NPR explains that best-beloved classics like A Wrinkle in Time and Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret didn’t make the poll because they’re most popular among the 10-12-year-olds, while NPR defined “young adult” for poll purposes as the 12-18 set. Fair enough.
But despite its popularity with the target age group and its top billing on other NPR “Best” polls, Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game also failed to make the cut. Why? Because violence.
According to NPR:
The judges cut Ender’s Game for the same reason — Ender himself is young, but the book’s violence isn’t appropriate for young readers.
There’s some obvious cognitive dissonance here when Ender’s Game fails to make the poll at all, while books like The Hunger Games (no. 3), with its dystopian battle to the death, or Dune (no. 41), with its multiple cold-blooded killings, rape scenes, and subterfuge, not only made the poll but placed well among responders. And these aren’t the only books to deal with heavy topics; To Kill a Mockingbird (no. 3) contains rather famous scenes dealing with racism, poverty, and yes – even violence. Speak (no. 26) focuses on the rape of a teenage girl and how she deals with its aftermath. And if we’re going to talk “inappropriately and/or gratuitously violent,” what is Lord of the Flies (no. 18) doing on this list at all?
What’s particularly stark about Ender’s Game and its omission from this list isn’t merely that the remaining books contain violence of equal or greater intensity. It’s that Ender’s Game arguably contains a message that is of even more importance now than when it was first written.
[WARNING: The next paragraph contains SPOILERS.]
Ender’s Game is the story of Ender Wiggin, a precocious young boy who is put through the paces (and, IIRC, a metric crapton of bullying) at Battle School, where promising youngsters are trained in the art of war so as to defend humanity against the “Buggers,” an insectoid alien species intent on wiping out the entire human race. (Don’t confuse the Buggers with the Xindi-Insectoids, which were an insectoid alien species intent on wiping out the credibility of the entire Star Trek franchise.) The book’s climax involves a computerized battle royale in which Ender breaks the school’s rules to launch a “molecular disruption device” at the simulated insectoid homeworld, wiping out the entire species. Except…SURPRISE! It wasn’t a computer game at all! It was the actual thing, and an entire species is now actually dead.
Several commenters on Twitter and elsewhere have pointed out that removing Ender’s Game from the NPR Best YA Fiction Poll for “violence” makes no sense, when it can teach teens the valuable lesson that “violence has consequences.”
While “violence has consequences” is certainly one moral of Ender’s Game, the book also enshrines more specific lessons that are wholly relevant to teen readers today. Ender’s Game is specifically about a young boy who commits xenocide via computer while believing the whole thing is just a game.
The lesson is not only that “violence has consequences,” but that “violence perpetuated from behind a computer screen at a distance has consequences,’ regardless of whether the perpetrator knows about the consequences or thinks it’s “just a game.” This message translates to situations from Facebook bullying to drone attacks, and it’s hugely relevant in a society where screen time has become as big a deal as face time. If NPR had given that point more thought, perhaps Ender’s Game would have made the cut.