Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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NPR’s Best Every YA list

You know what I think about NPR’s Best Ever YA list?

1) It was obviously a pure popularity contest, with no consideration for whether some of the hot titles of the past couple of years can possibly hold up over time;
2) Just because kids like something and frequently read something, doesn’t mean it’s YA;
3) Just having a young protagonist doesn’t make something YA.
4) Removing Ender’s Game because it is “too violent” is insane, if you’re going to include The Hunger Games and (God help us) Lord of the Flies.

I argue about points two and three all the time. I’m not saying you’ll never convince me otherwise, but no one’s done it yet.

And regarding the first point, I get that it may be difficult to assess whether a title will hold up over time unless you have a time machine. But, I mean, Twilight? Really? Are we going to argue that Fifty Shades must be great literature because after all it represented 20% of all book sales this year? Porn sells: that’s not news, but it doesn’t mean it’s great literature.

I have to admit that there are a LOT of titles on NPR’s list that I haven’t read. Like, more than half. Wow, who knew? Well, but I never used to read contemporary YA. Plus, of course, when I was a kid, YA wasn’t a category the way it is now and I wasn’t shoved toward YA books particularly.

It strikes me that there are definitely some on the NPR list that aren’t YA. These include:

Lord of the Flies
To Kill a Mockingbird
The Call of the Wild
Dune (I mean, good lord above, who would call DUNE a young adult novel? ???)
The Lord of the Rings
The Princess Bride
Flowers for Algernon (Give me a break!)
Anne of Green Gables (too young; definitely MG rather than YA)
The Uglies (ditto, imho)
And Ender’s Game wasn’t on there, but if it had been, imo, it’s not YA either. (I argue about that all the time.) But not because it’s too violent, whatever that means — because it just isn’t. It’s too slow, too big, too complicated, and does not “feel” YA. It just doesn’t.

Also, obviously some titles that made the list are not, shall we say, of the quality we would hope to maintain on a list of “Best Ever” titles of anything. Twilight is the obvious one here. If there are any other frankly bad books on the list, I don’t know what they are.

Obviously the list is highly and inevitably biased toward titles that everyone has read; ie, really popular titles or titles assigned in high school – and yes, I get that quite a few people must have enjoyed reading Lord of the Flies, for some reason, or it wouldn’t be on the list. But, wow, did a lot of titles get left off that deserved to be far, far above Twilight. !!!

Here are the titles that I totally agree with:

Harry Potter series (Rowling)
Hunger Games series (Collins)
The Dark is Rising series (Cooper)
I Capture the Castle (Smith)
The Last Unicorn (Beagle), which actually I’m not a hundred percent sure I agree it’s YA, but okay, we’ll go with it.
If I Stay (Forman)
The Enchanted Forest series (Wrede)
The Blue Sword and The Hero and the Crown (McKinley)
The Trickster series (Pierce)
The Chrestomanci series (Jones)

Remember that I haven’t read the majority of the titles, though! Nevertheless, in a just universe, the following titles (in no order whatsoever) would certainly have made it onto that list:

Power of Three and Dogsbody (Jones)
Protector of the Small series (Pierce)
Beka Cooper: Terrier (Pierce)
Sorcery and Cecilia (Wrede and Stevermer)
Marelon the Magician (Wrede)
A Certain Slant of Light (Whitcomb)
Girl of Fire and Thorns (Carson)
The Scorpio Races (Stiefvater)
An Alien Music (Johnson)
The Changeover (Mahy)
The Truth Teller’s Tale (Shinn)
The Attolia series (Turner) — are you kidding me? How can this not be on the list?
Tombs of Atuin (Le Guin)
Wrinkle in Time (Le Guin) – did I just miss it? Shocked this isn’t on there.
A Fistful of Sky (Hoffman)
The Sunbird (Wein)
I Am Not a Serial Killer series (Wells) – I know that it’s not usually considered YA, but to me it clearly is.
Tomorrow When the War Began series (Marsden) – again, how can it possibly not be on the list?
Airborn duology (Oppel)
Moonflash (McKillip)

And, for contemporary titles rather than genre, no list can possibly be correct unless it includes:

The Sky is Everywhere (Nelson)
Almost Perfect (Katcher)
Five Flavors of Dumb (John)
Catalog of the Universe (Mahy)

Comments? Any other “MUST INCLUDE” titles?

