100 Best YA Novels, Part 2

Here’s my continuing discussion of NPR’s Top 100 YA Books list. Yesterday, I talked about the books I like and would give increased recognition. Today, I’m complaining about the books I don’t like and that I think got too much acclaim in the rankings.

Here are the books I would bump lower on the list or leave off it:

27. Twilight series: It’s easy to imagine that four years ago, this series might have occupied the place that The Hunger Games does now (second). With the movie releases now winding down and the cheating drama between the stars, the Twilight hype seems to be fading. I’m glad. I don’t think it gives a good message. But I do understand how terribly seductive the novels are.

35. Go Ask Alice: I don’t remember if this was a real memoir or not. Either way, on pure literary value, I say no, it probably doesn’t belong on this list, and certainly not in the top half. It mostly seemed like it was just meant to scare you into avoiding drugs. And its cultural references were so far behind when I read it in high school that it wasn’t even very good propaganda. I’m sure the last few years haven’t been kind in that respect either. This is a book that made it on the list because of its history and story, because it was one of the first books to be marketed specifically for teenagers, not because it’s very fun to read.

38. A Separate Peace: I haven’t read this, but I knew people who were assigned this book for school and complained about it all day. Based on that, it probably doesn’t deserve this place.

48. The Inheritance cycle: I’ve read 2 or 3 of these books. I found them formulaic, overly concerned with action sequences and descriptions, and burdened with an annoying hero. There was even a “Luke, I am your father” moment. The series doesn’t deserve to be on the list.

49. The Princess Diaries series: I read 2 or 3 of these books. They deserve a lower spot on the list, because they lost my interest in trying to milk the series dry. The first book was fine, but there was no need to drag it out too long.

50. Song of the Lioness series: I’ve read and reviewed several of these books. I don’t think they deserve such a high spot based on literary merit. The character development and relationships are weak. They probably deserve to be on the list, because as I said in the review, books like Graceling could not have been written without this precedent.

54. Hush, Hush saga: I’ve read the first few of this series, and wasn’t super impressed. It’s problematic in some of the same ways that Fallen and Twilight are problematic. However, the final book could redeem the series.

67. Fallen series: Definitely does NOT deserve to be on the list. My reviews explain why: problematic gender issues, ridiculously hyperbolic language, and confusing religious implications.

68. House of Night series: I started to read this series but thought it got ridiculous and quit. Part of it was the series-dragging-on-forever problem, bu the biggest problem was a protagonist who’s too perfect and talented with an endless line of hot guys who want to date her. It doesn’t deserve to be on the list.

Another quibble: I would have put The Lord of the Rings together with The Hobbit as one entry. And if they must be ranked separately, I’d put LotR first.

The list also exposed a lot of gaps in my own reading. Here are the books on this list that I’ve been meaning to read for a while:

  • 4. The Fault in Our Stars
  • 17. The Princess Bride (in my stack this minute)
  • 21. The Mortal Instruments Series
  • 84. The Enchanted Forest Chronicles

And here are the books I added to my reading list thanks to seeing them here and liking the description:

  • 10. The Book Thief
  • 19. Divergent series
  • 36. Howl’s Moving Castle
  • 40. The Abhorsen Trilogy
  • 41. Dune
  • 56. It’s Kind of a Funny Story
  • 80. The Goose Girl (started it already)

100 Best YA Novels

Last month NPR released a list of the top 100 Young Adult books of all time. Judges narrowed the ballot down to 235 books from 1,200 nominated books, and over 75,000 people voted. So in many ways, this is a popularity contest, not necessarily a list of enduring classics, although several quite old books are on the list. YA lit, like everything popular with teenagers, is susceptible to trends and fast-dying crazes, so it would be interesting to see how many of these books are still on the list in 10 years.

I’ve read a lot of these books: 44 or 46 out of 100 (My stats are better if you look only at the top twenty; I’ve read 3/4 of those). So I wanted to weigh in on this assessment. The first exercise I ever did in my first class on literary criticism was to make a top 10 list with some classmates. Establishing the criteria for choosing which books are the best of all time means being explicit about value judgements, saying not just what is good and bad, but what is better and best and why. Since articulating an aesthetic is one of my main goals of the blog, it seems worthwhile to try a similar exercise.

One way that the list-writers and voters have made their task easier is by designating series (which proliferate in YA) as a single work. For the purpose of this kind of list, I think this is wise. Otherwise, many works would be excluded for the sake of awarding a few series multiple spots on the list. The rankings would turn into in-fighting about which installment of a particular series is really best, as each fan may have a different favorite.

First of all, I totally agree with the top three books. The Harry Potter series is as far as I’m concerned, the best YA series of all time. To Kill a Mockingbird is a timeless classic. I might bump it up to second place. The Hunger Games is a great set of books. The true test will be if this series stays on the list 10 years after its movies have gone to cable, though. I imagine it might drop a few spots, at least.

