Wednesday, September 22, 2010

What We Talk About When We Talk About Books For Teenage Boys

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???)


david elzey said...

thank you.

Unknown said...

As a boy's mom and a writer of "boy-YA" (and, LOL, it's about killing vampires though), I really appreciated this post. I think we lose male readers in the YA space because they don't see enough that interests them. So, they either move on to adult fiction (if we're lucky) or give up on books unless forced to read in school.

david elzey said...

i would also be curious to know what the landscape of books for middle grade and YA would look like if there was a larger number of male editors and agents. publishing has traditionally been a male-dominated industry, but the children's books side of things is primarily handled by women.

without being cynical, is the thinking that women are more nurturing and thus better at understanding the market? would that not be a built-in gender bias?

i'll agree with something a commenter said over at maureen's post, that more men need to get involved. fathers need to model reading and shopping for books in stores and libraries. men need to read and recommend books to boys. and not just tom clancy or james patterson.

one final thing (for now): we need to get faces off the covers of books, period. lets stop reinforcing the gender biases in the design and dig deeper. give us covers that convey something about the story without dictating what the main character looks like.

and again, thank you.

Sarah Stevenson said...

I agree with the idea of expanding the range of cover packaging to go beyond gender-(stereo)typical imagery, and I'm not a huge fan of covers including photos of teens, either. As someone who wanted to be a book cover illustrator when I was growing up, I'd be all in favor of a return to using illustrators on the covers of books beyond the MG level.

(As an aside, I'm really happy that the cover of my book is fairly gender-neutral, even though it's got a female narrator. It's not a typical cover. I like that.)

Another book with a boy protagonist, a really good book that boys would probably read and enjoy, is Jennifer Hubbard's THE SECRET YEAR--and it also has a cover that seems to market it to female readers (

I agree with Kendra, too, on the fact that boys who are good readers tend to turn to adult fiction fairly early on. That was true of the boy readers I knew when I was in jr. high and high school. (Of course, there was also less range of YA when I was a kid.) A lot of the guys I knew read fantasy and sci-fi, and many of them read comics, too. So Colleen, YES for sure on more graphic novels! And more mysteries. Definitely more mysteries.

Colleen said...

Just dropped a link to THE SECRET YEAR into the post, Sarah. Man - what were they thinking with that cover? I would completely have thought it was a female-centric romance based on that picture.

We really need to move toward the kind of covers used in adult publishing. These photos are just not good.

Josh said...

Your post sums up my thoughts pretty well - I'll echo David in saying thanks for articulating so well.

I'm a huge proponent of repackaging to neutralize the gender bias.

See, I read the Babysitter's Club books when I was a boy. I demolished them. And I was ridiculed mercilessly, by both male and female classmates. By then I'd already developed a healthy sense of anti-conformity, so I wasn't bothered by it.

But some boys might have been.

Flash-forward to high school when my female classmates were reading VC Andrews, I didn't even realize YA was a genre. I skipped, effectively from MG right into adult fantasy.

I can see where less enterprising young men might have given up hope altogether - and did, as was the case with most of my classmates.

And I dwell on outside reading, mostly because when I was growing up, my classmates hated the assigned reading. I'm not sure if that's changed much, but I know where I'd place my money.

As a parting thought, I also worry that our desire for gender-neutral packaging is at odds with marketing's desire to tap into a demographic. As I'm not even close to the business end of things, I can't really say whether or not that's founded.

Doret said...

Required reading is not the same as pleasure reading.

The MG/YA is geared towards teenage girls. Anyone who disagrees with that, isn't paying attention or is in denial.

Many boys reads books with female characters but they also have the option of reading more books with boys. This just no balance.

It should not be that difficult to find a book for a boy that doesn't like fantasy, sports or Alex Rider type stories but it's VERY HARD

Colleen - I don't even waste my time with books that have a female featured on the cover but has a male protagonist. .

I learned my lesson with the HC of Papertowns and Play Me by Laura Ruby.

No matter how much I talked up both books as being great for boys, customers weren't buying.

If publishers can't be bothered to either have a cover model that reflects the MC or use a more neutral covers to increase their gender audience, than I don't need to break my azz convincing customers, guys will like it

swolk said...

