In Search of the Best Teen Novels Ever

What's the title of the greatest teen novel of all time? NPR Books hopes to reach a conclusion on a topic that's fodder for no shortage of passionate opinion.

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What's the the greatest teen novel of all time? It's a matter of no shortage of controversy and passionate opinion. People are very tied to the books they grew up on, as we saw in the reactions to our list of the greatest Y.A. girl characters of young adult literature. Adult Y.A. readers have had quite a long time to cement their predilections, while the teens for whom the books were ostensibly intended are just reading their favorites for the first or maybe second time and experiencing those initial feelings of infatuation and devotion. And then there are the new books (The Hunger Games, for instance) that are released and change everything. When we look at the history of books written for or co-opted by teens, we're talking about not only many years of books, but also many generations of people who have read them. So it's not surprising that nearly 20,000 people had already weighed in by the afternoon of the first day that NPR's annual Summer Books Poll went live. This year, the question is, "What Are Your Favorite Young Adult Novels?"

In 2011 NPR Books readers were asked about sci-fi favorites. The poll ultimately got more than 60,000 votes, with the Lord of the Rings series taking home the top prize. That this year the attention goes to the Y.A. canon, and that so many votes have come through in such a short time, is credit to the category's raging popularity with adults as well as teens. Petra Mayer, an associate editor at NPR Books, told us that, like others, "We also noticed this surge in popularity for Y.A. [It] was the clear choice" for the poll. In June, NPR called for initial teen book submissions from their readers. Thousands weighed in.

With the help of panelists including The New York Times Book Review's Pamela Paul, Publisher's Weekly's Diane Roback, The A.V. Club's Tasha Robinson, and YALSA's Ted Schelvan, those picks were winnowed down from the initial list to a more manageable 235 that reflects both the old and new. To that list, they added only three panel-selected titles that they felt simply had to be included in any fair list of best-ever teen books: Alan Mendelsohn, the Boy from Mars, by Daniel Pinkwater; Leverage, by Joshua Cohen, and The Watch That Ends the Night: Voices from the Titanic, by Allan Wolf.

The culled-down list, from which readers can choose 10, reflects, in the words of Mayer, "a broad range": Francesca Lia Block's Weetzie Bat series; Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson; Catherynne M. Valente's The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making; Maggie Stiefvater's Shiver trilogy, Richelle Mead's Vampire Academy series; The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie; the Betsy-Tacy books; the Anne of Green Gables series, Hold Still by Nina LaCour, Robert Cormier's The Chocolate War and I am the Cheese, Libba Bray's Gemma Doyle trilogy; and Judy Blume's Forever, for example. Mayer noted the number of newer books listed, saying, "My instinct was, Whoa, we have actual teenagers voting. I thought it would be [nostalgic] stuff like The Cat Ate My Gymsuit," a book that didn't make the cut.

Of course, there's already controversy brewing over why certain books have been left off, and others have been included. Mayer wrote a post addressing some of the comments and criticisms on Tuesday afternoon, after the poll went up that morning. In it she explains that A Wrinkle in Time was eliminated, as were a lot of the Judy Blume books and Where the Red Fern Grows, for being "too young." She told me that Twilight was included (regardless of disapproval from some readers) because it's, frankly, just really popular. The most common criticism thus far, though, has been that Pride and Prejudice was left off the list, which is interesting; it's a book I love but have never considered teen in the slightest.

But this gets at the definition of Y.A. as used by those in the industry as opposed to what your average book lover thinks of the term, a topic we've addressed before in Y.A. for Grownups. "Some of the nominees were written before teens [meaning the term "teenager"] existed," says Mayer. The panelists aimed to include books like Catcher in the Rye, William Golding's Lord of the Flies, and Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, which have been essentially "claimed by teens" but weren't initially intended for them. As writer Leonard Marcus told me several months ago: "Salinger did not have teens in mind as his audience, but that's who ended up reading the book." But with Pride and Prejudice, "It's an all-ages book. Everybody loves it," says Mayer—per the panelists, it's not, however, a book that has generated the same cult following among teens as, say, The Princess Bride, which does make the list. Elsewhere, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was cut for its adult themes.

Mayer explains the methodology of the poll further in her Tuesday afternoon post:

By general agreement, the Y.A. years are 12 to 18. Our panel drew a very clear line between YA books and those they considered 'mid-grade;' targeted to readers aged 10 to 12. So goodbye to Little House on the Prairie, for example, and Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret, which are generally loved by younger readers (Forever made the cut, though).

Stomp your feet and complain (Betty Smith's book should have been a shoe-in for the Top 10 in my opinion), but we should probably agree to disagree and get on with the voting, because "No readers' poll will ever be truly objective," writes Mayer. "The standards we used in judging weren't absolute — and debating the fine points is part of the fun. Maybe we'll come back in a future poll and pick the top 100 mid-grade novels." (Yes, please.)

According to Mayer, the poll's current frontrunners are—no surprise—The Hunger Games and Harry Potter series, and John Green's The Fault in Our Stars. The top 100 teen books as selected by readers will be posted on the 8th of August, with voting to close about a week prior. Expect vindication for some, cries of "We were robbed!" from others, and a really good end-of-summer/into-fall reading list for all of us. Bookmark it.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.