Here are the books on this list that I have reviewed:

I’m going to split my discussion of this list into two posts. Today, I’m going to talk about the books that I like, which I think deserve a better place on the list, and tomorrow, I’m going to talk about mediocre books that the list overrated. Here are the books I would bump higher on the list:

15. His Dark Materials series: I’d put this as #3, after Harry Potter and To Kill a Mockingbird. This series retells Paradise Lost in a way that could make a young reader interested in the classic, and shows the real stakes involved in what we believe about creation and salvation. It takes place in at least four beautifully described worlds, where polar bears, witches, and angels come to life. It blew my mind. Every time I think about and remember these books, they blow my mind all over again.

30. Tuck Everlasting: As one of the oldest books on the list and one of the founding novels of the genre of YA fantasy, I was surprised not to see this book place higher. I would have put it in the top 10. It’s a deceptively simple book, beginning with a question: What would it really be like to live forever?

44. The Dark Is Rising Sequence: I truly enjoyed this series about a boy who learns he’s one of a group of immortals that goes back to Merlin and Arthur’s time. There’s a lot of suspense, a poem that acts as a clue, a sense of adventure and danger, of history and myth.

45. Graceling series: The reviews make a longer case for the books, but in general, this is a feminist series with strong heroines who wield power wisely and have intriguing adventures and problems to solve. The language and the storytelling are top-notch.

57. The Gemma Doyle Trilogy: This story of magic, female friendship, addiction, and love is set in a Victorian boarding school. The ending has a great twist and a heartbreaking sacrifice (just how I like my endings).

63. A Ring of Endless Light: I read this book in high school and loved it so much that I was inarticulate talking about it in a college interview. It does such a great job of putting real existential problems in terms that a teenager can understand. It deserves a higher place in the list.

Here are some books that aren’t on the list that I’d like to add:

The Chaperone

The Chaperone by Laura Moriarty

This is the story of a middle-aged woman from Kansas who accompanies a young dancer to New York in 1922. The dancer is Louise Brooks, a real person who became a silent film star, a trendsetting and boundary-crossing flapper. The chaperone is Cora, who is more complicated than she appears. Skillfully managed flashbacks gradually reveal what’s really going on under Cora’s prim surface. The surprises in these flashbacks are pretty good, so I’ll be vague here to avoid spoilers. Cora’s time in New York changes her life, giving her the courage to demand some happiness for herself and causing some real upheaval back in Kansas. By the end of the book, she and the unusual family she gathers around herself have made a place for themselves that’s a tiny oasis of tolerance and love in the middle of repression. The way she is able to make her strange arrangement work, especially in this time period, is kind of inspiring.

The ending drags on a bit, telling about all of the social changes Cora witnesses as she grows old, as well as the changes in her family. But overall, this is a very enjoyable book about a heart opening to compassion, rich with period details and strong, descriptive sentences. In a way, Cora is the entire women’s movement in a microcosm. In the first scene we learn she was a suffragette, and by the end she’s supporting birth control and gay rights. The idea that a single person could change her opinions and attitudes so drastically in such a short time gives me hope for America.

Wolf Hall

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Wolf Hall is the story of Thomas Cromwell, chancellor of King Henry VIII. It’s a fictionalized telling of Cromwell’s story, beginning with his childhood as the son of a drunk, abusive blacksmith. The novel skips over Cromwell’s youth as a soldier in Europe, and plunges into his career as a bureaucrat in Renaissance England. Throughout the novel, many people comment on Cromwell’s humble origins, questioning how he can wield power over dukes with royal blood. However, in almost every such scene Cromwell outsmarts the nobleman, showing how his superior skill and knowledge (he has a photographic memory), as well as his control of the country’s finances, give him an advantage in almost every situation. Cromwell began as an assistant to Cardinal Wolsey, a power broker of the early part of Henry’s reign. The lengthy novel focuses on Wolsey’s decline, Henry’s legal battle to marry Anne Boleyn, and the trial and execution of Thomas More.

Luckily, I know this story fairly well already, from history class, The Tudors, and Phillipa Gregory’s novels. I might have been a bit lost if that background wasn’t there to help me, but since I was able to remember even minor figures like Bishop Fisher, the Spanish ambassador Chapuys, and Thomas Cranmer, I could fill in gaps and make sense of oblique references. Readers with less previous knowledge might want to bookmark some wikipedia pages to refer to while reading.

Growing up Catholic, and living close to Thomas More College, I have only ever heard More spoken of with reverence. Wolf Hall offers an entirely different point of view on the saint. For the first half of the book he is Cromwell’s professional rival, and the two men are presented as opposites. Cromwell, a man thoroughly immersed in the practicalities of the material world, describes More’s self-flagellation, hair-shirt-wearing and other pious acts as excessive. Nevertheless, the two men understand each other in a profound way. The biggest surprise to me were the graphic scenes of More torturing heretics as part of an inquisition. Mantel does treat More with dignity, especially at his end, but also shows him to be a self-righteous hypocrite in many ways. One of my favorite lines was when Cromwell mused that in the future More would be seen as a martyr: “Depend upon it, in the eyes of Europe we will be the fools and the oppressors, and he will be the poor victim with the better turn of phrase.”

