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Time Magazine Plays the Prophet

Books stacked on an open desk. (utah778/GettyImages)

Time magazine just put out its “Top 100 YA Books of All Time” list, and in the inimitable phraseology of the Car Talk brothers, it is “BoooooooooooGUS.”

Setting aside the fact that much of the YA literature of today is a cesspool of sap, the premise of the list is wrong. Time proudly writes that over 50 percent of the chosen titles were published in the last decade. How can such books be considered the “all-time best” when they’ve not actually stood the test of time?

Instead of looking across the decades at the goldmine of children’s literature available, the Time panel tasked with this project (filled with contemporary YA authors — one of the last groups of people who should be creating such a list) preferred to remain short-sighted. Yes, Little Women and Anne of Green Gables make the list, but it feels as if they were thrown in just to cover the “pre-1900” base. Both are excellent books, but what about Little House on the Prairie? Wind in the Willows? Narnia? Hatchet, The Hobbit, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory? All of these and many others were on the 2015 “All-Time Best” list. For heaven’s sake, Harry Potter didn’t even make the new and improved run-down! And that series is pretty hard to beat for literary and cultural influence.

Time claims its criteria was “artistry, originality, accessibility when it comes to mature themes, emotional impact, critical and popular reception, and influence on the young adult category and literature more broadly.” Perhaps the selection committee should do some more reading, not just of the books they were so quick to cut from the previous list, but of actual experts in the field, educators and writers who’ve studied this literary genre and can speak on it with reasonable authority. Cheri Blomquist is a perfect example, beginning with her recent book Before Austen Comes Aesop: The Children’s Great Books and How to Experience Them. Blomquist’s main point is that we need to rethink the way we teach literature to our children, and this is also applicable as regards Time’s list.

Blomquist’s premise focuses on the Great Books. According to her, “the Great Books of Western literature have at least four main qualities:

  1. Their ideas and themes are both representative of their times and universal. Thus they remain relevant and important to modern readers.
  2. They have contributed to the ‘Great Conversation of Great Ideas’ of Western thinkers down through the centuries.
  3. They have layers of riches such that readers can return to them again and again and make valuable discoveries every time.
  4. Their craftsmanship is beautiful and often exemplary.

She then takes this list and adapts it for her Children’s Great Books selection:

  1. The book has played a significant role in the history of children’s literature.
  2. It has influenced the development of Western literature—children’s, adult, or both.
  3. It has been valued by young people for much of its existence.
  4. It has long been considered excellent literature.

Books on Blomquist’s Children’s Great Books list are not all old, but she does have a caveat, stating that “the contemporary works on the list are those currently considered excellent by literary critics and have already proven to be influential, but time will tell if they will be considered great in the long run.”

Time’s criteria had the right idea, but its error comes down to poorly defined terms. To boast that the majority of books on this list are contemporary undermines its “All-Time Best” claim. If these books merit being on, say, a “YA Bestsellers of the 2010s” list, or a “Best Contemporary Coming-of-Age” books list, that is well and good. But to claim “All-Time Best” status requires just that: time.

Sarah Schutte is the podcast manager for National Review and an associate editor for National Review magazine. Originally from Dayton, Ohio, she is a children's literature aficionado and Mendelssohn 4 enthusiast.

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