27.

I just can’t get behind that argument because I don’t believe NPR was out to create a definitive list, despite applying the label “Best-Ever.”  Perhaps NPR could have implemented more controls in the poll, selected a better name for their list, or posted the rules of selection with the results, but any teacher should be able to glance at this list and see there were no quality controls whatsoever, and defer to their own judgement and literary knowledge.  I’m also curious how many of the non-white “children and teens of color” were paying attention to an NPR book list that is supposed to be so detrimental to their self image in the first place?  How many white kids and teens for that matter?  I considered NPR torture and boredom incarnate I reached college and would do my best not to listen even when my dad refused to change the station.  NPR was for old people.

Continuing through the list, some of those “dusty old classics” I was surprised to see were Jack London’s The Call of the Wild (#33), Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War (#61), and–just shock at this one–Go Ask Alice, the anonymous diary-style account of one girl’s struggle with drug addiction.  While the first two have historic literary importance, I can’t regard Go Ask Alice as anything other than a joke.  Perhaps because I was first introduced to it as a joke by one of my favorite comedians, Paul F. Tompkins, on the album Freak Wharf.  Please listen somewhere where your laughter will not disturb others.  You can here my own laugh at the 32 second mark:

The inclusion of this title in the list is particularly fitting, as it exemplifies the list’s problems both with “whiteness” and uneven quality.  Tompkins’ staged dialog that cautions potential readers that “The person in this diary was a regular person, meaning white like you or me!” is a fantastic jab at how dated and ridiculous this book is, especially when you do have writers like Ellen Hopkins writing much grittier accounts of addiction for modern teen audiences.  He clearly believes that the notion of white=regular is outrageous, though based on Shaker Laurie’s post it may not be as much a reality yet as it should.  I don’t know, maybe Go Ask Alice “ground-breaking” when it was released, but again Tompkins points out that the information it contains is wildly inaccurate, making it the “phoniest of balonies you could possibly imagine.  So clearly written by the writing staff of Dragnet.”

So what am I trying to say about all of this?  Know your sources and maybe be more concerned about the people who take NPR’s word as gospel.  I think outrage is a little misplaced in this case, though I will not argue that NPR could have gone about the poll in a different manner to eliminate some of the bias evident in the results.  I am glad, however, and fully in support of further discussion.  If this pushes people to compile new and better lists of Young Adult literature that better represent the genre and its writers, that’s fantastic!  Please don’t ever let that conversation stop!  Laurie Anderson included the following in her post,

If you are going to browse the NPR list, please also browse through the lists that are linked to over at Reading In Color. Pull all of these lists together and then you’ll have a robust resource for YA readers.

 I think she has the right idea.  NPR wasn’t trying to instruct today’s youth.  That’s where parents, teachers, and librarians enter the picture.  These people should be much more influential in the lives of children and teens than the NPR staff, and they should take it upon themselves to fill in gaps and share their knowledge so that information can be corrected and improved upon, and so that no one gets left behind.
What titles would you add to your own list?  What lists do you like?  Please share!
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4 thoughts on “NPR’s 100 Best-Ever Teen Novels?

  1. I appreciate your thoughtful analysis of this issue. I always feel conflicted when issues like this come up. On the one hand, I kind of feel like NPR got a bum deal–the YA genre in general (mostly the popular stuff) has come under criticism for being disproportionately white, so it’s not like NPR invented the problem. However, if this is a known problem in YA, you could also argue that NPR should have kept that in mind and sought out more diverse titles.

    There were a few interesting (and I have to say, morbidly depressing) articles about Rue from the Hunger Games when the movie was released. A lot of readers were 1). unaware that Rue was not white and 2). expressed (via Twitter) a sudden lack of sympathy for the character in the movie because of that difference. There were some interesting analyses of how the white=norm has become so internalized that people will do it even when the author specifies that a character is not white.

    • I love that you brought up The Hunger Games casting incident. For those who missed it, you can read the Jezebel coverage of the white outrage produced by making certain “good” characters in the film black. I was very disappointed and appalled when the story broke, especially when I found out the fans tweeting the racist remarks were relatively young.
      Another Jezabel article entitled, “I See White People: Hunger Games and a Brief History of Cultural Whitewashing,” gives a quick look at the white predilection to paint their world white.

      So, yes, there is a definite problem here on many levels and it extends well beyond the limited scope of NPR’s booklist. The Ombudsman piece mentioned that in the future NPR will consider running popular polls along side a critically curated and evaluated one in an attempt to produce more balanced, or at least representative results. However, this story has gotten me wondering about how much responsibility an organization like NPR must assume in its reporting when so many people treat it as an authoritative news and cultural resource. Can it run a popularity poll without qualifying its results? Does it need to take on greater issues every time it asks for its listeners’ opinions? It feels a bit like actors or athletes who find themselves to be role models once they achieve fame and, being in the public eye, must tread with greater care and awareness as a result.

      However much or little people blame NPR in this matter, I hope that greater awareness (and remedies!) of such racial inequalities results.

  2. Holy cow, obviously you don’t need a thing from me except an occasional check-in to admire your posts. This is truly fantastic, and I am very much looking forward to reading your blog often. I love the format, the snark, and the range of topics covered. The NPR post was pretty spectacular.

  3. Pingback: Troubled Teens, Self Publishing, & Finding a Good Story « Books Rekindled

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