Wonderful YA author Maureen Johnson has a post up about teenage boys and reading that has gotten the usual masses of comments and prompted me to craft this response. I should start with the fact that I agree with Maureen on the issue of Dead White Men when it comes to assigned titles in school. When I was in high school American Lit was all about Hemingway, Falkner and Fitzgerald; Brit Lit was all Shakespeare, Chaucer, Keats, Byron and Shelley (Percy alas, not Mary). (I really wish I knew why we didn't read Mary Shelley.) So I totally agree that there is way too much emphasis on male authors in most English classes (high school and college). I'd love to see more living authors, more female authors (dead or alive) and please - WAY more authors who aren't Caucasian. Hemingway's place in the canon of American writers is assured; I don't think it would hurt him to step aside a bit and let someone else up there for awhile.
But. But. But. When I talk about books for teenage boys (and why Guys Lit Wire even exists) I'm not talking about any of that. My reference is always and only the stacks of YA books that arrive on my doorstep for review and the overwhelming number of them that are directed toward female readers. I don't reference studies, I don't talk to publishers, I don't judge based on the gender of the author. It is always about the YA books I see published every single year and the YA books I receive every single year and the overwhelming number of them that have female protagonists.
On twitter there was an immediate kickback to a few of my comments about books for boys that started and ended with "why can't boys read books with female protags". Well they can and they do and they should. But don't expect a boy to be as excited about a stack of books concerning a girl's dating travails and battles with the high school mean girl as a girl would be. (And I was really into that when I was a teenage girl so I'm not knocking it.) He really doesn't care if Bella chooses Edward or Jacob and that doesn't mean he isn't open minded it just means he'd rather read something else.
And that's where the real crux of the problem is. Where are the books for things that interest boys and, necessary sidebar, what interests boys differently in the first place?
What blows me away about reading for boys and girls is that in the middle grade years it's not so much of an issue. There are lots of books where male and female characters are mutually important, lots of getting into and out of trouble, lots of fun adventures, some drama, some coming-of-age, but really - it's all very equal in terms of boy books and girl books and books boys and girls mutually enjoy. And if you read the statistics, boys and girls are fairly equal when it comes to reading in the middle grade years. It's when you start reaching past 13 that boys seem to stop reading and those careful stats go off the proverbial cliff. That too is also when we start to see a huge drop off in books that appeal to both genders equally. For example there are tons of MG mysteries but very few YA mysteries; lots of MG adventure (meaning garden variety adventure like THE PICKLE KING - not fantasy adventure) but few YA, and fantasy veers way in the direction of paranormal romance when you talk about YA. (And we all know the reason why and I'm sure this will pass.) (Please God let it pass.) So boys stand in the bookstore and see all these books with girls' faces on them (and it drives me crazy how books with male protagonists even have girls' faces on them) (see here and here and here and more examples below) and they walk away. And just like that you've lost them.
So, getting back (FINALLY) to Maureen's fascinating post. On the one front, when it comes to changing the way classic (and by classic I mean Dickinson, Parker, Wharton, and many of the other fine dead female writers she mentions) are overlooked, misrepresented and ignored, I totally agree. For sure. If we're reading Hemingway in class why not Wharton and good grief - Dorothy Parker?! Yes. Yes. Yes. But none of that, in my mind, has anything to do with teen boys reading. What I read in English classes had nothing - nothing at all - to do with what I read for pleasure. (And I realize that is not true for everyone but I'm talking about books you just pick up at the bookstore or library and not for assignment as my brother and I did.) When it comes to boys reading for pleasure I think there should be more nonfiction published for teens and also more books about teens doing something (from road trips to mysteries to going into outer space to actually killing some damn vampires) and more than anything - MORE THAN ANYTHING - more marketing of books in a gender-neutral way.
PAPER TOWNS has an excellent gender-neutral paperback cover. I'd love to know what they were thinking with the hardcover edition. (And I think we can all agree that covers matter when it comes to teenagers and reading.) YOU ARE HERE by Jennifer E. Smith is a great road trip novel told in alternating POV from a teen boy and girl and yet the cover is all girl. AFTER THE MOMENT by Garret Weyr is actually written entirely from a male POV about a love affair gone wrong and yet what's on the cover? A girl. Only a girl. You wouldn't know looking at this one that a boy has anything to do with the telling at all.
I think boys can happily read books with female protagonists and I also believe the gender of the author really is insignificant. I'd give a boy LIFE AS WE KNEW IT as easily as I would THIS WORLD WE LIVE IN and I'm sure they'd love each one. (And please note the smart gender-neutral covers on Susan Pfeffer's series.) But from where I'm sitting (with over 600 books delivered thus far this year), boys are not the market publishers are looking to satisfy and decrying the fact that we all had to read Hemingway & his male contemporaries doesn't make up for that. (As I recall there wasn't a single boy in my lit classes who was thrilled with our dead white guy assignments either.)
I really like when this topic comes up because it always makes people think and talk about something very important - teens and reading. I truly believe that what we are doing now - the way books are marketed and the idea of what teens read - needs to change. I think more graphic novels for teens who like more visual reading and perhaps are reluctant, is important. More, "meatier" nonfiction, is important. More titles in multiple genres is important. And more than anything, we need to take a broader viewer of what the American teenager looks like and is interested in and that includes, along with ethnicity and sexuality, gender. Publishers choose the books they want the public to know about, they create the buzz, and I think all too often those books are not ones that boys will be excited about.
It doesn't have to be a gender battle - a modern day version of a Wharton vs Hemingway cage match. If anything, our mutual frustration over all those assigned Dead White Males is proof of how hard we should push to change contemporary reading for teens today. I'm trying to find gender balance with my November column right now and it's not easy; quite frankly, it is never easy. And that's why this topic bothers me so much because I've been writing the column for five years and it is still a lot harder to find a variety of books with male protagonists as it is with females.
(And oddly enough - my current round of NF includes bios of Edith Wharton, Janis Joplin and Barbie. What are the odds of that happening???)