This summer, NPR came out with their list of the 100 Best Young Adult Novels Ever. Over 75,000 people voted from a field of 235 books. And, as with any list that purports to summarize the “best ever” of anything, there has been plenty of analysis and criticism of the list, including pointing out its absolute, embarrassing lack of diversity. This is one white, straight list, y’all. But there’s another thing that has also been pointed out about it, and this thing is one that we should celebrate: In Young Adult lit, ladies rule.
Here’s the thing, though: It seems that anytime ladies rule, especially in fields that have typically been dominated by men (such as literature), there’s less celebration, more articles examining, “Hmm, why and how did this thing happen?” When it comes to both women and young adult literature, both groups are often dealt with in the same way: instead of celebrating what their success can teach us, we spend our time instead making excuses about how that success possibly could have happened. It’s annoying and distracting.
This is what I mean: After some numbers-crunching of the NPR list, The Atlantic published an article called “Why Do Female Authors Dominate In Young Adult Fiction?”. Salon then also ran a piece called “A Prestige-Free Zone,” with the subheader: “The reason why women writers dominate young-adult literature is the reason why many guys avoid it.” She explains that the reason women are allowed to rule in young adult literature is because there’s less “prestige,” and “prestige” in the adult literature world is still a title that mainly belongs to the men.
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Both articles do make some positive points, but maybe it’s the overall premise that bothers me. Instead of just saying “Yay! Ladies!,” both seem to address the topic as if it’s a problem that needs to be solved. And again, as with other female-positive situations, treating it as such normally winds up as just being a discussion about guys, anyway. (“What about boys?! Are our boys not reading enough?”)
The repetition of the word “dominate” also bothers me, as I believe it creates a weird and inaccurate image of what’s actually happening. The reasoning behind this female “dominance” is that the top three slots of the NPR list are occupied by women writers: J.K. Rowling, Suzanne Collins, and Harper Lee (yay!) , and that 63% of the original list of 235 books were written by females (yay!). In the field of the final 100 winners, there were 59 books by ladies and 42 books by dudes (yay!). Don’t get me wrong, I’m pumped we’re on top, but does this all really count as “dominance”? This word always seems harmful because it suggests an unfair balance. It makes the group that’s dominating sound aggressive while shutting out the power of all other groups involved in one fell swoop, making it sound more like a battle than a collective effort.
So, here’s what the NPR list really tells us about gender:
It tells us that at least gender-wise, we do reserve the right to say, “Ladies rule!” in young adult, but overall it’s a pretty equal ball game, which is the real triumph. Female authors have just as much selling power and popularity as male authors. They also have equal respect from their peers. The most prestigious award in the young adult genre, the Printz, has only been around for 13 years, but in those 13 years, 7 male authors and 6 female authors have been bestowed the honor. (Yay!) Again: a pretty equal ball game. Look at the gender balance of any “adult” literary prize and you’ll get a much different story. And, this is my own crude analysis made mainly through Twitter stalking, but the world of famous young adult authors also seems like a pretty supportive and warm place, as opposed to the cutthroat jab-fest of adult literature. Authors of all genders are constantly supporting each other, wanting to learn from each other, promoting each other’s work. Essentially: young adult is doing it right.
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Maybe it’s because the young adult field is so new that this can happen, that both the dudes and the ladies can both sell all the books and win all the awards and treat each other with respect, too. Maybe it’s because they’re not hampered by a deeply ingrained, creaky literary establishment that they’re able to develop a field of authors that’s rich, diverse, and fair; that they’re also able to develop books that are deeply creative, captivating, and exciting. But in any way that it’s able to happen, it is awesome.
This is not to say that young adult is perfect, or that women aren’t doing powerful things in “adult” literature, either. This is to say: There are really good things happening, here. And hell yeah, women are a big part of it. And hell yeah, we should be excited.
And “prestige?” Yes, I agree that young adult doesn’t have it in the eyes of many (whom I would disagree with). But when you’re rolling past the people who are busy arguing over prestige and you’re changing the world anyway, who the hell cares?
So back to that NPR list. Let’s cut some cake for the ladies that have a much-deserved spot on it. Thank you, Lois Lowry, for taking all of us to places our minds never previously imagined with The Giver. Thank you, J.K. Rowling, for creating characters and a place that showed us the hope, humanity, and courage within us all better than anything else this century has, magical or not. Thank you, Suzanne Collins, for horrifying us in a way that we need to be horrified every now and again, lest we get too careless with our precarious world. Thank you, Libba Bray, for infusing your humor and smarts and overall fabulousness into the minds of young people around the world. Thank you, Madeleine L’Engle, for messing with our heads concerning time and space in the best of ways. Thank you, Shannon Hale, for writing a book with “Princess” in the title with a main character so strong and smart it knocked down even my own preconceived notions of what I was about to read. Thank you, Laurie Halse Anderson, for giving voice to the voiceless in your necessarily shattering Speak, among your many, many other good deeds. Thank you, Francesca Lia Block, for being all sorts of mystical and freaky and wonderful and weird. Thank you, Kristin Cashore, for writing some of the most engaging, well-crafted, feminist-slanted fantasy we have seen in a long time. Thank you. S.E. Hinton, for writing one of the best “boy books” ever written as a 16-year-old girl. Thank you, Harper Lee, for reminding us all that even though we are all fragile people in an unfair world, we should still do our best to be good. Thank you to all the ladies who aren’t on it, but who are creating just as meaningful works.
You are smart women. You are talented women. I’m glad you’re on our side. I think you and all the young girls you inspire will continue to take over the world, and it’s not just because of vampires.
It’s because you write good books, in a field that’s smart enough to recognize it. Hallelujah. Now let’s drink some champagne.