Best YA novel of all time? The final four
Welcome to EW.com’s YA novel bracket game, a March Madness style tournament that will determine the best Young Adult novel of all time — as voted by you.
You’ve narrowed the field of 64 novels down to four — To Kill a Mockingbird, the Harry Potter series, The Perks of Being a Wallflower and The Fault in Our Stars (which handily overcame The Hunger Games‘ early lead). Which will make it to the championship round?
Check out the full bracket here and vote below! Polls close Wednesday at 1 p.m. ET.To Kill a MockingbirdThe Harry Potter series
To Kill a Mockingbird
Why does Harper Lee’s 1960 masterpiece deserve to beat out J.K. Rowling’s sprawling Harry Potter saga – a series that is in every way bigger, flashier, and more epic? For one simple reason: To Kill a Mockingbird is just about the closest thing we have to a perfect book. Period.
You want more? Fine: Lee doesn’t waste a single word in this formidable Pulitzer Prize winner, which follows wise-beyond-her-years tomboy Scout Finch as she comes of age in Depression-era Alabama. Sure, if you enter the novel’s name into Google, your query will quickly be auto-completed with a series of terms that betray Mockingbird‘s current status as a mainstay of eighth-grade reading lists: “To Kill a Mockingbird quotes,” “To Kill a Mockingbird sparknotes,” “To Kill a Mockingbird summary.” But even though it’s chock-full of catnip for middle school English teachers — symbolism, rich imagery, a Lesson about Racism, more than enough material for 15 different papers on “appearance vs. reality” — Mockingbird doesn’t deserve to be labeled the literary equivalent of eating your vegetables.
For one thing, the book is a lot funnier than you may remember, thanks largely to Scout’s own scrappy narration and her imaginative pal Dill Harris — a character based largely on Lee’s own childhood friend Truman Capote. For another, its prose is nothing short of beautiful. Take, for instance, this description of Scout’s sleepy Southern hamlet, from the book’s very first chapter: “In rainy weather the streets turned to red slop; grass grew on the sidewalks, the courthouse sagged in the square. Somehow, it was hotter then: a black dog suffered on a summer’s day; bony mules hitched to Hoover carts flicked flies in the sweltering shade of the live oaks on the square. Men’s stiff collars wilted by nine in the morning.” Lady knows how to set a scene, am I right?
And then there are Lee’s indelible characters, each unique enough to serve as an archetype for countless subsequent creations. Bold, spunky Scout cleared the way for a barrage of independent-minded kid heroines, from Harriet the Spy to Arya Stark. Her father, noble lawyer Atticus, is a paragon of quiet decency whose DNA lives within every crusading lawyer on primetime TV. (Gregory Peck’s performance in the 1962 film version of Mockingbird also has something to do with this; in 2003, the AFI even named Peck’s Atticus the greatest hero in American film.) And any mysterious, misunderstood literary loner stands in the tall shadow of Lee’s own Boo Radley, Maycomb’s enigmatic shut-in and a constant object of fascination for Scout.
Mockingbird also manages to be both specific and universal, the story of one child and one family and one town and one nation and a grand struggle between justice and injustice all at the same time. It’s a different sort of sorcery than the kind used by the Boy who Lived — but it’s magic all the same. — Hillary Busis
The Harry Potter series
Writing about why, exactly, Harry Potter is so great is a bit of an undertaking simply because it feels so massive. With over 450 million copies in print, it’s easy to say that it is the phenomenon of the past two decades. But while the Harry Potter world has gotten much larger over the years — with eight blockbuster films, parodies, product tie-ins and even a theme park (or two) — the best of Harry always comes back to J.K. Rowling’s sprawling imagination and her seven wonderful tales about Harry.
Let’s start at the beginning, shall we? The first book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher/Sorcerer’s Stone, is notable for the original creation of the world. Never forget that Rowling’s imagination not only dug up a plot, but a whole host of original locations, rules, and governing bodies. This was the novel where we first learned of Hogwarts, and were first introduced to Rowling’s gift for creating interesting characters – like when readers met enigma of the series, Severus Snape. To read Harry Potter is to have had at least one way-too-long passionate conversation with someone about whether he was truly good (“He loved Lily!”) or evil (“Um, He killed Dumbledore”).
Readers quickly became accustomed to other Rowling identifiers as well: Her playful sense of language (for example, Diagon and Knockturn Alley) and how well she was able to lay out a complicated plot, with throwaway sentences in book two becoming major plot arcs by volume six. But while the first two volumes were great, many fans would agree it was her third book, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, where the tale really became elevated to something even more special. Through the introduction of Sirius Black, readers were able to get a backstory and through that, higher stakes and a much richer magical world. This was, after all, the novel that gave us the Marauders, time-turners, and mischief officially being managed. While the whole series is a coming-of-age tale, Azkaban in particular was the part of the story where Harry came to appreciate his roots, and through that, what his future could be.
