Are Young Adult books just for girls? Should they be?
But how do you explain this:
“Imagine your local independent bookstore’s shelves. They teem with pouting girls and hunky boys and various shades of purple. Few self-respecting teen boys would venture there to find their next great read…So you are taking quite the gamble if you target your YA to a boy audience or use a boy-centric male protagonist.” – Mary Kole, “Writing Irresistible KidLit”
And this, a snapshot of the latest YA titles from GoodReads:
The landscape is remarkably similar to what Mary predicts. And her advice has never steered me wrong before. You can tell at a glance that most of these books are heavy on the romance and angst, spanning genres from high fantasy (The Shadow Throne by Jennifer Nielsen: “One war. Too many deadly battles. Can a king save his kingdom, when his own survival seems unlikely?”), Science Fiction (Cress by Marissa Meyer: “Rapunzel’s tower is a satellite. She can’t let down her hair—or her guard.”), the infamous dystopian novel, (Landry Park by Bethany Hagen: “Downton Abbey meets The Selection in this dystopian tale of love and betrayal.”), and Romantic Comedy (Better Off Friends by Elizabeth Eulberg: “For Macallan and Levi, it was friends at first sight. Everyone says guys and girls can’t be just friends, but these two are.”) Fourteen of 15 are clearly aimed at the female audience (we’ll come back to the exception, Grasshopper Jungle, at the end).
Young adult, as an audience, existed long before the broody “teen romance” market blossomed. Somewhere between The Outsiders—a 1967 novel about rival gangs, and Twilight—a 2005 novel about vampires who sparkle, publishers apparently got the idea that teenage boys didn’t go to bookstores.
But boys do read (although apparently not as much as girls), and they even read books with female protagonists. GoodReads’ list of “YA for Boys” has The Hunger Games series in its Top Ten. Other YA books I expect boys would like: Scott Westerfield’s similarly dystopian Uglies, Pretties, and Specials series (there’s a classic YA love triangle, but the sci-fi element is superb, and the action is gripping). When I was a teenager, I discovered science fiction, so most of my recommendations fall in that direction. Ask any male science fiction fan over 40 in your life about their favorite Robert Heinlein book, and most will sigh happily at the buxom babe on Friday—a book I loved for apparently entirely different reasons than my husband. In fact, I suspect that when we lose boys from YA, we gain some of them in Sci-Fi–a genre that tends to have more male readers. (I have absolutely no data to back this up, just a strooooong hunch.)
The teenage years are a time of finding your place in the world, and good YA usually reflects this by placing compelling external conflicts against a soul-searching internal conflict. In YA, the internal conflicts are always larger than life—a good YA author can make you feel 16 again, when every slight was the end of the world, every crush was your first love, every failed friendship was the downfall of a dynasty–it was all so breath-taking and terrifying because every experience was new. When you are 16, these books make you feel like you’re not alone. Some of the best books I’ve read lately (Veronica Roth’s Divergence, Andrew Smith’s Grasshopper Jungle) place these conflicts against literally end-of-the-world scenarios, hence the appeal of the Dystopian genre.
Another reason we’re so drawn to books where things go so badly is that fiction is a kind of disaster-preparedness simulation: It helps us navigate potentially scary situations by modeling various horrible outcomes from the safety of our couch. Especially emotional outcomes—cowardice, fear, longing, sexual insecurity, love, rejection, betrayal. Boys need this sanctuary as much as girls, if not more. Our society is more forgiving of girls who show emotion. Boys are told from the time they feel the first rush of cold air in the delivery room to “Man up!”
So while it may be a bad “business” decision as a writer, I reject the premise that YA is just for girls, and that KidLit authors should target their YA that way. (I do, however, recommend Mary Kole’s book–she knows the market, she knows writing, and she is chock-full of excellent advice. She would probably advise me not to use cliches like “chock-full.”)
So if they’re not reading about brooding vampires, self-reliant heroines, and voluptuous fae, what are boys reading? And how do we write for them? Take a lesson from Andrew Smith. Grasshopper Jungle is a YA sci-fi/dystopian/weird tale—and the less you know of before you read it, the more you will be delighted when you do. It is about a 16-year old Polish boy who accidentally unleashes a plague of giant praying mantises on his dying rural town. He is in love with his girlfriend, Shannon, and his best friend, Robby. He is horny and confused. Never have I read anything that more perfectly overlays the outer end of the world with the inner.
How did Andrew Smith do it? In the Acknowledgements, he shares his secret: He gave up writing. This book is not written for girls or boys. He wrote this book for no one but himself.
Not only do boys read, they write, too.
What were your favorite books when you were a teenager? What do you recommend for teenage boys today?