Monday, January 11, 2010

The State of Boys and Books

When I was in middle and high school, I read a lot.  More than a lot.  I was a machine.  I read every book I owned at least three times.  Mostly I read fantasy novels by authors like Terry Brooks and Robert Jordan.  I read a lot of other stuff too, but Fantasy was my comfort genre.  Why?  Because many of the stories were about young men with humble beginnings who were destined for something more.  I was looking for characters I could relate to and fantasy offered me stories of heroes without a clue.  Stories of young men stumbling their way through life, just trying to do the right thing.

Back in those days, I never stepped foot near the YA section.  I suspected that there might be books that spoke more directly to what I was going through.  Even in my early twenties, books like that would have spoken to me.  But I didn't know they were there.

It's no secret that boys are falling behind in literacy.  Seemingly they read middle grade fiction like Harry Potter and Artemis Fowl, but then they disappear.  Sometimes they go off to non-fiction and sometimes, like I did, they go to adult books.  But more often, they just give up reading.  Why?  I believe it's because they don't see themselves represented on the bookshelves.  When the MG stories begin to feel a little too young for them, and they turn to the teen section, they see stories dominated by emo bad boys and the girls who love them.  The covers are nothing but pictures of shirtless men or vacuous groups of kids or headless girls.  Even the books that are aimed at young men are feminized in order to appeal to girls because they are the main purchasers of Teen lit.

A terrible cycle is created.  Boys don't buy books because they don't see themselves represented, so less books are published for boys because they're buying fewer books.

The bookshelves become dominated by stories written by and for girls.  Now, I should put in my disclaimer here that I'm not speaking absolutes.  And I also find much of the teen lit written for/by girls to be quite good.  But I'm an adult and no longer read YA to relate.  I read it to enjoy.  But when I was a teen I was looking for books to relate to.  And for boys, it's a wasteland.

There are really three problems:

1.  Authors, seeing the lack of potential for boy-aimed YA lit aren't writing any.
2.  Publishers (who I understand are in this business to make money) buy boy YA books but then do very little to promote them.  Then they use lack of sales to prove that there's no money in boy-oriented YA.
3.  Drawing boys back to the table is a daunting and difficult process.  We simply haven't given them any incentive to try Teen lit again.

Is there any one person to blame?  No.  Authors have to eat, publishers have shareholders to answer to, and boys don't want to dig through the mountain of vampires and werewolves to find one book that appeals to them.

So what's the answer then?  I don't know.  I'd really love to see a publisher take a chance and spend as much on promoting a cool boy oriented series as they do on the newest trend for girls.  I read about the amazing marketing plan my own publisher put together for Becca Fitzpatrick's HUSH, HUSH.  They went to showings of New Moon and handed out books, they put up ad's during the movie.  And it worked.  HUSH, HUSH has been doing really well (congrats to a fellow Tenner!).  I'd like to see that same kind of enthusiasm put into great boy-oriented series'.

But I also think we need to go beyond that.  One advertising campaign won't be enough to bring back the boys we've lost and it won't be enough to keep from losing anymore.  There needs to be a continued effort to write and publish and support great boy books for teens.  There needs to be a way to get those books into their hands.

And for that, I have the beginnings of a plan that I'll discuss more about later this week.


  1. Ooo, exciting. I was sad to see Jon Scieszka's term as Children's Literature Ambassador end because his platform was about getting reluctant readers reading (GuysRead is a cool resource).

    I don't know what you have up your bloggy sleeve, but I'll promise this: after I've read THE DEATHDAY LETTER and JACK BLANK this summer, I'll put them in the hands of boys I know. And the theatre I work for has, as part of its mission, to promote kid literacy. May be some possibilities there, too.

  2. I like GuysRead, but my only problem with that (and other guy oriented websites) is that many of the books there aren't current. Reading older books isn't a bad thing, but it's difficult for kids to relate to books set 10, 20, 30, 40 years ago.

    Also, I haven't read it yet, but I'm dying for Jack Blank to come out. I've heard nothing but great things about it.

