August 23, 2017

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Librarians Vote for the Top 100 Must-Have YA

In November of 2015, School Library Journal released a poll to investigate what professionals in the field would call their “Top 100 Must-Have YA titles.” The survey received 274 responses; of those who identified themselves, 29 percent work in a public library and 43 percent in a school library (18 percent in a high school library, 12 percent in a middle school library, four percent in an elementary school library, and nine percent in another type of school library). While opinions varied on what constitutes a young adult book, it’s clear that both genre fiction and contemporary works have made significant contributions to the corpus of titles marketed to teen readers.

What makes a novel “YA”?

The survey asked participants to consider how they “distinguish between titles for middle schoolers and high schoolers.” When the survey was posted on SLJ’s website, SLJTeen and YA reviews editor Shelley Diaz wrote that “the general consensus finds that young adult novels are targeted to readers ages 12 and up.” Survey comments reveal that many felt the term YA applied to a slightly older demographic. The age of a book’s main character helped around 20 percent narrow down their submissions for the list; one person noted that “I left off anything that had a protagonist who wasn’t in high school.” Another stated: “The protagonist being older than 14 is usually my first determining factor—a protagonist who is 16–18 years old is ‘classic’ YA to me.” This same commenter went on to say, “[I consider] if the protagonist is facing challenges unique to what teens around 16–18 face—lots of firsts and coming into their own.” This leads to another commonly reported method of how to decide which titles to submit: content.

More than 30 percent of comments included some reference to looking for material appropriate to the age they defined as being young adult: “Lighter themes for middle schools, darker themes for high school,” said one person, while another asks, “Does the book contain themes of learning to define oneself as part of some larger world rather than solely within the context of friends or family? Does the book contain mature themes that I would hesitate to recommend to anyone younger than 12?”

For some 20 percent, there was no need to distinguish between middle and high school. “The lines are so often blurred and open to interpretation,” said one respondent. “I know too many kids who cross the age boundaries” and “I think there are more ‘crossover’ readers than adults often believe” are statements that echo that sentiment.

Where’s the diversity?

While two of the top 10 titles can be considered “diverse” (The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and Eleanor & Park), only a total of seven books in the top 50 feature protagonists or subjects from marginalized cultures. Even though the We Need Diverse Books movement was already in full swing by the time this poll was posted, the majority of responders didn’t include diverse titles in their top 100 picks. Diaz has written a follow-up piece to address this gap.

Top 10 Must-Have YA

Below are the top 10 books that librarians responding to SLJ’s survey believe are essential for YA collections. Readers can also download a PDF of the full top 100 list. Did your favorites not make the list? Feel free to add in the comments.1.The “Harry Potter” series by J.K. Rowling. Scholastic/Arthur A. Levine Bks.
The top slot belongs to the series about a boy wizard, with 61 percent of responses marking this as their number one pick. June 2017 marked the 20th anniversary of the release of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, the book that kicked off a global phenomenon and multibillion dollar media franchise. Rowling introduced readers to a magically gifted orphan and his fantastic world; now Muggle is an everyday word, and Pottermore launched a fandom community that glories in the smallest details of Rowling’s work. While many who took the survey felt inclined to choose titles that were published for the high school age group, one respondent noted that with its dark themes and “maturation of the stories” and characters, the series finds a good home in YA collections.

2.The “Hunger Games” trilogy by Suzanne Collins. Scholastic.
Another multimedia blockbuster franchise, the gritty dystopian world of Katniss Everdeen revitalized a science fiction subgenre that’s still running strong. According to a 2008 interview with SLJ, Collins found her inspiration during an evening of channel surfing—reality shows and war footage blended in her mind, leading to a new spin on the gladiator games of Roman times. Themes of power and oppression, rebellion against unimaginable odds, and family loyalty and friendship, not to mention a seductive love triangle, led the trilogy to surpass sales of the “Harry Potter” series in 2012, the year the first “Hunger Games” film was released. The author has been praised for her world-building, addictive plotlines, and complex characters, making this a title that will stay on library shelves for years to come.

3. Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson. Farrar.
Books that explore serious issues relevant to teen life make up a large chunk of the top 100, with the 2000 Printz Honor book and National Book Award Finalist taking third place in the survey. Anderson’s lauded title features a female character who’s trying to cope in the aftermath of sexual assault. While the novel is more than 15 years old and reflects a time before the ubiquity of mobile phones and other current technology, the author reflected on the book’s enduring popularity in a 2014 interview with Entertainment Weekly, saying: “I think it might speak to the universal struggle of having a hard thing in their life that [teens] don’t know how to talk about. Plus, obviously, way too many people have to deal with sexual assault, so there’s that.”

4. The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. Dutton.
Delivering heavy themes such as mortality and the power of literature, Green’s best seller was a top pick for 40 percent of survey respondents. According to an interview with Kirkus magazine in 2012, the author references his experience working with dying children and his desire to tell a story about “teenagers who happen to be living with illness and disability, rather than objects one stares at and pities and learns from.” Another top 10 title that was released as a major motion picture, this book is described by the publisher as “[an] insightful, bold, irreverent, and raw [work that] brilliantly explores the funny, thrilling, and tragic business of being alive and in love,” which, terminal illness notwithstanding, hits home for many teens.

5. Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell. St. Martins.
The most recent release to make it onto the top 10, Rowell’s quirky romance shows that when stars align, misfits can find love—a situation that can reassure many a teen reader. In this novel told in alternating voices that are both lyrical and filled with just the right amount of teen angst, Park, who is Korean American, and new arrival Eleanor, who is white, delight in their mutual discoveries of comics, music, and friendship, while coping with the issues presented by their vastly different families. Author Gayle Forman called this 2014 Printz Honor book a “sexy, smart, tender romance [that] thrums with punk rock and true love.”

6. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. Knopf.
Many students are introduced to Holocaust literature through The Diary of Anne Frank, a first-person perspective on life and survival during World War II. Delivering a wholly new perspective, the author moved toward the metaphysical with his destined-to-be-classic. Death itself narrates the tale, saying, “It’s just a small story really, about, among other things: a girl. Some words. An accordionist. Some fanatical Germans. A Jewish fist fighter. And quite a lot of thievery.” Though the book was originally published in Australia for an adult audience, the coming-of-age of protagonist Liesel led to the title’s international young adult release. The teachability of this novel surely plays into its spot on the list, while the stunning language and intriguing plot have garnered it many devoted fans.

7. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie. Little, Brown.
Alexie made his entrance into the YA fiction field with this semiautobiographical 2007 release. Broaching topics of abuse, poverty, and racism in both the setting of the Wellpinit Indian Reservation and the broader white community, protagonist Arnold Spirit Jr. takes a chance for a brighter future by leaving the rez for the not-so-nearby high school, which is predominantly white. While aspects of Arnold’s life are tough, the book also highlights the positive impact of friendships, identity, and humor. Interspersed with Arnold’s drawings (by illustrator Ellen Forney), the book has found itself on several banned and challenged lists since its publication. This “instantly makes it prime reading material,” said Alexie in a video interview with the National Coalition Against Censorship. “You want to guarantee that every kid in the school will read a book? Ban it from the school. So, I actually appreciate it.”

8. The “Divergent” series by Veronica Roth. HarperCollins.
Riding the wave of YA dystopia obsession post–“Hunger Games,” the trilogy introduced a world not of districts but factions, where “one choice can transform you.” Faced with her own choice at age 16, Tris makes a break from her seemingly staid family in the Abnegation faction to find her place among the brave and bold Dauntless, only to discover that she is actually a forbidden Divergent. Kirkus praised the novel for its “addictive pace” and “swoony romance,” while the New York Times noted another source of teen appeal, connected to the search for identity: “It movingly explores a more common adolescent anxiety—the painful realization that coming into one’s own sometimes means leaving family behind, both ideologically and physically.” Twenty-seven percent of survey respondents claim this series is a must-have.

