52 Books in 52 Weeks: The Quest
Part 1: The Books
Part 2: The Authors – You’re here, silly!
When I embarked on my quest to read youth books off the New York Times best seller list for a year, I was a lowly library associate, dreaming of being a children’s librarian. It was really important to me to know what kids were reading, and not just what I was reading. A lot has changed since I started my quest in January 2021 – like the fact that I’m now a children’s librarian! I won’t bore you by talking endlessly about how much I love this role (it’s a lot), but knowing what’s popular and topical among kids and teens is a really important part of my job. Undertaking this challenge was a great way for me to get a feel for what kids are reading today, as well as some trends in youth book publishing.
I wanted to take a little bit to reflect on some of the things I observed during my year of NYT reading. First, the authors.
As I read, I started dividing the books’ authors into different categories in my head. I like my categories neat and organized, but authors could fit into more than one, or in none. At any rate, here’s what I’ve got:
Celebrity Authors: These are the authors who are famous, but not for writing. This included Jimmy Fallon, Michelle Obama, Scott Cawthon, Matt and Rebecca Zamolo, LeBron James, and Misty Copeland.
To be honest, if not for their celebrity, most of those books wouldn’t have ended up on the best seller list. Cawthon’s and the Zamolos’ books weren’t well-written, and they were such a slog for me to get through. If I had enjoyed the source material (Five Nights at Freddy’s and The Game Master YouTube Channel, respectively), I probably would have liked them more. Fallon’s Christmas story was cute, but no cuter than many other Christmas picture books. I did like LeBron James’s book, We Are Family, even though the writing could have been stronger (and I didn’t love all the messaging in it). The two biographies here (Becoming by Michelle Obama and Black Ballerinas by Misty Copeland) were educational, but I just wasn’t that into them. However, that’s based more on my preferences than anything with the books themselves. I simply don’t read biographies that often because they usually don’t interest me much. Even so, illustrations in Black Ballerinas were stunning.
I don’t want to imply that just because you’re a celebrity, your book is bad. I adore John Lithgow’s picture books. Steve Martin has written several well-received books. I’ve read Tina Fey’s memoir, Bossy Pants, twice. Chris Colfer, originally famous from Glee, has two popular juvenile fantasy series and YA books that people love. I’m genuinely happy to see that he’s becoming well-known for something outside of musicals. Celebrity authors are talented people, but their talents don’t necessarily include writing.
Author Celebrities: These are authors who are famous for their work. This list included Jeff Kinney, Dav Pilkey, James Patterson, and Mo Willems. It’s not surprising to see them on best seller lists, and I enjoyed a lot of the books written by authors in this category. In my previous post on this topic, I mentioned “clout” as the reason some of these books got on the best-seller list, or were even published in the first place.
I think you can see this most clearly with Rowley Jefferson’s Awesome Friendly Adventure by Jeff Kinney. Simply put, it might be the most meta-fiction book I’ve ever read. In this book, Rowley, Greg’s best friend in Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, writes a fantasy novel. Most of the book is the story that Rowley’s writing, with occasional interruption from Greg. I’m not a fan of the Wimpy Kid franchise, but I had fun with this one. Even so, I really think it only exists because the Wimpy Kid franchise is wildly (and lucratively) popular. Can you imagine if I queried an agent describing my book as, “A fantasy story written by a secondary character in another story I wrote”? I don’t think that’d go over well.
I’m a big enough person to admit I’m jealous of them. But I’m also petty enough to have that envy in the first place.
Established Authors: Slightly different from author celebrities, these are authors who are well-established in the industry, usually with a few well-received books under their belts by the time they made it to the best-seller list. These included Sharon Draper, Rainbow Rowell, and Holly Black. Of course, there’s a decent amount of cross-over with the “author celebrity” categories as well. I thought this would be the sweet spot for me: people who know their craft, with book sales to match their skills. In some cases it was, but how much I enjoyed the book really depended on the book itself. For example: I’ve loved some of Holly Black’s books in the past, and her work has been influential on me as a writer. Yet The Cruel Prince was so hard for me to get through, event though the series has been well-received.
New Authors: This was by far the smallest category. These are authors whose first books were recently published. No clout, no celebrity, just well-written books that caught on. This small group included B.B. Alston, Shelby Mahurin, and Holly Jackson. These were also some of my favorite books that I read as part of this project. Reflecting on this now, I’m glad to see these well-written books rise to the top of the charts based on their merit alone, not just who authored them.
I have a few more thoughts on this project, with some observations (some that surprised me, and some that shouldn’t have) that I’ll post at a later date. I originally wanted to include them in this same post, but things started to get lengthy. I have a lot to say (about everything, according to my family. And boss. And everyone who’s met when me when I’m drunk.) but I’ll save it for another day.
Do you also have mental categories for authors you read? What are they? What’s your favorite?