  3. Great Post Shaun! It really saddens me as I'm grasping the severity of un-relatable books available to teen guys. I know my one friend gut friend always aska me for book recs that arent "too girly", and I always feel bad that there isnt this wide gaping selection gor him like there is for girls. I know you said you have a "secret project" to be revealed, and if due to it I can help in any way, I shall!

    P.S.- This post made me want to read your book even more! :]

  4. ^ wow sorry for all the misspelled words above, i was distracted...

  5. Dani- No worries. We're all friends here. :) I appreciate the offer. I think by the time I get this project together, I'm going to need everyone's help :)

  6. Yeah, I really agree with you on this one. I'll be keeping watch on this topic.

  7. Fantastic post Shaun. I have been toying with an idea for a book geared more towards males...and it is a daunting task, though one I would love to engage it at some point.

    Working with students with exception need, a high number of which are boys, I can feel your pain!

    I look forward to your future posts on this topic...

  8. Hmm. Do you consider Harry Potter, which many in publishing believe started the current craze for all things YA, to be a "girly book"? I certainly don't, but I personally credit it for giving both my daughter and my son, who were never big readers before Potter, a huge love of reading. Yes, I'll agree that the other huge blockbuster fantasy series, Twilight, is clearly primarily aimed at girls. But my daughter talked my son into reading the series when he was 19, and he loved it. They devoured the first three books together, and did an all-day read together when the final book, Breaking Dawn, came out.

    What happened with my son, and daughter, post Potter was that they began immediately reading adult fantasy. Their step-father loves traditional, epic fantasy and turned them on to that. Their father loves science fiction, and my son decided he likes some of it (mostly Jim Butcher's stuff), but my daughter doesn't like it much (other than Avatar the movie, which the whole family adores). The love that the whole family shares is urban fantasy, both adult and YA. In my perception, YA urban fantasy is getting increasingly gritty so that, except for the sex perhaps being somewhat less explicit in YA urban fantasy, and the protagonists being teenagers, often there isn't a huge difference between it and adult urban fantasy.

  9. Kate: I think Harry Potter is a fantastic book that reaches both boys and girls. And I think that it's been responsible to helping to kick start a lot of the reading craze in the last ten years. But the problem, as I see it, is that when girls outgrow HP, there are shelves full of books for them. For boys in their teens, the pickings are slimmer. And that's not to say they can't read books more geared toward girls, but it'd be great if there were more books geared towards the sum of their experiences. Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is a great example. But books like that are the exception and not the rule.

  10. The Perks of Being a Wallflower and Grab on to Me Tightly as if I Knew the Way are two books that come to mind that feature male MCs in high school. And, I know it's not YA, but what about The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay?

    On top of fewer YA books for boys, I find it annoying that so many of the YA books geared toward girls feature breathless, smitten protags in love with the undead and whatnot. If these books had been around when I was younger, I wouldn't be into them. I had friends reading Sweet Valley High and books by Christopher Pike, and I couldn't stand that stuff.

    My favorite YA author growing up was Cynthia Voigt. And she def. had some books that featured male MCs. But, like you said, today's boys want contemporary books, too.

  11. I don't disagree with you that it would be great to have more male POV in YA. The more the merrier! In fact, to help that along, it would be great if someone were to compile a list of all known YA's from the male POV just to prove your contention that there are far too few of them and to help boys find what few books there are. This list could include books in the first-person male POV, close-third male POV, or alternating either first-person or close-third-person POV of male and female protagonists in books with boy-friendly titles. I think it would be great, too, if that list included books going back to the 19th Century, such as Mark Twain's work. As a starter for that list, what about James Patterson's Maximum Ride series? I can't think of the name of it at this moment, but there is a whole series written about Peter Pan that is directed at boys, though that might be Middle Grade. I also read last year a YA book about a teenage male demon who took over the body of a teenage boy.

