NPR recently had over 75,000 people (myself included) vote for their favorite young adult novels ever. The list of choices was immense and I had a really difficult time limiting myself to the maximum ten votes. You can be sure, then, that the list is pretty comprehensive and a decent indicator of the kinds of things people like. Here is the final list they came up with.
While I was reading I noticed some definite trends going on, and I decided that it may be a good idea to actually find out what the statistics were. Were there more male or female authors, more male or female protagonists? What was the most popular genre? When were these novels published?
I have now spent several hours finding out those very things, and I am writing to share my findings with you.
I used the very sophisticated tally method, where I basically just went up and down the list ticking off the qualifying categories. Not the most scientific, but accurate enough for our purposes. Author was pretty straightforward, except in the case of Go Ask Alice, which is officially published anonymously, and Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, which was a tag team by two authors of different genders. In the author/protagonist gender comparison, Nick and Norah is counted twice.
To determine the protagonist, I chose one character who was a) the title character and/or b) the narrator/subject of the third person limited. The only books that were fudgy here were The Circle of Magic quartet. Two of the books are written about the two boys and two about the two girls, but all four books feature all four children pretty equally. In the author/protagonist gender comparison, this book series is counted twice.
I categorized the books by author gender, protagonist gender, genre, and date published (using the first book for series). Then I tried to mash them all together! Hooray! Margin of error is probably somewhere around 3 points (I’m just calling the tallies points), especially with genre because the lines get so blurred between genres.
Disclaimer: Please, don’t give me any methodology critiques unless I made a glaring error that makes no sense. I am not a statistician and this was mostly just for fun. I hope that the only place someone will use me as a source is in a lively debate among friends about the state of literature.
AUTHOR GENDER V. PROTAGONIST GENDER
Female authors led the men by 16, and that’s even with John Green being on the list 5 times (he was the worst repeat offender, followed by Tamora Pierce). I initially thought that this was because of a surge of new and popular teen paranormal romance, which is almost exclusively written by women, but this was not the case. Of the books published in or after 2006, 37% of were by women and 34% were by men. Women are still leading, but the men are not far behind.
Unsurprisingly, authors tend to stick to protagonists of their own gender. Female authors wrote about female protagonists 87% of the time, while male authors wrote about male protagonists 86% of the time. Pretty close, and not at all shocking. They do tell us to stick to what we know, don’t they? Of course, this doesn’t account for any sidekicks, but even when we talk about “group” protagonists, Tamora Pierce was the only author who featured an evenly split group with her two boys, two girls Circle of Magic protagonists.
So women are writing more and they’re writing more about women. Let’s look at what they’re writing.
Genre is always sort of tough to talk about. First, you have wildly flexible definitions of what defines each genre; second, the “in” thing to do these days is to blend genres together. But, I did my best. I mostly used whatever genre was listed on the book’s Wikipedia page. Some of the Wikipedia writers seem to think that “young adult” is a genre; maybe it used to be, but it’s not anymore! So anything that was described as “young adult” got lumped into the realistic fiction category, unless it had any other, more discernible points.
So here’s the breakdown. Fantasy and realistic fiction are vying for the prize of most popular genre. Unfortunately, both of those terms are pretty much dumping ground for a lot of very specific sub-genres. I’ve included some of them (like dystopia and paranormal, which are notably tied for third place), but since I’m not familiar with all the novels on the list it’s hard for me to be definitive about where to place them.
The gender lines are of some interest. Fantasy makes up 37% of the novels written by women, compared to 21% of the novels written by men. Realistic fiction makes up 35% of the novels written by women (thank you Sarah Dessen) and 26% of the novels by men (it’s pretty much all John Green). Women wrote more paranormal fiction, but men dominated science fiction. Dystopian fiction was essentially split down the middle.
It’s definitely interesting to think about when these books were published. You might expect that most of the novels published by women have come during the last twenty years, while the novels by men were more spaced out over the last hundred or so. As I pointed out above, this is not necessarily the case. The rate of publication is virtually the same across the list.
Most of the novels on the list (67%) were published in or after 1990. This is unsurprising, since that’s when teen or “young adult” fiction really became a thing. The books published prior to that are ones that have mostly been added retroactively to the ideal teen reading list.
The second largest chunk, the orange one, represents the forty-odd years before the marketing shift that brought us young adult literature. Those decades brought us The Lord of the Rings (and of the Flies), A Separate Peace, The Catcher in the Rye, that sort of thing. If we were to look at this chunk a little closer, we would notice that expected split between men publishing and women publishing. Authors like Diana Wynne Jones, Judy Blume, Ursula Le Guin, and Robin McKinley didn’t start publishing until towards the end of that time span, whereas Tolkien, John Knowles, and J.D. Salinger published towards the beginning.
I didn’t have time to compare genre and date published, but I didn’t really take note of any glaring patterns.
75,220 people voted and decided that these 100 novels were the best young adult novels EVER. We’ve learned that readers of young adult novels appear to prefer female writers and female protagonists by a small margin. They prefer recent novels just slightly over older works, but there is still a lot of room for the classics.
We’ve also learned that writers stick to characters of their own gender, and that women are generally more likely to use fantastic or paranormal elements in their stories than men.
What other conclusions can you draw from these statistics?