Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Diversity in NPR's list of 100 Best Ever Teen Books

A couple months ago, NPR hosted an online poll in order to create the "100 Best Ever Teen Books". Nominations flooded in, a list comprising of a couple hundred books was put online, people voted for their ten favorites, and the list was born. The end result is problematic, to say the least. Time to try to organize my thoughts:
  1. Your age is showing - There's a clear divide between the titles older versus younger readers voted for. When I first went over the list, I was struck by the sheer number of officially classic titles that have long faded from the generally accepted young adult literary canon. When my older sister looked at the list, she too noted the strange discrepancy between the titles she didn't recognize (as being too recent) and the titles she vaguely remembered as being "old" when she was younger.
  2. Your author bias is showing - It's clear that certain fanbases really came out in full force. Not that I have anything against John Green, but not every single one of his novels is deserving of being on a list of the top young adult books. Yet every one is on the list. Similarly, Sarah Dessen has four books on the list - sadly, these four do not include her finest novel (Dreamland), and they generally fall well below my standard for "best ever teen books".
  3. Defining young adult - NPR attempted to respond to this claim with this post, but the fact is that the list is entirely inconsistent. My Sister's Keeper, young adult? Hardly - it's a book that's mostly about adults, written for adults. And if The Dark is Rising is considered young adult, then yes, a book like Ella Enchanted is definitely young adult. And certainly a book like Ender's Game should be considered young adult.
  4. The white elephant in the room - Race. Because no matter which way you look at it, NPR's list is overwhelmingly white. Astoundingly white. This is probably in part because NPR's audience is very, very white (87%), but there's a larger issue at hand as well. I want to be clear, though: it's not because readers are racist. It's not because readers knowingly prefer books about white characters. It's because most young adult books do happen to be written by white authors, about white characters. It's because there's something of a white default in young adult literature (and no, I have no idea what the reasons for this is and I have no intention of getting into that discussion).
  5. The books that are missing - The problem with the overwhelming white-ness of the list isn't that books with characters who are not-white (or not default white, at least) do not exist. The problem is that they somehow did not make it to this incredibly subjective list (recall: this was a reader poll for favorite books, not necessarily the critical "bests"). The problem is that despite being award winners, and classics, and truly powerful works of fiction, these novels remain the exception to the rule that most main characters are white. And that is... disappointing. Angering, in fact.
  6. This is not the list I would create - NPR's list needs to be taken with a grain of salt. First of all, there's the fact that it's a poll of favorite books: it's never going to be truly definitive. In general, no list is ever truly definitive. That's the nature of best-of lists (one of the reasons why I hate them). Second, there's the obvious tilt in the direction of certain authors and fanbases which, while displaying the popularity of these authors, skews the results somewhat. Then there are the missing authors and books - the missing diversity. Because books like Monster by Walter Dean Myers would certainly make my list, as would Virginia Euwer Wolff's excellent Make Lemonade series*. If we loosen the definition of young adult, Laurence Yep, Linda Sue Park,  Pam Muñoz Ryan, and Mildred D. Taylor would all make the list as well.
  7. I don't know why this exists - It bothers me. It has to. The fact that there is a white default is an unpleasant thing to think about. The fact that it shows so obviously in a user-generated list is even more upsetting. But I cannot begin to speculate as to the cause of it, and I'm hesitant to claim that there is any kind of clear racism at work here. An imbalance, certainly, and something we should probably all think about.
So let's think about it.

* Make Lemonade is technically a racially ambiguous series. I should point out that most books that avoid specifying races do not qualify for diversity points. Virginia Euwer Wolff, however, has explicitly said on the fact that she wanted her characters to be viewed as any race, commenting that her favorite letters came from readers of all races who felt that the characters were like them.

2 comments:

  1. I've started steering clear of polls because they rarely reflect any sort of quality. The books that people choose to read are not necessarily the ones they should be reading. Even if you just went through a poll and decided if the books on the list were entertaining or not, I think that wouldn't turn out to be a common thread. Someone needs to do a study to find out people's actual reasons for voting for certain things in polls. In this one I think it's a mix of the books that they had heard the most about and the ones they had always been told they were supposed to read.

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  2. Look no further than the NYT bestsellers list to view populist taste. Today's bestsellers are tomorrow's classics, regardless of quality.

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