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.

METHODOLOGY

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

Author 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

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.

DATE PUBLISHED

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.

CONCLUSIONS

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?

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11 thoughts on “The Stats of the Union: 100 Best Ever Teen Novels

  1. I had a post on my blog where I talked about the list. I didn’t break it down into different stats like you did, I just commented on a bunch of the books on the list (mostly those I’ve read, but a few that I haven’t).

    I think the biggest thing that your stats help to show is that the definition of a Teen Novel is really kind of fuzzy. There are a couple of books on the list that are kind of questionable as Teen Novels and one that for me does not belong on the list (Dune is a Teen Novel? Really?).

    There is no list like this that’s perfect, everyone is going to object to something. But overall, I thought the voters did a pretty good job. There’s a pretty good variety of books represented, from a fairly wide range of time periods.

    1. “Young adult lit” is definitely a kind of grey area right now. I had a similar thought when one of my favorite professors decided to teach A Game of Thrones in her YA Lit course last year. “Really, Dr. Reid?” I said. She reasoned that since the Stark children are all under the age of fifteen, and they’re arguably the main characters, it qualified to her as a young adult novel regardless of how brutal it was. After all, teenagers are hardly shielded from graphic content everywhere else, and one could argue that they don’t need to be.

      I do like the list overall. I only wish for two things: that there would have been a way to rank best to worst (although that probably would have annoyed me more), and that I could see a breakdown of the ages and genders of people who voted, haha.

      Thanks for your comment!

      1. A Game of Thrones in a YA class? Lets see here: murder, backstabbing, incest, rape – yeah, that’s a YA book alright.

        Looking at the demographical breakdown of the voters would be interesting. I took the list as already being ordered from best to worst according to the number of people who voted for the book.

        1. A Game of Thrones certainly has all of those things in abundance, but that’s not really what the story is about. It’s about what drives human behavior in those directions, and I think that’s certainly a topic that’s appropriate for the late teens and early twenties. The problem is that when you start to talk about what themes are appropriate for YA lit, you get a mix of literary criticism, marketing, and parenting, and those things do not always mix.

          I voted during the…contest is not the right word, but we’ll use it for now…and there was no way to indicate any ranking when you voted. You just had to pick ten out of a giant multiple choice list. Because of that, I don’t think the list is ordered best to worst.

  2. Wow, you are fantastic. Can I share this in my book news post on Tuesday. This is AMAZING. I was both thrilled and disappointed with that list. I’ve been disappointed with John Green (only once – Looking for Alaska) and so it didn’t make sense to me that he was on the list so much. However, my 9th graders are OBSESSED with him. So I should get over myself. A lot of my favorite classics made this list though. I’m surprised that A Tree Goes in Brooklyn wasn’t on the list by NPR because they didn’t consider it “young adult.”

    1. Haha thanks! You’re more than welcome to share, I’d be honored.

      I’ve never read any John Green but a lot of the bloggers I follow have been reviewing his latest book a lot (which is also his first book with a female protagonist).

      Defining what is “young adult” is really hard. I can think of books I read as a teen that were not technically teen novels, but that’s the only way I think of them because that’s when I read them.

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