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NPR’s 100 Best-Ever Teen Novels

August 11, 2012

NPR recently posted a list of the “Best Ever Teen Novels”, and people have apparently been questioning the list enough that they posted again to explain why books like A Wrinkle in TimeA Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and Ender’s Game weren’t on the list, although people apparently voted for them. I personally think these books should have been included on the list, despite the panel’s reasoning.

The problem with the list, and also with the panel’s reasoning, is that the distinctions between “teen novels,” “children’s books,” “YA novels,” and particularly “middle grade,” is different for professionals in the publishing industry than the average reader.

The publishing industry categorizes books into smaller categories for marketing reasons, and some of these categories, like middle grade, were somewhat recently formed. For example, Judy Blume didn’t write Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret for “middle-grade readers,” because that category didn’t exist when she wrote it – only children’s book. Today it’s put in that market.

People outside of the publishing industry, however, have no idea what the term “middle grade” means, or how it’s distinguished from “YA” at all, because it frankly only matters to marketers. So readers suggested books that they read as teens like A Wrinkle in Time, which I suppose is considered middle-grade, or Pride and Prejudice, which is an adult novel, and the panel cut them out of the list. This is one of the reasons the list is skewed towards newer YA novels, some of which were published as short as eight months ago: they are clearly in the YA category because they were written for and marketed in that category.

My opinion is this: in compiling a list of people’s favorite teen novels, the panel should have been more open in their definition of what a “teen novel” is. If people read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn in their teens and voted for it, and it got enough votes to have placed it in the top 100, it should have been included. The lines between middle grade, teen and adult are too blurred to be excluding reader’s favorite books just because of a panel’s judgment. And, just as a side rant, I don’t get how The Giver, which is squarely in the 8 and up category, won a Newberry award, and was taught in my school to sixth graders (ie 11 year olds), makes this list.

Another interesting lens with which to view this debate is censorship. Obviously this list isn’t banning any books and NPR isn’t really censoring anything by not including a book on this list. But it’s very interesting to me that the panel said A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was an adult book because it had the “adult themes” of a parent dealing with alcoholism and one scene of assault and attempted rape, but probably about half of the books that made the list explore one of these two issues, including Speak which is an entire book about an actual rape. The panel could have made the argument that Brooklyn approaches its coming-of-age story from an adult perspective (which is a reason why coming-of-age novel Prep isn’t considered YA), I would understand that argument, even if I don’t agree with it. But to exclude a book for its content, especially when the book is considered a classic teen story in the literary cannon, doesn’t make much sense.

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