Take it, Comic Book Guy!
Okay. All right. We wouldn't be fans of the written word if we weren't belly-aching about this list. NPR recognizes that fact, with this other list they published.
So, with that, my thoughts on the top ten:
1. Harry Potter(series), by J.K. Rowling: I'm going to recycle my comment on the Lord of the Rings trilogy taking the top spot in the Fantasy/SF list, because I think it also applies here: "I think I would have been very surprised if this had been anything else. I used to listen to WXPN, a college station out of Philly, and after they had their fundraisers, they would have the countdown. Since they broadcast at 88.5, their countdowns were always the top 885 artists/albums/songs, and it was usually pretty meaningless, because a list that big is too large to have any kind of meaning, and you knew the top three was going to be either Beatles/Dylan/Stones or Beatles/Stones/Dylan. But it probably deserves the slot. It's been hugely influential on almost everything in fantasy that came afterwards. If a fantasy series wasn't emulating the Potter series, then it was deliberately subverting elements of it."
I was too old to be swept up in Harry Potter as a cultural phenomenon. I first heard of the series when Terry Gross was interviewing then then-obscure author when I was driving home from work one day shortly before the U.S. release of the first book in 1998. I thought, hey, this sounds kind of neat, and I kind of filed it away. And then, in the coming years, it would have been impossible not to hear of it. My wife and I started reading them out loud to each other and we read the whole series this way. It's the only time I've ever spoken until my voice was hoarse. We went to midnight openings (in costume. Did I say that I was too old to be swept up in the phenomenon?) Just the other day, my daughter asked about watching Harry Potter. I asked her "Wouldn't you rather read the book?" (inside of which Jen had written an inscription to her before she was even born) and she said, "Nah. Movies are better."
I think the series peaked with The Prisoner of Azkaban, which, in my opinion, is one of the all time great novels in children's literature. Goblet of Fire wasn't as good, but I think that's more a function of regression to the mean than anything else. And while I thought Order of the Phoenix was a bit flabby in parts, we read the final 100 pages in one sitting, staying up until 3:00 AM on a work day to do it, because that ending was phenomenal and Rowling shrewdly exploited the publicity with lots of fake outs in the final fight.
I've complained about the long, slow decline of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and I think the Potter series fell into the same trap in the final books, when Rowling stopped being critical of her own creations and started scripting things so that Harry could do no wrong. As MightyGodKing said: " all this congratulatory isn’t-Harry-awesome party after seven hundred-odd pages of Potter Fucks Up Again (to say nothing of previous books) needs to not happen!"
Despite that, it was very good for a long time, and it deserves this spot.
2. The Hunger Games (series), by Suzanne Collins: Since I quoted myself the first time around, I'll quote Kovacs for this one: "these are lists of popularity and not necessarily enduring quality or enduring popularity. I'm reminded that The Bay City Rollers outranked The Beatles more than once on some lists of "best rock music or bands of all time" -- and if you don't recognize the band's name or believe that it was possible, that just confirms my point. Today it would be Justin Bieber."
Does anyone not think the recent high profile movie has anything to do with this ranking?
I talk about my friend Karen sometimes. (I know a bunch of Karens, and this is the one who loves giraffes.) I met her about ten years ago when we were both temping at the same terrible job and I saw that she was reading David Sedaris on her downtime. We struck up a conversation, and later a friendship, because of that similar taste in books.
She was pestering me about the Hunger Games last year in October, asking what I thought of it, and I kept giving her sarcastic non-answers, until she finally got fed up and said, "I was going to buy you the books for your birthday, but you blew it!" and there may be a lesson to be learned here. But I don't know. Karen liked the David Sedaris, but she also reads Twilight, so her taste is sometimes questionable.
Ummm...I don't actually know anything else about this book. Apparently Jennifer Lawrence is in the movie, and I liked her in X-Men:First Class.