It was an incredible feat, but Rowling was just getting started. Who can forget how she totally nailed teenage awkwardness with the Yule Ball, or the scary political overtones of Professor Umbridge? Even as the world watched – an added challenge that many of the other books in this bracket didn’t have to contend with — later volumes still managed to meet worldwide sky-high expectations, including a final installment that delivered a stirring, thrilling, emotional and even surprising conclusion.
But it’s not just the words on the page. This bracket game was all about YA — the coming-of-age tales that we remember and inextricably shape who we are. And it’s in that way that Harry Potter dominates all. It’s through Harry that tons of kids growing up with the series became avid readers. It’s through Harry that adults reading it for the first time are able to share something with their kids, or just get an unexpected thrill out of a wonderful story. It’s through Harry that readers can feel like they’re a part of a very special club, that, as J.K. Rowling once said, “will always be there to welcome you home.” — Erin Strecker The Perks of Being a WallflowerThe Fault in Our Stars
The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Stephen Chbosky’s 1999 novel, despite its title, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, is a work of loud art. Though its protagonist Charlie is a shy, introverted teen, his voice springs forth roaring and crystal-clear through the novel’s unusual epistolary format. How could you not fall in love with the writer of such heartfelt and at times, heartbreaking letters?
Chbosky chooses to tell this story of love and adolescence in the ’90s through Charlie’s letters. And with this deeply personal format, we get to sink ourselves in Charlie’s magnanimous brain, get a taste of his fantastic music and literary picks, and understand his love for his best friends Sam and Patrick, who shine in Charlie’s written Technicolor memories of them.
Though it harkens to a specific time, Perks is also book that anyone can relate to — it’s The Catcher in the Rye for ’90s kids. We follow Charlie through some tumultuous times in high school — finally making friends, then losing them, going on first dates, earning first kisses, and we feel Charlie’s self-searching thoughts as he watches his friends experiment with drugs and their sexuality. Near the end of Perks, Charlie realizes something that shatters him to his core and sends him to a mental hospital – a childhood memory forces him to reevaluate his unerring love for a beloved family member. But our sweet and sincere narrator bounces back, by deciding to not live life as a wallflower anymore.
An important factor in Perks’ timelessness and cult following is Chbosky’s spectacular pop cultural barometer everything from The Smiths, Nick Drake, to The Rocky Horror Picture Show. But Chbosky also culls from classic literature via books on Charlie’s school reading list, like Walden, The Great Gatsby, and more. And we haven’t even gotten to the novel’s memorable lines, like this one – “And in that moment, I swear we were infinite,” which was further immortalized when Chbosky turned Perks into an equally heartfelt 2012 film.
The experience of reading Perks is exactly the embodiment of what a fantastic YA book should be – much like opening up to a dear friend, who somehow always knows just the right song to play. — Jennifer Arellano
The Fault in Our Stars
On paper, The Fault In Our Stars should have been the most gut-wrenching and depressing book in the YA canon: Two teens, Hazel Grace Lancaster and Augustus Waters, meet in a cancer support group and, despite Hazel knowing she only has a little bit of time left, manage to fall for each other in a spirited, fully engrossing love story. The book is sad, yes, but it’s a triumph of author John Green’s plot, heightened teen-speak dialogue, and humorous moments that manage to make the tale a phenomenon (a movie version, starring Shailene Woodley, hits theaters next June), as opposed to a high school reading list tale that many will take great pains to avoid.
It’s no wonder that, like Hazel’s favorite story An Imperial Affliction, once you read the story it stays with you. It’s not enough to enjoy in silence; many readers are discovering that they’ve also got to get all their friends on board as well.
There wasn’t much surprise among the EW staff that the recent hit made it far. But going back over the pages, it’s easy to see that this story, while popular, isn’t just a flavor of the week; it’s enduring. There are so many standout scenes in the 318-paged tale. America’s Next Top Model-loving Hazel, with her awkward teen vulnerability got readers on her side, while Augustus and his witty bravado makes both teens and their moms swoon. The duo’s Genies-sponsored trip to Amsterdam, which includes champagne! and reclusive author Peter Van Houten! and Anne Frank’s house! and happiness! and devastation! is unforgettable.
To say more would spoil what is truly a literary treat best discovered for yourself. But ultimately, Fault In Our Stars is greater than the sum of its parts. The story between two teens elevates into teaching us about one of the very best and most confusing parts of the human condition — the power of love.
Okay? Okay. — Erin Strecker
The Fault in Our Stars