9. The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky. MTV Bks.
With many hailing this 1999 bildungsroman as a modern-day Catcher in the Rye, fans eagerly awaited another YA release from the screenwriter—and are still waiting. In an interview with the Guardian in 2014, the same year his film adaptation of the slim novel was released, Chbosky noted that when he was writing the story, he was “a very troubled young man, [who was] was trying desperately to find answers that would make [his] life make sense.” After publication, the author was flooded with letters from teens who were grateful for the fictionalized experiences of main character Charlie and his friends. The book’s truthful representations of mental health issues as well as the moments of pure joy and hope resonate with young adults who need to feel they are not alone in their struggles.

10. Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher. Penguin/Razorbill.
Coming in just three votes behind Perks in the poll, this debut novel explores the “what-ifs” connected to the suicide of high schooler Hannah Baker. Two weeks after her death, classmate, Clay Jensen receives a package of cassette tapes recorded by Hannah, listing the 13 reasons that contributed to her decision (the reasons have been turned into video/sound recordings on the book’s website). As Clay listens, he learns of his own culpability as well as the impact of his classmates’ actions. In a 2014 SLJ interview, Asher responds to the question of how the title continues to resonate with teens in the years after its publication: What [Hannah] talks about are things that are difficult to discuss, so far too often we don’t discuss them. Books can be a non-threatening and safe way to explore these issues, which makes the book then feel personal.” The novel has since been adapted for the small screen by Netflix, with much controversy.

Download a PDF of the full top 100 list. Did your favorites not make the list? Feel free to add in the comments.

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Comments

  1. Amy Oelkers says:

    While I agree that this list is sorely lacking diverse titles, this article forgets that disability, mental health, religion, and gender identity are also topics of diversity. As a librarian of many kids with special needs, chronic health and mental health problems, I try to be really mindful of this diverse definition of diversity. I counted at least 25 in the top 100.

    • Shelley Diaz Shelley Diaz says:

      Hi Amy, thanks so much for your comment. Yes, we took into account all kinds of diversity when analyzing the top 100. We were pleased to see that many marginalized peoples were represented, but felt that we wanted to highlight even more titles in our editor’s picks. Feel free to add some of your own suggestions.
      Best,

      Shelley

  2. I have to give this comment quite a bit of thought and decided to still post about how we need to define diversify and marginalization in ways that are not running the risk of rendering such prominent elements in some of these books invisible. Take The Book Thief, for example. Although the entire cast of characters fall under the White People category as we think of races as social constructs I the 2017 U.S., the book is absolutely all about the marginalized and the discriminated against: Lisle’s mother’s I’ll fate due to ideological differences to the reigning regime and Max the Jew, one of the central forces in the book, who is the victim of genocide (highly race based). Just because the author is not a person of color and the characters are supposedly White, does not mean that there are no racially motivated marginalization and/or that young adult readers wouldn’t be able to make connections between the events in the 1940s Germany and 2010s United States.

    I’m also wondering about Katniss’ racial identity. She is probably mixed raced because she describes both her mother and sister as being not common in their pale complexion, blue eyes, and light hair. She describes District 12 as a place of people with “olive skin” and very dark hair. Casting of Jennifer Lawrence created quite an uproar as I recall because many original readers imagined Katniss’ heritage as potentially rendering her with darker skin tone: African American? Native American? Also consider both the physical and the metaphorical location of District 12: how much more “marginalized” could a place be in the country of Panem?

    That said, I would absolutely swap out Harry Potter (still don’t see how it could be YA, given the criteria presented in this article) with many books by Jason Reynolds, Jacqueline Woodson, or Walter Dean Myers: All American Boys, Beneath a Meth Moon, or Monster?

  3. glee cady says:

    I would like to see Adios to My Old Life and/or When the Stars Go Blue, both by Caridad Ferrer on this list.

  4. Why is it that Harry Potter is listed as a series, but each of the the Hunger Games titles are listed separately?

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