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."
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.
Plenty of theories have been floated to explain YA's surge, particularly among adult readers. Some attribute it to ingenious marketing or to the childlike simplicity of the plots, suggesting that the craze is a distressing symptom of a reading public congenitally adverse to nuance. Matazzoni proposes that for adult readers, nostalgia plays an important role: "Readers have fond memories of being curled up with a book, in the summertime especially. Memories are what we believe people are tapping into, and the opportunity to share the books they love."
He has a point. Even as teen fiction has become increasingly complex and dystopian, the genre comfortingly harkens to a time when reading was an act of pure joy and escapism. I've read a lot of wonderful books in my lifetime, but I don't know that I've loved any of the novels I've read as an adult with the intensity that I loved the stories of adolescence--nor found such a wealth of female protagonists in their pages. YA lit offers heroines to suit every mercurial mood and developmental stage, from spunky, disaster-prone Anne Shirley to dreamy, bookish Francie Nolan and the modern ass-kicking incarnation of Katniss Everdeen.