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NPR: mostly white audience produces mostly white teen novels list

There’s controversy at NPR over the service’s latest 100 best-ever teen novels list. 75,220 NPR listeners voted for their favorite young adult novels. The list quickly drew fire for its lack of diversity.

“Only two—yes, two—books on the list are written about main characters of color,” noted reading and English teacher Shaker Laurie in a blog post, they being Sandra Cisneros’ House on Mango Street and Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian:

“As a teacher of reading and English in schools with large populations of students of color, young adult fiction about characters of color is high on my radar. Many of my students don’t see themselves as readers when they walk into my classroom. Reader identity and engagement are a huge component of the work we do as we address student reading problems, and when students are handed books full of characters that are unlike them racially, culturally, and socio-economically, the chasm between their picture of themselves and their idea of books and who books are for only widens.”

Some critics have blamed the four judges, who took the over 1,200 title nominations and turned them into a list of 235 finalists, subsequently voted on by NPR listeners yet again.

But NPR ombudsman Edward Schumacher-Matos contends that the problem wasn’t with the judges:

“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.”

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

Solutions? Maybe don’t call the list a “best-ever” list, argues one NPR staffer, “since a popularity contest doesn’t determine quality.” Or produce a second list assembled by experts. Whatever you think about this dilemma, it has produced an interesting snapshot of NPR and its audience.


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