    Another issue is this: Often the male POV may be the more interesting one and sticking solely to the female POV in order to reach the perceived audience that reads YA most, teenage girls (vs. teenage boys), might not serve the story as well. An example of this is Twilight. My husband has read the first few Twilight books, and when I told him about this conversation, he reminded me that the Edward Cullen first-person POV version of the first part of Twilight that Stephenie Meyer has published on her site is a huge hit with her fans. Many readers, both female and male, have preferred it to the published version in Bella's POV. My husband said he himself preferred Edward's POV because Edward is a much more interesting character due to the fact that he has a heck of a lot more conflict going on when he meets Bella (urge to kill her) than she does from her side (confusion at the hate-filled look from a gorgeous guy she never met before and has done nothing to offend him).

  12. Kate: That's a great point about Twilight from Edward's POV. I'm not even concerned that books be from a male POV, just that teen boys are having trouble finding themselves represented in todays YA.

    The reverse seems to be true of MG and girls. There's a wealth of great MG aimed at boy readers, yet that seems to dry up. And that's pretty much my point. Right now I think YA is experiencing this wonderful creative expansion. Writers are flocking to YA because it offers some of the greatest freedom for experimentation. But a huge majority of that is written towards, marketed for, and purchased by girls. Is that a bad thing? No, girls are awesome. But I want to bring boys into the conversation on current literature.

    Older, classic lit is great, and I'll never, ever discourage someone from reading something that they really enjoy, but sales of literature fifty, eighty, a hundred years old, doesn't convince publishers that there's money to be made from boys. Go into your local B&N. Browse the YA shelves. Even many of the books that would appeal right to teen boys are marketed to girls.

    By the way, I the book you're thinking of is The Demon's Lexicon. It was a fun read. Really awesome.

    It's a weird place. Movies are marketed toward teen boys. So is television. They obviously know what they want and have the money to spend on it, yet they're not represented well in YA literature. How can we expect them to read books if we don't give them what they want?
    Great comments!

  13. FWIW, I have a couple of other possible scenarios, among many, within the YA marketplace, that may contribute to there being far more girl-centric YA than boy-centric YA:

    Possibility One: Many of the current crop of YA authors of genre YA (vs. lit fic YA) may well come out of the ranks of the professional writing organization, Romance Writers of America. RWA is a writing organization of currently almost 10,000 members, writing for a market, romance, that puts out around 6000 or more books per year (counting eBooks and reprints). Its authors and their published books have produced a juggernaut in the marketplace with an important side-effect for all other genres of popular fiction: Published romance writers write well and prolifically, and they love variety. This means that a great many of them publish across multiple genres, and the latest genre leap they’ve made is into YA.

    This leap has occurred in such large numbers that RWA responded several years ago by adding a YA award category to their annual RITA (published authors) and Golden Heart (unpublished authors) contests. Many regional and specialty chapters of RWA have added a YA category as well to their writer’s contests. In addition, for a couple of years now there has been a specialty YA chapter called YARWA. Technically, for anyone to be a voting member of RWA (vs. a non-voting member), he/she needs to be pursuing a professional career as a published romance author. That means he/she writes stories whose A Plot is a romantic love story, or if the A Plot is something else, then the book must have, at the least, “strong romantic elements,” that is, a B Plot that is a romantic love story.

    Unfortunately, socially supported gender-role stereotypes are still with us, even in this modern day. Boys are told almost from birth by their male peers and male authority figures that “manly” boys like action-based stories, because they encourage you to be “real men.” In contrast, romance plots are “girly,” because reading them focuses females on their true purpose in life, falling in love, getting married and raising a family. Thus, so the social programming goes (both overtly and covertly), if a boy reads a romance plot, even if the protagonist is a boy, it will weaken him to the point of emasculation. This means that if the A Plot of a given YA is a romance, and a boy is surrounded by peers and family that support sex-role stereotypes, presumably he would be embarrassed to be caught reading such a book openly and might therefore avoid it entirely.