As far as what books are -- and are not -- assigned in school, I've recently written an article about that. It was in the education journal Phi Delta Kappan (known in the biz as "Kappan"). Here's a link:

david elzey said...

that's an awesome article, steven. i could have used that when i was in grad school about a year ago! now i need to find my daughter's english lit syllabus and see if it's still stuck in 1960 as well...

Ms. Yingling said...

Very well said. Adult literature is different from children's and YA, and it is still difficult to find books for boys. The girl on the cover-- a killer, even when it is clearly a book for boys!

tanita✿davis said...

I am of two minds about what MJ said as well. On one hand, I hear what she's saying about the hue and cry that always goes up about boys and their reading. It's always wailing and gnashing of teeth because nothing ever gets done, so it comes up over and over and over again. The truth that I've observed in the classroom is that boys aren't reading what the Powers That Be think they ought to read more than anything else - Fact: a lot of people are going to have to adjust their expectations, and expand them to embrace Calvin & Hobbes as literature, graphic novels as worth their time and attention, etc. -- but that's another ramble for another day.

Another thing I've observed: it's an issue of there not being the "right" kinds of books being heavily marketed, past middle grade. As you pointed out, Colleen, how many books are there when people DO things? A lot of people (including males) prefer books where people aren't sitting in a coffee shop going on about their inner lives. For heaven's sakes, let's jump off of a ledge or push a car up the road or -- something.

I also agree with Johnson that when there are lots of pink covers with faces on them - for no other reason except that book designers are on a one-note trend and can't seem to let it go for love nor money (and money IS the big deal, because they've determined that Girls Buy, thus they must market to them) - well, then, it's hard to get the average boy even remotely interested.

But that doesn't mean there's not a problem with boys and reading today. If Johnson had made a similar statement about guys needing to just start valuing literature by women -- but took it from a ethnic point of view -- "well, those kids of color need to just suck it up, and deal with the whole Dead White Guy canon" -- it would come across just as poorly. It's not about the dead white guys, or even the white guys - young adult fiction in general simply suffers from a lack of realistic characters (even in fantasy or whatever genre) who reflect the experience of the readers. Until we address that, I think we'll still have the issue with guys not reading.

tanita✿davis said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Penni Russon said...

@david elzey
As far as women dominating children's publishing the main reason that scenario exists (in Australia at least) is because it used to be work done by publisher's daughters before they got married, or it was palmed onto female secretaries. It's not that women are selected as children's editors because they are nurturing, it's a role that women do because it is (like all work to do with children) traditionally underpaid and undervalued. And it remains underpaid and undervalued because it is work that women traditionally do.

Unknown said...

I'm close to the publishing industry; I work for a small publisher myself (though we don't touch YA), I have a degree in publishing, and my goal is to get into YA eventually, either in marketing or editorial. My capstone was actually a project based on the lack of marketing resources to get teens, mainly boys, to read. So this topic is near and dear to my heart.

But if it's any consolation, the industry does recognize the problem, and the editors and marketers want to try to fix it. I don't know if there's a disconnect between lower- and higher- level workers, if they don't listen to authors, or what. But I've read some WONDERFUL YA fiction for boys. I guess it just isn't getting published.

This was convoluted and confusing, but what I'm trying to say is that this is an excellent post with excellent suggestions, and someone with power in publishing should read it. It might make a difference in a lot of teen boys' lives. Thank you.

Alex Bledsoe said...

The only thing publishers will understand (or change their cover designs for) are market forces. When there's a breakout YA boy book on the scale of "Twilight" (which, you remember, blindsided everyone), we'll see the accompanying market change as everyone jumps on the bandwagon.

That said, when I was a teen, the very last thing I wanted to read about was someone like myself. I wanted heroes who could do the things I wished I could do, not teen boys angsting through the same issues perplexing me. I didn't want empathy, I wanted examples. I don't pretend to know if that psychology (or pathology ) is universal, but it might explain the sudden drop-off in reading after the MG years, and why the publisher model that serves girls doesn't work for boys.

Anonymous said...