3. To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee: It's been a while since I've read this book and I remembered Scout as being older. It's a great book, and really a timeless one and not one I particularly consider a children's book. (I know, it's officially a young adult list, but there's no denying that Harry Potter skews lower than To Kill a Mockingbird.) Atticus Finch is consistently ranked among the greatest of movie heroes, and canonically, To Kill a Mockingbird is Superman's favorite movie.
"If you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you'll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it", is some darn good advice.
4. The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green: I have never heard of this book until right now, so I have no opinion. The title sounds like the first line of a haiku. I see this author appears several times, and this is his most recent book, so it's probably bleed-over popularity from a currently trending book.
5. The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien:
I like the Hobbit as a stand alone work. I like it less as a prelude to The Lord of the Rings and even less in the context of The Simarallion. I thought Tolkien did a reasonably good job in Unfinished Tales of reconciling the lighter tone ("Quite apart from the stones no spider has ever liked being called Attercop, and Tomnoddy of course is insulting to anybody") and apparent contradictions of the Hobbit with the larger series (If you go by what is written in the early part of the Fellowship, it apparently takes Gandalf the better part of a century to figure out that Bilbo's ring might be the One Ring, but in reality, he suspected it for a long time, but the Shire was as safe a place as anywhere in Middle Earth, and there was nothing to be gained by telling Bilbo about it any earlier than he did) but it still feels like a retcon.
Honestly, I don't think it belongs on this list, and the only reason it's here is because of the Lord of the Rings and the upcoming movies. It's a fine book, but not a classic on its own, and I think it should have been bundled in with Tolkein's larger body of work, were it included at all, and this is speaking from someone who dearly loved the Rankin-Bass movie as a kid.
6. The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger I think my experience with the book is similar to many. I loved the book's conversational style, and I thought, "Hey, Holden knows what it's like to be me!" And then, as I grew a little older and returned to it, I was much less charitable towards Holden, and saw his excuses for what they were, which in turn led to some thoughts about the person I was when I read it. I still think it's a brilliant book, and that coming to terms with self-delusion is an important part of growing up. It reminds me of the Wonder Years. (Yes, Yes, it should be the other way around, with the Wonder Years reminding me of Catcher in the Rye, but I encountered the Wonder Years first, I'm sad to say.) Kevin Arnold, the character was an asshole. Quick to judge, shallow, spiteful. Not unusual for a kid, but asshole just the same, and while I disliked the character, I liked the show. Same with Holden. He's the biggest phony of them all, but that takes away nothing from the book.
7. The Lord of the Rings (series), by J.R.R. Tolkien: Oh, hello, Lord of the Rings! It's so nice to see you again! Shall we make a date to meet this time next year, on NPR's list of Top 100 Romance Novels?
8. Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury This is another one I find pretty questionable. Like LotR, it was on the Top 10 in the earlier list, and while I would not have voted for its inclusion on that list, I think that its status as a Sci-Fi classic at least entitles it to consideration. However, while young adults might read this book and maybe it's even been marketed as such, I don't think that it is primarily a young adult book, and I don't think it belongs here.
9. Looking for Alaska, by John Green I've never heard of this one, and while the synopsis doesn't make it seem all that special, the brilliance may be in its execution. (Or it could just be something that is currently popular) Despite that, the subject matter does seem definitively Young Adult, and it seems to belong here more than Fahrenheit 451.
10. The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak: I'm not familiar with this one either, but it seems more interesting and it's been consistently lauded since its publication.
They have received some criticism for the books omitted and books included on the list and they attempt to address it here:
However, I'm not entirely satisfied with their answers. Their criteria seem arbitrary, and releasing them after the judging has been concluded gives it the appearance of a post-hoc justification. If someone asked me to create a list of the best young adult books, my first question would be "How are we defining 'young adult'?" and the second would "How are we defining 'best'?" because I really think that some sort of weighted average is in order so as not to skew it towards trends of the moment.