Top Fives

As you’ve probably seen, NPR recently compiled a list of the top 100 best-ever teen novels.  NPR came up with this list after inviting people to nominate YA novels and then select their top ten from the nominations.  The list has generated plenty of controversy—for instance, some people have objected to the imprecise criteria NPR used to decide what does and does not count as a YA novel, and others were disappointed that their favorite authors didn’t make the cut. (ETA: Laurie Halse Anderson raised another legitimate concern with the list in this blog entry: the lack of diversity.)

Personally, I appreciated the blend of classics and recent novels on the final list, and I think it will be fun to share with my students.  I’m glad it exists as a jumping-off point for reflection and conversation, but I understand people’s concerns and have one of my own.

My big question is, how do you define a “top” book?  Does that mean a personal favorite, or does it imply some level of literary merit?

I did vote on my top 10 for NPR, but I found it difficult to choose because I kept blurring the criteria.  I’d think, “Oh, this book was formative for me, so it should be there.  But is it actually any good?”  Or, “I really admire this novel…but it took me two weeks to slog through.  Is it honest to give it a spot in my top 10 over a book I love, even though I can find fault with aspects of the writing?”

In my last packet of work for my MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults, my advisor asked me to do something similar to what NPR asked.  She asked me to decide on my top-five books I’d read in the program in addition to the top-five books for young readers I thought everyone should read.

I liked the distinction she made between those two categories; I could feel okay about deferring to my personal preference in the first category since I was going to attempt to be more objective in the second.  Plus, the context of her question helped me.  I was thinking of my top-five books I’d read as I was studying the craft of writing, so I should give some consideration to how much a given book inspired my own or other authors’ writing.  In the second category, top five books for everyone, I chose books based not only on their literary merits but also based on the reflection and discussions I think they encourage.  (The Alexie book, for instance, made my list after my students read it because it generated such interesting discussion.  I included Khan’s book because it challenged my own ideas of what a picture book should be, and because it facilitates discussions of identity, family, and culture for all different ages.)

So here are my two top-five lists. They are certainly subjective, but I feel more comfortable with my choices here than when I picked my top-10 YA books for NPR because I was clearer about my own criteria.

My personal top five:
Lockhart, E. The Boyfriend List Series.
Lowry, Lois. The Giver.
Marchetta, Melina. Saving Francesca.
Montgomery, L.M. Anne of Green Gables.
Moriarty, Jaclyn. The Year of Secret Assignments.

Top five books for young readers that every human should read:
Alexie, Sherman.The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.
Khan, Ruksana. The Big Red Lollipop. Illus. Sophia Blackall.
Lowry, Lois. The Giver.
Lynch, Chris. Inexcusable.
Paterson, Katherine. Bridge to Terabithia.