Boys will totally read and enjoy books about girls as long as the books aren't pink and the covers aren't girlie. I did a whole post about it here. I taught college students YA lit, and the boys enjoyed books about girls, but they hated the covers. So there you go.

BookChic said...

If you didn't like The Secret Year HC, wait til you see the paperback (if you want to see it, it's in Penguin's Winter 2011 catalog, right before another horrendous paperback cover for Vast Fields of Ordinary). It's even FURTHER from what the story is about. At least this features a boy on the cover.

Also, funny you mentioned Girl Parts. I read that book and usually I don't care what my covers look like but that title and cover had me doing my best to cover it up in public. Of course, maybe the title will get boys to read it, lol.

Anyway, great post. I read Maureen's post then read yours. I gotta say that I'm very glad that my parents a)are huge readers and b)don't care what I read (my dad also reads female authors every so often), thus fostering in me a love for reading.

It's also funny because I never got made fun of for reading in high school. I was reading both male and female authors, mainly Terry Pratchett and V.C. Andrews (I didn't know about the YA section then). In elementary school, we actually had reading programs which I loved to do (ok, there was also the added incentive of free Pizza Hut pizza).

But yeah, I think the solutions to this lie with the parents and the publishers. Parents need to teach their boys that it's okay to read books (any kind) and publishers need to either go gender-neutral with covers or put the gender of the MC on the cover.

Josh said...

I was up late thinking about this again last night, and I realized how many of the books I loved before I made the jump to adult fiction were by women: Harper Lee, Lois Lowry, Hadley Irwin, Ellen Raskin, SE Hinton, Madeleine L'Engle.... I thought of a few books by males, too, but none stood out in my mind as being nearly as influential in the creation of a young writer as these.

I could be wrong, but it seems like only the adults are concerned about the gender of the writer as opposed to the content of the story.

Colleen said...

I'm really not focused on the gender of the author at all, Josh. I don't think kids look at authors much (and remember this is the generation that grew up with the greatest boy wizard of all time written by a woman anyway).

That is what Maureen wrote about and I agree with her when it comes to authors taught in the classroom but, as I wrote in the post, it goes beyond gender to ethnicity as well.

My focus is more on male protagonists and situations in the stories themselves. That's where I think contemporary YA fiction is failing today and needs to be addressed.

It's interesting you bring up Madeleine L'Engle because I loved her books too - but her books are very action oriented (or at least the Murray quartet is). Those are the kind of adventure books I mentioned. More of that would be good for girls and boys, I think as well.

Anonymous said...

I posted this comment on MJ's blog, and it seems appropriate to share it here, too.

When I taught AP high school English, 95% of my students were female. When I taught remedial reading, 100% of my students were male. It didn’t matter which sex the authors were: the females read the books, and the males didn’t.

There is no dearth of YA books by males for males (they’re just not on the shelves). The problem isn’t the lack of books. It’s that the YA males aren’t reading much of anything (and when they do it, it’s from the manga and scifi shelves, not the YA shelves.).

Am I saying that male writers don’t dominate the high school canon? Nope. They do, and in disproportionate numbers. Dead people are also overrepresented in the canon. Of course, there are far more female English teachers than male English teachers. It was not uncommon for me to be the only male in department meetings, just as it’s not unusual for me to be the only male when YA writers come together or when I have dinner with my publisher. Unless I’m mistaken, I’m the first male to comment here, as well. Does this bother me? Nope. Do I like answering my own questions? Kinda. ‘Cause I know the right answers.

Sadly, I don’t know the right answers about the problem of males not reading and females being subliminally told that male writers are superior.

Maybe I’m just not asking myself the right questions?

--David Macinnis Gill

Anonymous said...

I totally agree with you. there's a balance in male/female protagonists in MG and then as soon as you reach YA, girls dominate. No wonder the stereotype that only girls like reading is so prevalent.

