J.K. Rowling, Suzanne Collins, Harper Lee, and more: The genre is full of women storytellers.
Summer is a time for taking stock, for relaxing and recharging, and for intense Internet debate about whether Harry Potter, Katniss Everdeen, or Holden Caulfield reign supreme in the universe of teen fiction. NPR Books just released the results of its reader poll of the 100 Best-Ever Teen novels, with new classics Harry Potter and The Hunger Games topping the list. After painstakingly considering my own nominees, I was struck by the dominance of female authors on my short list, including: Harper Lee, Lucy Maud Montgomery, Suzanne Collins, J.K. Rowling, S.E. Hinton, Betty Smith, and Madeleine L'Engle.
I'm not alone in my regard for the great female storytellers of teen fiction. Nearly all of these authors appear on the NPR list. More than 75,000 votes were cast to cull the list of 235 finalists to the top 100. Also notable: Of those 235 titles, 147 (or 63 percent) were written by women—a parity that would seem like a minor miracle in some other genres. Female authors took the top three slots, and an approximately equal share of the top 100. As a comparison, you'd have to scroll all the way to number 20 on last summer's Top 100 Science-Fiction and Fantasy list to find a woman's name (Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley).
Although NPR Books called on an expert panel to weigh in on tricky questions of young-adult eligibility, the demographic breakdown of the finalist list was almost entirely driven by reader votes, according to Joe Matazzoni, NPR's senior supervising producer for Arts & Life.
"I think it speaks to readers' interests and it speaks to the nature of this field that it happened to come out that way," said Matazzoni, who also noted that the choices seemed to represent both the target teen demographic, as well as the adult readers that have fervently embraced YA lit. "It's an impressive show of enthusiasm."
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If the results of the NPR poll are a reflection of the reading populace, the YA world is a place of relative harmony compared to the battle of the sexes being waged in adult fiction. After chick-lit purveyors Jennifer Weiner and Jodi Picoult raised the call about the disparity between books by male authors and books by female authors being reviewed in the New York Times Book Review, Ruth Franklin at The New Republic did her own analysis of the literary glass ceiling. The results are dismaying: after reviewing catalogs from 13 large and small publishing houses (and eliminating genre titles unlikely to be reviewed), she found that only one came close to gender parity, while the majority had 25 percent or fewer titles written by women.
Meanwhile, to the consternation of some men in the field, the YA genre tends to favor female authors and audiences. And at least commercially, teen fiction is crushing almost everyone else. Three of the biggest book-to-movie franchises of the last decade (Harry Potter, Twilight, The Hunger Games) are YA series penned by women. According to an annual report by the Association of American Publishers, Children's/YA ranked as the fastest growing category in publishing in 2011. While teen titles may never reach the upper echelons of critical adulation bestowed on the latest Jonathan Franzen novel, the phenomenal popularity makes it increasingly difficult to marginalize the genre.