NPR’s Best-Ever Teen Novels List: What’s a Teen Novel Anyway?

NPR just posted another reader favorites list – this one is the 100 best-ever teen novels.  These lists are always fun, not just in a what-have-I-read kind of way, but for the “controversy” they generate.  (I say that in quotes because, however heated the discussion gets, it’s just a book list after all.)

Who’s on it, who’s not?  And the bigger question, what the hell is a teen novel anyway?

NPR posted this explanation of why it chose what it did.  First, this is a reader poll, not a critical analysis.  Second, they eliminated books that really seemed aimed at middle-school and younger.  They decided 12-18 is the target age range for YA books, and they decided that Newbery award winners are “children’s books” not teen books.  I’m okay with that.

Then they applied a few rules that are, at best, questionable.  Is the book too violent?  Ender’s Game is out.  Too mature?  A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, out.  Are teens not “lining up to read the book”?  Pride and Prejudice, out.

So you’re left to wonder what’s the definition of a “teen novel”.  Because I question whether Dune and LOTR are teen novels, regardless of their merits.  Is To Kill a Mockingbird a “teen novel”?  And do teens really line up to read A Separate Peace or Flowers for Algernon?  What’s the standard here?

If a teen novel is defined as a favorite of teens today, much of this list doesn’t make sense.  If it’s books that are commonly assigned in high schools, well then I’d say that a high school lit class should be assigning literature to read, not “teen novels”.  Is it, what were your favorite books when you were a teen?  I didn’t really read “teen novels” as a teen (I read books like Stephen King, Gone with the Wind, and my mom’s “adult” romance novels). Although I certainly admit to reading (and re-reading) Forever.

You can’t look at whether a book was marketed to teens.  That works for today’s fiction but I don’t think works for the classics.

Here’s the standard I like: a teen novel is one where the main character is a teen for most of the story.  Why not?  It’s clean and straightforward.

In general I thought the classics were well-chosen, and I was happy to see Garth Nix, David Levithan, Markus Zusak, and Scott Westerfeld on the list.  So if the list is a little on the fluffy commercial side (you won’t find me reading Jodi Picoult any time soon), it seems fairly balanced.

And in the end, what a book list is good for is generating reading ideas, and this one will do the trick – for teens and adults.  The top 20 are books I’d recommend to any teen or adult, except for the couple I haven’t read.  Do you think it’s too modern?  Too classic?  Too much fantasy or not enough?

Drop me a comment and let me know what you think.  Are your favorites on the list? How would you define a teen novel, and does this list cut it for you?

  5 comments for “NPR’s Best-Ever Teen Novels List: What’s a Teen Novel Anyway?

  1. August 8, 2012 at 8:03 am

    Ooh, I do love lists like these! A really interesting post too – I particularly love your points about classic novels and their inclusion. The idea that to be included on this list a book has to only be targetted at teens is a strange one – Pride and Prejudice is excluded because its appeal is “universal” but Harry Potter stays, despite having been read by whole families the world over? And apparently Ender’s Game is too violent but Fahrenheit 451 isn’t? I haven’t read Ender’s Game (even though I really do keep meaning to!) but Fahrenheit 451 does have some moments that I’m not at all convinced would be appropriate for the younger end of the YA spectrum. Like the related blog post admits, though, it was never going to be a perfect list and there are definite grey areas.

    It’s a great list for recommendations though, that will definitely be bolstering my wishlist!

    • August 8, 2012 at 10:10 am

      Ender’s Game really isn’t all that violent. No less than something like Hunger Games or Harry Potter, imo…

    • August 9, 2012 at 9:59 pm

      Thanks for commenting! The violence decision is strange to me — I think fantasy sometimes gets a real pass on violence because it’s not real. I can’t see the Ender’s Game point at all. Definitely a disturbing read, but then Something Wicked This Way Comes is a book that really made me shiver. Oh well, it makes for a fun discussion and I know my niece was excited about the list — anything that encourages teens to read is a good thing in my book.

  2. August 9, 2012 at 10:31 am

    I thought NPR didn’t make the list, they asked people to vote on titles. So I give a semi-pass to some of the books that made it (or were left off of) the list. However Ender’s Game left off because it’s too violent? But Hunger Games is cool? That’s just silly.

    • August 9, 2012 at 9:54 pm

      They did both as I understand it… they created a list that met their criteria and then let people vote. Ender’s Game is disturbing but hardly more violent than the other books on this list, and a much better read.

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