Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Thoughts on NPR's list of of best Young Adult books...EVER!!!!

Hot on the heels of their SF/Fantasy list, we have NPR's list of the top 100 best ever teen novels.

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.


  1. Boy, I didn't know any of the books you stated you haven't heard of either. And I remember absolutely nothing about Farenheit 451 other than I read it sometime between 14 and 17.

    I read The Hunger Games before the movie came out. Pretty good stuff, though the series definitely gets progressively weaker (but I'm not sure how much so, just that it happens). At the very least, I think Katniss is a much more interesting a protagonist than Harry Potter. And the books are very hard to put down, though I absolutely think the reason I couldn't put them down had a lot to do with the unhealthy mental state the narrative puts you in.

  2. Josh, you should give The Hunger Games a shot. I agree with the above poster- the books are hard to put down and neither of the sequels equal the first book, but all three are good reads. In the top ten YA books ever? I don't know. They aren't Lord of the Rings, but I wouldn't put Lord of the Rings in this category. Where is Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy? Aren't they YA? We had a YA version in the young readers section and a mass market version in the sci fi section at the bookstore.

    The Prisoner of Azkaban was my favorite Harry Potter, too, and I agree with your criticism of the later books in the series. I have to wonder if as a series gets more popular, the author has the power to veto all editorial input. If the books are selling more and more, then the author can do whatever they want without someone saying, hey, Harry Potter is starting to be a whiny ass, or look, this book is 100 pages too long. George R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire series seems to bear this out. The first book was outstanding. The fifth book is 1,000 pages and nothing happens.

    Did you see that The Hobbit might be three movies now instead of two? As you do, I think it's a lesser work to The Lord of the Rings, so I don't know how they're going to make that work. Maybe take elements of The Silmarillion?

  3. His Dark Materials was #15, I think. The link is here:

    And this is a link to all the stuff that's going to be added to the hobbit:

  4. Okay, the extra stuff they are adding to The Hobbit will be neat.

    Ah. Hitchhiker's, Dune, and The Princess Bride are teen books now, too? I agree that their criteria are terrible and arbitrary. Not that I read Austen in a high school class, which they claim everyone has, or think that her books are YA books, because I would never have thought to include her on this list, but their justification for omitting Austen is that they are universal and for all ages. That's fine, but a good percentage of the books on this list fit that. I don't see how A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was rejected for being too mature when they give the maximum YA age as 18. Plus, I thought a lot of students read that in high school. (Of course, I am in the minority of people who didn't like that book, so I'd reject it on those grounds.) I was under the impression that Ender's Game was a classic YA novel. I haven't read it, but they give violence as the reason it was excluded. But there is plenty of death and violence in many of these books. The Hunger Games is filled with it. Ah, but what are lists like this for if not to nit-pick and argue over?

    I noticed they did NOT have pretty much the only geared-at-teens book I read when I when a teen, the Blue Ribbon series- a handful of books about young women riding horses and going to horse shows together! I bet if I could find them now they'd be awful, but I'd take them over Twilight any day.