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11 Comments NPR’s Best Every YA list

  1. Robert Massey

    I’m not sure what I’d consider “must read”, but I’d like to put Terry Pratchett’s Johnny Maxwell or Tiffany Aching books on the list.

    Also, I consider A Wrinkle in Time quite good, but it was written by Madeleine L’Engle not LeGuin. :-)

  2. Caroline Evarts

    Hi Rachel! I was wondering what you’ve been up to. I have read almost nothing this year, but still feel the need to weigh in here.

    I was curious why you didn’t consider Lord of the Flies, Mockingbird, Call of the Wild & Princess Bride YA. When did you read them? I read them at 12 & 13 – very YA age I’d think. (I agree w/ Anne of Green Gables) Do you think they are too old, too young? The first three (along with others like the Red Pony) certainly showed me what writing really was. Those were the years I started to see the difference between writing and literature. I am deeply grateful for the English teacher who had us reading these titles and more.

    Just my two cents. Hope all is well.
    Caroline

  3. Rachel

    I agree that most people read those books when they’re young; so did I. I don’t agree that they were aimed at younger readers, however; it just turns out that high school teachers like to assign them. As far as I’m concerned, books that were written to appeal to a general (meaning adult) audience are not YA, even if a lot of people read them at a young age.

    I loved Call of the Wild, incidentally, and read it many times while I was in my teens. But it still isn’t YA.

  4. Rachel

    [Whaps forehead]

    Yes, of course, Madeleine L’Engle. Jeez.

    I’ve never actually read the Tiffany Aching books — I keep meaning to. Actually I want more Terry Pratchett in audio format because they’re so perfect for long drives, but I keep putting off actually getting them!

  5. Elaine T

    I kept visiting this post and almost replying…. But I wasn’t sure what to say, because half of what I’d propose predates the YA category, so are they YA at all? Which fits in with Caroline’s question: why aren’t TKAMb, ENDER’S GAME, or some others being considered YA?

    I know someone reasonably famous in the literary world (might have been Flannery O’connor, but don’t quote me) complained that TKAMb *was* written for kids and the person was amazed that it was getting all the adult attention it did. And I can sort of see that, now that I finally got around to reading it myself this past year. I wouldn’t call it YA, though. I don’t know where I’d put it genre-wise.

    I think it was here that there was a discussion – or maybe Rachel pointed to discussions elsewhere – about what makes a YA book YA. I seem to recall a kind of consensus, or maybe it was just me liking the idea, that YA ought to involve a youngster taking the first steps into adulthood, making adult choices. Neither the Harper Lee, nor the OSCard, nor the others really do. They involve kids, but not kids making adult choices and starting their move into the adult world. (Ender is deceived – he THINKS he is playing games.) There are other criteria in the back of my mind relating to complexity and ways of handling issues, but the essential seems to come down to showing kids shifting towards adulthood.

    LORD OF THE FLIES I read too long ago and disliked rather a lot, so I really don’t want to opine on where it fits. Maybe a juvenile nightmare novel. …

    Accessible to young readers is different from YA. Not better, not worse, just different.

  6. Craig

    I’d probably stick in McKillip’s THE CHANGELING SEA, instead of or in addition to MOON-FLASH (which latter nobody seems to have read except you and me).

    THE TOMBS OF ATUAN is part of the Earthsea Trilogy, which is on the list, where it belongs.

