Race and Reading: On NPR’s “100 Best YA Novels”

Lit

Recently, NPR Books compiled a list of the  “100 Best Young Adult Novels.”   Audience members were invited to nominate and then vote for the “best” examples of young adult literature. The response was overwhelming: NPR received nominations from 75,500 listeners. If this project is any indication, the general public is passionate and opinionated about young adult books. As a writer and an advocate of literacy, I find this heartening.

However, the list itself has discouraging implications. The audience selected only two books –– out of one hundred –– that feature protagonists of color. The NPR Ombudsman blog has already addressed the methodology of the poll and the role of its panelists; I think the list speaks less to the incompetence of NPR than to the invisibility of certain stories, and perhaps the inherent danger in declaring “bests.” Blame notwithstanding, touting the best books as ones almost exclusively about white people perpetuates white privilege and marginalizes a multitude of stories. And what about other facets of identity –– class, sexuality, gender –– that teens are coming to terms with? One thing that surprised me about discussion of the list is that it essentially stopped at race.

I believe that YA literature is crucial. It’s not just important that kids read books. It’s not just important that kids read good books. Kids need characters and stories that they can identify with –– books that reflect their own varied experiences and struggles. By extension, they need characters and stories that challenge them as well, provoke them to consider their place in the world and engage with narratives they might not encounter in their own lives.

Adolescence is a great time to read –– as a teenager, reading is fun and free of pretension. Books sustained me in middle and high school. They were an escape, certainly, and they were entertainment. But beyond that, they allowed me to conceive of the world beyond my tiny corner of it in a vivid and beautiful way (I grew up in a small, somewhat isolated and chronically rainy town in Alaska).

By reading voraciously, I was exposed to lives along myriad racial, cultural and socioeconomic lines outside my own experience. While this list features some excellent books, its heterogeneity confuses and saddens me. My broad inference is that overwhelmingly, teenagers are either deprived of stories about themselves or deprived of stories about the world. At a time when most of us are utterly absorbed in ourselves and yet at the same time developing a social consciousness, we benefit from stories of both.

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