The language and sentences of this novel are one of its main pleasures. Since its ideal reader is one who already knows what is going to happen in the plot, attention is focused instead on the ways that the Tudor court is described, and on the powerful men’s dialogues. The audiobook I listened to had a particularly effective narrator, Simon Slater, who conveyed raw strength, cold calculation, and bitter irony remarkably well, adding flavor to an already fascinating story.

The Book of Blood and Shadow

The Book of Blood and Shadow by Robin Wasserman

This YA mystery has it all: international intrigue, romance, betrayal, gorgeous settings, rich history, metaphysical questions, puzzling codes, riddling clues, and good sentences. I had a ton of fun reading it. I’d highly recommend it to anyone who likes history and suspense. It’s been compared to The Da Vinci Code, but I think The Book of Blood and Shadow is less gimmicky and has a main character with more psychological depth.

In the book’s opening, Nora, the narrator, has discovered her best friend dead, and her boyfriend is the prime suspect. The murder is related to the scholarly research the friends had been doing along with their professor: translating the letters of a 16th-century girl whose father was alchemist to the Holy Roman Emperor. Nora feels connected to this girl in some strange way, and she hides some of this evidence from the police and investigates it on her own. The search takes her to Prague, where she finds the boyfriend, and another boy–who claims to be her dead friend’s cousin–finds her.

It turns out that the alchemist had discovered the Lumen Dei, the light of God, a machine that allows humans to communicate directly with the divine. And the two boys represent two warring factions with differing opinions on this machine–one wants to use it and the other wants to destroy it. A love triangle develops about halfway through the book, and is left kind of unresolved at the end, which is ok with me because this romance is a subplot and the main story felt plenty resolved.

I think the best thing Wasserman does is linking the suspense of the 400-year-old mystery and Macguffin-seeking with issues in the relationships between the characters, and whether or not they trust and forgive each other. When the interpretation of clues depends on whether or not a character is lying, and when the story from the Renaissance that’s unraveled has such personal significance for the protagonist, that adds another layer of meaning and keeps the story from feeling like a pointless scavenger hunt.

In the midst of all this spying, counter-spying, and digging for clues, Wasserman is able to use language expertly to heighten suspense and build a fascinating setting. There are great descriptions of Prague as a palimpsest, each century writing on top of the last. Nora’s fear, confusion, and emotional turmoil are related in a way that feels honest and psychologically realistic.

Even in a book with so much going on, Wasserman does not neglect to have her characters stop to discuss the metaphysical implications of a machine that allows God to speak directly to humans. However, she doesn’t let the story get bogged down with these questions of faith and ultimate reality. The ending reminded me of Raiders of the Lost Ark, conveniently allowing Wasserman to avoid having to actually answer these impossible questions.

Molly Ringwald Reading and Q+A

Last night Molly Ringwald gave a great reading of a part of her new novel in stories, When It Happens to You at the Nashville Public Library. She read from the story “My Olivia,” about a single mother and her son, who at six already identifies as a girl. The excerpt had some great lines about pregnancy the chasm between parents and non-parents. After the reading, she answered a lot of questions from the packed hall.

Some questions were about Ringwald’s movie career. She said that John Hughes encouraged her to write, but that he probably meant screenwriting, not novels and short stories. My favorite story that she told was that Hughes felt that he was bad at revision, that his work got worse as he changed it. Ringwald loved the first version of The Breakfast Club that she saw, but when they all met to film it there was a new version she didn’t like as much, and she told Hughes. He brought out all of his previous drafts and let the young stars read them all and pick the parts they liked best. Doesn’t it make sense that that movie came from such a unique collaborative writing process, with the actual teenagers giving real input?

What interests Ringwald in both acting and writing is characters, people who have flaws. She said she doesn’t write fantasies, but stories about good people who aren’t perfect. That makes me really excited to read the rest of this book. While waiting at the book signing, I read on in the story she’d started reading to the crowd, and the writing only got deeper and stronger.

Ringwald was sweet and gracious, and most of all, wise. I’m glad the “princess” grew up so well. It gives me hope for the next 15 years of my life.

Molly Ringwald at Nashville Library

My teenage self is happy to get to see a star of some favorite movies in person. Molly Ringwald is visiting the Nashville Public Library tomorrow!

The library hasn’t started booking movie stars for nostalgia’s sake. Ringwald has written a novel, and I’ve heard it’s good. One review compares it favorably to her Sixteen Candles costar Andrew McCarthy’s navel-gazing memoir, which has been called a man’s Eat, Pray, Love. I’d rather read a novel in short stories on the theme of betrayal, thanks.