    Possibility Two: Another potential reason for the heavy focus on female-centric books for YA is the genre’s enormous emphasis on first-person POV. The only other genre that tops it for first-person is the adult mystery genre. If one looks at the gender of authors of YA—and I freely admit I haven’t done a survey scientifically, only informally—I believe what one would discover is that female authors massively outnumber male authors. When one is limited to a single POV, the instinctive place to settle—unless the author is purposely trying to push his/her artistic limits into an uncomfortable place—is with one’s own gender. The more authors of YA can push the limits of the first-person convention and move into close-third, multiple POV, I think the more possibilities there will be for books written that boys will find both more relatable and more socially comfortable to pick up and read.

  14. Moving on to your related point that MG has a lot more boy-centric books than YA: I hadn’t previously noticed that difference because I’ve mostly been following the YA market, but I would assume that the Percy Jackson series is a good example of that, and might continue to grow the MG market since it has a slam-bang movie coming out soon. I have a theory as to why there might be far more boy-centric books in MG than YA, based on experience as both a teacher and a therapist: The field of educational psychology tends to subscribe to the following hypothesis (meaning it’s not proven), as does the field of family counseling, particularly that portion of it dealing with teens diagnosed with “oppositional defiance disorder,” what used to be called “juvenile delinquency”: By the time kids reach their teens, their personalities and attitudes are more or less set in stone and unable to be molded.

    If an educator consciously or unconsciously accepts this premise, then the presumption would be that major emphasis should be put on shaping a boy to be more socially well-adjusted, literate (and potentially well-read, well-educated, able to get a good job and contribute to society), in his pre-teen years, not his teen years. Hence, more demand by school and public libraries for boy-centric MG than YA. Flowing from that issue is another related one: a great many boys, far more than girls, reach their teens functionally illiterate. I read some years back there was, and probably still is, a big demand by educators for books written at first-grade level about topics that teenage boys could enjoy in order to help them gain literacy. That’s a whole other distinct boy-centric fiction market for teen boys.

  15. As for other support of your theory about YA books for males, for some time now I’ve been personally collecting information on authors of YA, mostly urban fantasy, though not all. Though my list of authors is anything but complete, it certainly supports your opinion that there are far more girl-centric books with a female protagonist vs. boy-centric books with a male protagonist. Here are all the YA’s with male protagonists I have on my list so far:

    Gone (and other books), by Michael Grant
    The Maze Runner (and other books) by James Dashner
    Leviathan (and other books) by Scott Westerfeld
    Eyes of the Dragon by Stephen King
    Fan Boy and Goth Girl by Barry Lyga
    Playing the Field by Janette Rallison (her first book was with a boy protag then she switched to female protags)
    Faerie Wars by Herbie Brennan – technically MG, but could be read by YA.
    The Ender Quartet by Orson Scott Card – technically adult fiction but with a “boy wonder” protagonist.
    The Magic or Madness series by Justine Larbalestier (Scott Westerfeld’s wife) alternates POV with girls and a boy and isn’t particularly “girly” in its premise.

    Holly Black’s soon-to-be-released book, White Cat, Book 1 of her new Curse Worker urban-fantasy series, is YA and has a male protagonist. She wrote the Spiderwick Chronicles (with Tony DiTerlizzi), which I’m sure you know since you clearly know the MG market. SC gave her a movie deal that made her famous and a bestseller, but best of all gave her experience writing boys, even if for MG, and she’s clearly applying that know-how to YA.

    Amanda Marrone’s newest release, Revealers, puts the focus in an urban fantasy on a thriller A Plot rather than a romance A Plot—the heroine kills vampires and werewolves rather than falling in love with them a la Twilight. This book promises to be very dark and gritty—the heroine assassinates magical creatures that other urban fantasies have made readers love. And the closest adults in her life just may be her worst enemies. Because it isn’t a love story, I believe it could appeal to boys, even though the heroine is a girl.

    Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games series is another thriller A Plot of a type that could easily appeal to boys, even though there is a female protagonist. It is a brutal, after-the-end-of-the-world futuristic plot. While it is possible to claim that there is a “girly” element of a love triangle across the series, I don’t see it as a true romance plot for this reason: much as in male action stories, the love interest is more of a plot device to forward the action plot than a truly significant, fully fleshed out B Plot romance in and of itself. My son, who revels in dark urban fantasy, turned me on to this series. He said I just had to read them because I love the Harry Dresden books by Jim Butcher (which my son also got me hooked on) and she does both characterization and action really well, as Butcher does. The only thing that might have made the series more relatable for boys, IMHO, is if the author had chosen close-third, alternating POV and brought in some male POV.

  16. Finally, and I’ll stop agreeing with you so effusively after this, I promise: I also agree with another issue you brought up as an indicator of the poor selection of boy-centric YA: you said to look at what is available in brick-and-mortar bookstores in their YA sections. Here’s my NSHO about these bookstores and YA in general: their selection in all areas except the massive YA bestsellers utterly stinks! They place dozens of copies of all the books by Stephenie Meyer and J. K. Rowling in the prime real estate of center aisle tables, face up in stacks. Also in that same prime real estate, they display 2-4 copies each for the next tier of bestselling authors (which is extremely redundant marketing, because most of those books are knockoffs of SM and JKR, containing vampires, weird boarding schools, or a combo of both). Last and pathetically least, they provide, shelved with only the spine showing, a tiny selection from among the hundreds of other excellent YA books published each year.

    Frankly, I find bookstores’ allocation of store space for YA just one more example of why their chains are currently going broke. Their marketing plan is absurd. The whole point of going to a physical bookstore is exactly what you suggested—to be able to pick up and look through a wide—even complete—collection of the current crop of books in a given genre. If they can’t offer that, then what exactly is it they have to offer over online, virtual bookstores? It’s far more convenient to go to Amazon and use their “look inside the book” function and have access to a huge number of YA’s than waste time and gas going to the local Border’s or B&N and find almost nothing. (Though I must admit that far too many publishers fail to take advantage of the fantastic marketing tool of allowing potential buyers to check out the first part of an author’s book—and when this failure occurs, far too many authors fail to step in and upload the beginning of their book to Amazon in order to compensate for the marketing incompetence of their publishers.)

  17. I know several middle school age boys who thoroughly enjoyed The Hunger Games and Catching Fire. Goes to show that female first person can reach boys. However, it's more the premise than characters that boys find intriguing. Weapons and fighting to the death... it doesn't get more boyish than that. Both books have elements that compel boys and girls to read them. That's how a writer reaches a wide audience. Write a story that's compelling to humans, not a specific gender.

    On a side note: Being a male writer (who writes MG), I feel that YA publishers have fallen into the Hollywood trap of trying to benefit from a phenomenon (Twilight). Hollywood often mistakenly buys what's hot in theaters, and many publishers seemed to have followed suit. At SCBWI last August, I sat in on an editor's presentation that included an excerpt from one of her WIP, which was about vampires and werewolves. How original.

    YA humor seems to do well amongst boys, especially since most of it is boy first person. Just a thought.

  18. I think there's also a lot of book snobbery going on, with people (parents, teachers, agents, editors, etc.) looking down on the kinds of topics that interest boys.

    I know teachers who refuse to stock their libraries with Captain Underpants books or discourage boys from reading books based on movies, such as Star Wars.

    I am sure there are many with prejudices against "gross" books, or books with locker room humor. The writer who writes such a book faces an uphill climb. He must first find a agent willing to rep it and I've read on one agent's blog that one reason she rejects manuscripts is if they "gross her out." If he finds an agent who's willing to champion such "filth," the agent then has to find a publisher and a publisher can all too easily say, "Books like this don't sell well," because, in fact, there aren't all that many books like this. If the book gets published, there are many parents who look down on this kind of book as not "real" reading or they find it personally offensive and won't buy it for their kids.

    Believe me, I'd have read night and day if someone would have supplied me with books about farting, and later, in my teenage years, with books where the main character chronically (and creatively) masturbates because he can't get any girls to give him the time of day.

    I would think the success of franchises like the American Pie movies would have led to more books like this.

    And, yes, this comment is totally self-serving, since I wrote a book with all of the above.


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