    It isn’t entirely clear to me where YA splits off from middle grade on the one side and adult on the other. I mean, I agree about LoTR and Dune (I suppose it’s a coming of age story, among other things, but really now). But is _Sorcery and Cecilia_ YA, really? I remember it about as mature as _Northanger Abbey_ or even _Sense & Sensibility_ (which strike me as Austen’s two youngest).

    Or, on the other side, I’m not sure The Enchanted Forest chronicles are old enough to be YA, though I may be privileging the first one. Diana Wynne Jones tends younger, too (and that should be enough to clarify that I’m not distinguishing by quality: she’s a better writer than many of the others).

  7. Elaine T

    ‘I’d probably stick in McKillip’s THE CHANGELING SEA, instead of or in addition to MOON-FLASH (which latter nobody seems to have read except you and me).”

    And me! And THE MOON & THE FACE.

    I read Wrede’s ENCHANTED FOREST to our girl when she was 4 or 5, so I tend to think of them as for younger kids, or for all ages. DWJ is another all ages, I don’t see her as tending younger than someof the others. Maybe because she gets such depth in. I’d certainly rather see her DOGSBODY on the list than many of those that did make it on.

    Of course, if I were making such a list, I’d set parameters including ‘has to be published at least 5-10 years ago.” Which might keep some of the pop sensations out. And makes an attempt to find out what is still considered good after aging a bit.

  8. Craig

    Congratulations, Elaine: hardly anybody seems to know about McKillip’s _Moon_ books. Which is really too bad: the first one, in particular, is quite good. (I also loved her one major foray into adult SF, _Fool’s Run,_ but she must not have liked it as much because that’s not an experiment she followed up. Too bad, I would say, except that the fantasy that has pretty much defined her approach in her late period books, _The Book of Atrix Wolfe,_ was even better.)

    I suspect that some books I would view as aimed at younger readers, you would consider all ages — probably as much because of quality as anything else. An even better example would be Tolkien’s _The Hobbit,_ which I think is clearly aimed at children and not “young adults,” but can be read by all ages just because it’s really good in itself. And DWJ’s best children’s books are at the same level.

    Or, you know, maybe _I’m_ the one who’s confused about what YA actually is.

    I certainly agree that “Best Of” lists are heavily skewed toward recent stuff unless you use a cut-off or some other arbitrary limit. I can’t think of an exception offhand, in any sort of ranking list.

  9. Elaine T

    FOOL’S RUN may not have sold very well, too. I love it, but I’ve seen a fair number of negative comments about it over the years. And heard some from my husband of the ‘nothing happens’ sort.

    And what about FORGOTTEN BEASTS OF ELD? That (and Riddlemaster – which was published as a juvy) used to be the McKillip everyone talked about and it is more YA than many of hers. That’s the one where I fell in love with her writing, and collected everything she had written and went on to buy everything to come (except the short stories because I had to know to look for them). But it certainly wasn’t on the latest list, and seems to have dropped out of sight.

    The only other suggestion i might have for the list would be Nancy Werlin’s first book, THE KILLER’s COUSIN, because I remember when it came out it seemed highly intelligent and fiercely focused – really good. But I haven’t reread it since then.

    Judging YA is HARD. I can’t really do it and don’t get much help from our daughter. The resident target audience, going on 16, either reads official juveniles, or adult books, while generally avoiding the YA stuff. For example: SHE likes, of McKillip, ALPHABET OF THORN and HOUSE ON PARCHMENT STREET. Of Rachel’s work CITY didn’t work for her, but she loves LotCW (but not the others), and FLOATING ISLANDS (and prefers the boy’s story line to the girl’s). I can’t make sense out of it, and that’s just one kid and two writers.

  10. Rachel

    Yes, absolutely THE CHANGELING SEA! That is just about the platonic ideal of a YA novel. Can’t think how I missed it.

    To me, SORCERY AND CECILIA feels a lot younger than SENSE AND SENSIBILITY — but I might agree that NORTHANGER ABBEY is more YA!

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