Our Best YA Fiction poll has only been live for a few hours, and already the cries of outrage are echoing through the intertubes! Where are A Wrinkle in Time, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and Ender's Game? What about Watership Down? My Side of the Mountain? Where the Red Fern Grows? Most of Judy Blume's oeuvre? The Little House books?
We hear you, I promise.
Going into this process, we thought that most of the books we'd lose would be disqualified for being too mature. And there were plenty of those, but in fact, our expert judging panel bounced more books because they skewed too young. By general agreement, the YA years are 12 to 18. Our panel drew a very clear line between YA books and those they considered "mid-grade;" targeted to readers aged 10 to 12. So goodbye to Little House on the Prairie, for example, and Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret, which are generally loved by younger readers (Forever made the cut, though).
It turns out that a lot of the books we remember as YA are actually meant for younger kids. And librarians and educators recognize that those kids have distinct needs and tastes. If you look up many of the missing books, their publishers recommend them for children "8 and up" or "10 and up." So if there's a classic from your childhood that didn't make the list, that's probably why. Here's a handy guideline: The Newbery Medal is awarded for distinguished contributions to American "literature for children." So if one of your favorites is a Newbery book, it's likely to be too young — which knocks out Ella Enchanted and Walk Two Moons, among others (though, yes, there are a few Newbery books on our list — we never said this poll was scientific!).
Other books were more troublesome — what to make of Pride and Prejudice, which almost everyone ends up reading in high school English class? While our commenters certainly love it (and so do we!) our judges felt that Pride and Prejudice is just not a book teens are lining up to read. Pride and Prejudice, in the end, is universal. It's for all ages. On the other hand, there are a lot of books beloved by teens that weren't originally meant for them, like Lord of the Rings and Catcher in the Rye. Those made the list, along with books like Dune and The Last Unicorn that have become rites of passage for teen readers.
And there were a few books on our list that the judges deemed too mature, like A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, which I was personally sad to lose. But then I went home and paged though my battered, 20-year-old copy. And after a few chapters of Johnny's drunken decline and Francie's encounters with the pervert in the stairwell, I realized the judges were right. Though the language was relatively simple, the themes were entirely adult. The judges cut Ender's Game for the same reason — Ender himself is young, but the book's violence isn't appropriate for young readers.
No readers' poll will ever be truly objective. The standards we used in judging weren't absolute — and debating the fine points is part of the fun. Maybe we'll come back in a future poll and pick the top 100 mid-grade novels. Until then, we hope that this list will remind you of the great reads of your teen years — and maybe introduce you to some new friends for the years ahead.