Media & Society

When A Popular List Of 100 'Best-Ever' Teen Books Is The 'Whitest Ever'

Correction Sept. 11, 2012

The word "judges" in the original post was changed to "experts" to more accurately reflect the role of the panelists.

A stack of books. i i
istockphoto.com
A stack of books.
istockphoto.com

When NPR Books invited audience members to nominate and vote for their favorite Young Adult novels, more than 75,000 responded. The extraordinary outpouring speaks of the passion connecting the books section and its followers.

But in that response also lie the seeds of a defect, for lack of a better term, in the poll. The resulting "Your Favorites: 100 Best-Ever Teen Novels" included only two books whose protagonists are people of color, which critics called unjust. The two were Sandra Cisneros' The House on Mango Street and Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. One of the four heroines in a third book, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, by Ann Brashares, is half Puerto Rican.

Even one of the selected authors reacted in dismay.

"This just might be the whitest YA list ever," wrote Laurie Halse Anderson on her personal blog. Two of Anderson's books, Speak and Wintergirls, made it on the list. Still, she wrote, "As lovely an honor as this is, it also made me sad. And angry and frustrated."

Much of the criticism was directed at the white panel of experts, but the censure is misplaced. After speaking with editors and studying the poll, I find that the problem was not the experts, but the nature of the poll and the make-up of the audience. This is not to condemn either—let's celebrate engagement!—but it does raise a question as to how NPR should protect its editorial integrity when publishing a popularity list that realistically will be taken as NPR's own and have great influence in schools and sales.

As a reading and English teacher in Minneapolis identified as "Shaker Laurie" wrote:

The problem is not that amazing books about teens of color don't exist. They do. My kids latch obsessively onto books about teens like them and read them voraciously because adolescents in all their self-involved glory enjoy reading texts that remind them of, well, themselves. Sherman Alexie and Sandra Cisneros certainly deserve their received accolades: The House on Mango Street is a beautifully poetic account of a Latina's coming of age, and Absolutely True Diary poignantly tells the story of a boy who struggles with life on a reservation and his desire for a strong education. Judith Ortiz Cofer, Walter Dean Myers, Linda Sue Park, and Matt de la Peña's work also comes to mind, so when NPR comes along and declares 100 books the "Best-Ever" and leaves nearly every single young adult title written about people of color off the list without caveat or mention, damage is done.

The issue with NPR's audience is that it skews white and mature. As I detailed last year in a report on diversity in NPR, roughly 87 percent of the radio audience was white, compared to 77 of the country's over-18 population, according to NPR's Audience, Insight and Research Department. African-Americans and Hispanics are particularly under-represented; Asian Americans are slightly over-represented, but they are a much smaller group.

While there is no profile of the 75,000 voters themselves, they surely reflect this overall audience to a great degree. It thus seems reasonable to me to assume that many of the voters merely selected the books they knew, loved and identified with when they were teens.

The poll result, in other words, was innocent, normal and natural. If still sad.

The good news is that the proportion of non-whites in the NPR audience is growing as the proportion of African-Americans and Hispanics graduating from university in the nation grows. More than two-thirds of NPR's listeners are college grads. The bad news is that so long as the nation, and especially the universe of college graduates, is overwhelmingly white, then a popularity poll on books is likely to skew in favor of white authors or white protagonists.

The methodology of the poll, moreover, may have further guaranteed a non-diverse result. Readers submitted more than 1,200 titles, a panel of experts narrowed the list to 235 books that they judged were actually eligible, and the audience responded a second time by voting for their top ten. By picking only 10, voters reasonably went for the books they really most loved or identified with, statistically reinforcing the bias of the audience breakdown. The small number left little room for adding books that a reader might think is also good medicine.

I can't prove this, however. Alternatively, a small group of readers—say, Asian Americans—who all voted for the same Asian-American titles could have disproportionate impact under a top-10 system.

Of the 235 finalists, my assistant, Lori Grisham, found at least four more that had diverse heroes and heroines, which still isn't very many. These included American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang; The First Part Last by Angela Johnson; 
Copper Sun by Sharon M. Draper; 
and Sold by Patricia McCormick.

