In what I believe is the first AB4T post about a professional resource, I cannot resist sharing my thoughts about a new ALA Editions book, just out: Cart’s Top 200 Adult Books for Young Adults: Two Decades in Review by Michael Cart. I have been looking forward to reading it ever since I spied it in an ALA catalog several months ago. Let’s take a look.
This is a slim volume (126 pages), its text primarily made up of two lists of books, alphabetical by title, fiction followed by nonfiction (with a generous number of graphic novels in both sections). Each book is given one or two paragraphs in which the author encapsulates the plot and shares the qualities that make the book special. He adds connections to other titles, sometimes a tidbit about the author, the particular popularity of a book with teens, or more about where the teen appeal lies. These annotations are charming. Cart has an easy way with plot summary, and a lovely, evenhanded way of sharing his passion for books – he made me want to read (or re-read) just about everything. He is not averse to including personal notes, making this all the more enjoyable.
Two appendices follow:
Appendix A: Not to be Missed: Books Notable for their Overall Excellence (essentially the best of the 200)
Appendix B: Something Entirely Different: Books Notable for their Originality
There is also an index that makes the books accessible by author as well.
In general, Cart’s tastes tend to the literary, to books likely to appeal to mature readers. There is a dearth of “adrenaline” titles, but there is a good amount of speculative fiction. I was left wishing for an appendix listing books by genre, but this is a resource meant more for browsing and enjoyment than for picking up in the middle of a readers’ advisory interview.
To some extent a book like this is a matter of the author’s opinion and intuition. There are a few notable books missing. For me, The Glass Castle and The Blind Side are indispensible. Ready Player One is listed but not The Night Circus from the same year. Still, especially considering that he is covering two full decades, the highlights are here. I found the nonfiction selections especially useful. Some of them were nicely out-of-the-box, and great ideas for teen reading.
The section I haven’t mentioned yet is the introduction, and it is notable. Cart looks at adult books for teen readers from an historical perspective, much of it shared through personal experience. Cart begins in 1967 with his first position, then backs up to 1930 (when ALA’s Best Books for Teenage Readers included both children’s and adult books) and brings the reader right up to the present. He also includes a clear discussion of “what kind of adult books interest and benefit young adults,” which includes a list of criteria for fiction and nonfiction, with examples. Next up, he recommends categorizing teen literature as ages 12 – 18, and young adult literature as ages 18 – 24. He concludes with a page and a half on where to find reviews of adult books for teens.
Let’s back up a minute. How do we feel about “what kind of adult books interest and benefit young adults.” Is benefit really part of what we consider when we choose the best of the best, or when we recommend a book to a teen reader?
Frankly, it’s something I struggle with in my own recommendations. I love to see teens reading books that will open their eyes to the wider world, especially the global world. I handed Behind the Beautiful Forevers to a student yesterday both because I thought she would find it fascinating and because I thought it was something she should read. That should bothers me sometimes. But as a school librarian, isn’t that one of my goals? Introducing the great books to my patrons? If I don’t create awareness, who will?
To be fair, I do tailor my suggestions to the reader’s request. I’m not going to hand The Tipping Point to a student interested in a zombie novel. In yesterday’s case, the student was looking for a nonfiction book about education. She wanted to learn more about a topic that interested her. I gave her several choices in that subject area, and then snuck the Boo title into her pile of considerations. It was her choice in the end.
I must admit that after reading Cart’s Top 200, I’m not clear on the author’s exact criteria for selecting his top books. One can surmise from parts of his introduction that they include appeal along with consideration of “language, plot, style, setting, dialog, characterization, and design” (the Alex Award suggested criteria). He looked at many other lists, awards, etc. then read, re-read, then read some more. In any case, his list is a wonderful reminder of books that have dropped out of sight a bit, and a wonderful reiteration of titles popular right now. Reading it, I was overtaken by the pleasure of learning from an incredibly experienced, smart, and well-read colleague. And — did I mention — the man can write!
Full disclosure, Michael Cart was on my very first book selection committee, the 2004 Alex Awards Committee. I was quite intimidated. The lasting lesson I learned from Mr. Cart that year was to come to selection committee meetings prepared with a calm, reasoned defense for the books about which I was most passionate. Otherwise, I might not have the words to convince the committee to give full consideration to my favorite titles. He was always ready with just the right words, both for and against the books under discussion. I was impressed and a little awed by that ability.