I even asked my 17 year old brother why he doesn't read more fiction and he says that he doesn't like realistic fiction about guys because he doesn't relate to them. He prefers fantasy, comics or non-fiction. It's hard to find good, marketable YA books for boys that don't have girls on the cover or that are from girls' points of view or primarily about romance and feelings. They like action, adventure and whatnot, not normal, every day drama like most girls.
Even witty male narrators in realistic fiction can be hard to get guy approval. You see mostly girls gushing over how awesome those books are. I love fiction about girls and guys, but I really wish I knew how to write a book that teen guys would like...

Another book that is from a boy's POV but is marketed as a girl book is Beautiful Creatures. There aren't any pictures on the cover, but the curly font and even the title itself screams, "This is a girl's book!" I thought the characterization of the main character was great and that boys would appreciate, but what are the chances that they will ever pick it up? Slim.

Anonymous said...

Interestingly, publishers often complain that my fiction is too oriented toward boys. On the one hand we see the need for more boy YA, but on the other hand, publishers know who are buy books...not teen boys. A bit of a catch 22, I think.

Colleen said...

Thanks for all the great comments, folks. I think we can agree on two things:

1. Covers matter and publishers are not designing them in a way that sells books to boys and

2. The more YA books that are marketed to girls sell, the more publishers think that girls are the only ones buying YA books.

Self-fulfilling prophecy, eh?

gonovice said...

I like what Alex said, " I wanted heroes who could do the things I wished I could do..." Me too, and books to help me learn how, whether it was chess, tennis, bird identification...

And David's point, "there are far more female English teachers than male English teachers." Same with librarians. When a parent is here in the library with a "reluctant reader" boy, I ask him what he's interested in, usually find a book on the topic, and all of a sudden he's less reluctant.

And maybe at that age, navigating through adolescence, fictions (lies) are not going to be quite as helpful as something grounded in the real world.


CopyPop said...

Why doesn't your definition of "YA" include young sci-fi and comic books? Most of those are aimed towards male readers.

Colleen said...

I do include the genre of SF in this discussion - the Susan Beth Pfeffer books I mention above are YA SF. But there is not a lot of SF published for teens, period. There is a lot of fantasy but not SF.

As to comic books, I discuss the need for more graphic novels also but again, there are not a lot of gns published specifically for teens - most are for MG readers. If you are talking about cape titles then yeah, there are a ton of those every month. But I wasn't talking about single issue floppies...I was talking about graphic novels themselves.

(I read a lot of comics actually - several Avengers titles, Fables, Ex Machina, etc.)

And honestly, when it comes to comics, that's a whole other discussion (because a lot of people think they don't count as reading material at all). (I'm not one of those people, btw.

Anonymous said...

I hope these points continue to be made, more frequently, and in different places. I'm not sure many boys care about gender neutral. If they're even the least bit interested in reading, they want something that's good for them. Period. Could mean exciting, or interesting, or any number of things. My theory: boys stop reading (YA fiction) after 13 because there's not enough that's 1) readily available to them (as in looking on the shelf and seeing covers, titles, and storylines that are appealing to them), and 2) meets their developmental needs. By this I mean books that deal with the stuff boys at that particular age are struggling with: independence, how to become a man, sex, friendship, standing up for yourself, etc. And in this sense it doesn't matter if it's male or female protags, so long as it delivers the goods. The boys in juvenile detention facilities I worked with were just as interested in Sister Souljah's book (The Coldest Winter Ever) as they were Paul Volpini's books, although they only read The Coldest Winter when it was recommended by a man that they respected - which is an interesting side note. How do boys find the books that they read?

Colleen said...

Ah - and now you've touched exactly on one of the reasons why we formed this site! We wanted to make it easier for teenage boys to find books and figured if we got a big group of bloggers together to recommend titles then we would be diverse enough to connect with a whole bunch of readers.

Here's hoping they find us - and thank you for stopping by and chiming in on all this. :)

A Pen In Neverland: Angela Peña Dahle said...

WOW! Very good post! I've read other posts on this same topic, but this one makes you peel your eyes open and gets you asking "why?" Iv'e actually been thinking of doing a post on boy/guy books: MG and YA. All you have said just goes to say, how mercurial and capricious the market is for children's books. Thanks for the post! May I link back to it in my blog? I'd love to anyhow.

Colleen said...

Links are fine, Angela - and thanks for stopping by!