It is understandable that some listeners blamed the panelists. The three women and a man—Pamela Paul, Diane Roback, Tasha Robinson, Ted Schelvan—are white. And as Linda Sue Park, a children's fiction author and winner of a Newbery Medal, wrote on her blog:

I have tremendous respect for the panel that narrowed the list; I have worked with some of them personally. But if NPR had been serious about that 'very best' label—as opposed to 'very best if you're white, educated, and middle-class'—it should have attempted a vital corrective by selecting a panel that included at least one person of color.

But while we as a nation are not at a point yet where we can ignore concerns with diversity, the panelists in fact had little power over the selection. Their race didn't much matter. As Joe Matazzoni, Senior Supervising Producer of the Arts & Life section of NPR.org, explained in a considered response to me:

The panelists are all experts in the field but none this year, as far as I know, are persons of color. This will be something we will certainly remedy in future polls. I'll caution, however, the panel's influence on the outcome is limited.

It's important to understand that, for the most part, the panelists are more like line umpires at a tennis match than judges of a beauty contest. Which is to say, they don't pick the finalists or the winners. In the vast majority of cases, the books that make it to the final voting are the books that received the most nominations from the audience. The panel's job is to rule out the titles that, in their estimation, fall outside the boundaries of the category — be it science fiction, thrillers, or, this year, young-adult fiction.

This year, as in years past, we allowed the panelists to include up to two of their own favorite books in the voting roster — as a courtesy to thank them for their service. Some of them took us up on the offer. But, to paraphrase an old saying, you can lead a reader to works of literary merit, but you can't make her vote for them. As in years past, when the voting came around, the audience ignored the "editor's picks"; none made the top 100.

[Matazzoni's full response is posted below.]

The books section does, in fact, go to great lengths to cast a wide diversity net in its everyday coverage and features. Supervising Editor Ellen Silva provided these examples from books series over the past eight months:

You Must Read This: Gabrielle Zevin, Pablo Medina, Manuel Munoz, Jesmyn Ward, Roya Hakakian, Alex Gilvarry

My Guilty Pleasure: Krishnadev Calamur

Three Books: Diana Lopez, Lin Noueihed, Hosam Aboul-Ela, Lysley Tenorio, Tim Wu, Alex Gilvarry, Alfredo Quinones-Hinojosa

PG-13: Risky Reads: Victor LaValle, Jesmyn Ward

In the hopper: Tahereh Mafi, Abraham Verghese, Joy Castro, Ruben Martinez, Alberto Manguel, Rajesh Parameswaran

In addition, the newspoet series on All Things Considered featured Tracy K. Smith, Kevin Young, Carmen Gimenez Smith, Paisley Rekdal, and Monica Youn. The Morning Edition poetry games series included winner Mbali Vilakazi, Monica de la Torre, Kazim Ali, and Ouyang Yu.

"I am passionately committed to reaching out to diverse authors," Silva wrote. "It is an essential part of my leadership role at NPR Books."

So, what should NPR do with its book poll? Matazzoni offered this consideration:

A few people have suggested that we shouldn't call the top-100 the "best-ever" books, since a popularity contest doesn't determine quality. It's a fair point. We picked that title this year to suggest breathless, teen-aged enthusiasm. Also, the lists of recommended books on the NPR Books site are usually restricted to new works, so the title is meant to indicate that the novels on this list come from all periods.

And he made this invitation for even more engagement with you, the audience, to find a solution:

Our job at NPR Books is to find great books for our audience to read. Audience polls are one way of doing this – a way that complements the reviews, interviews, commentaries and other stories that we assign and which more fully express the editorial judgment of the NPR Books team. Finding ways to tap that audience wisdom while not creating an experience that makes some feel excluded will be a challenge, but it's one we accept. I invite your readers to offer their suggestions.

NPR Books staff have also discussed simultaneously publishing two lists—the popularity poll and one selected by experts. I think that is a good idea. This offers the added fun of comparing and debating the two. No one panel, after all, can lay claim to the truth, so we can additionally fight over throwing the bums out.

But you may have better ideas. Please take up Matazzoni on his invitation. He and his staff are genuine in their request.

Assistant to the ombudsman Lori Grisham contributed to this report.

More from the Ombudsman:

Black, Latino, Asian and White: Diversity at NPR, April 10, 2012

Minority Hiring And The Talent Pool: A Good Story, April 11, 2012

Six National Leaders And Experts Look At Diversity At NPR, April 30, 2012

Follow Edward Schumacher-Matos or Twitter @SchumacherMatos and Facebook.

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