Friday, September 13, 2013

YA Guy Talks about What He Means by "Boy Books"

In the past several months, there's been a lot of online activity concerning gender issues in YA literature. There have been attacks on "strong female characters," as well as critiques of the concept of "boy books" versus "girl books." Seems like every time I check the Twitter feed, there's a new piece on gender in YA.

If you're YA Guy (which I am), you're cheered by all of this activity. I founded this blog because I believe we need to be talking not only about how and why teenage boys and girls read, but about gender stereotypes in YA, industry pressures to market books as "boy" or "girl" books, and so on. These issues are important for those who read and write YA, and they're important for those trying to construct a more just society.

But I also believe that we need to be careful in our discussion of these issues. It's too easy to react in a knee-jerk fashion, to produce stereotypes of our own in our quest to attack the stereotypes of others. For every essay concluding that "boys don't read 'girl books' because they inherently don't like 'girl stuff'" (i.e., they're hardwired not to), there's an essay arguing that when we talk about "boy books," "what we really mean are books that make women second-class characters: love interests for male MCs or damsels to be rescued or the unattainable object of attraction." The first blogger argues with unabashedly circular logic that "girl books" can't be enjoyed by boys because, well, they're girl books.  The second blogger caricatures "boy books" (and those who read, write, and write about them) as hopeless troglodytes.

In my view, neither of these approaches will get us far.

For the record, when I talk about "boy books"--and when I write them myself--I don't mean any of the above. I don't mean books that appeal to the unique wiring of boy brains, and neither do I mean books that teach boys to demean and brutalize women. I mean, simply, books that can be read and enjoyed by boys. Such books, I believe, can and do have male as well as female protagonists; they can and do involve both hetero- and homosexual love stories (or no love story at all); they can and do have female characters who are as complex, flawed, and capable of growth and empowerment as the male characters.

When I talk about boy books, in other words, I'm asking why books such as I've described above are typically not thought of as boy books.

The question of whether teenage boys lag behind girls in how much they read has been debated and hyped endlessly, and we're probably no closer to answering that question than we ever were.  (A fairly recent study concludes that boys are reading at the same difficulty level as girls, though this says nothing about whether they're reading at the same rates as girls.) But will we break gender stereotypes by producing new stereotypes? Will we encourage boys to read by portraying those who write books with boys in mind as cavemen? Will we truly open the field of YA literature in gender-inclusive ways if we assume that only gender-exclusive books are being written and marketed for boys?

YA Guy doesn't think so, anyway.


  1. I have been surprised at the books my son (7th grade) has picked up from our bookshelf. If I don't tell him how he's supposed to view a book, he reads it with an open mind. So he loves Ender's Game and Percy Jackson, but he also read the Divergent series and loved it ... even though the MC is a girl. More recently, he read Code Name Verity. I was shocked by that, because not only is it about two girls, it's a dense, heavy book. He didn't love the ending, but he did finish it. He really doesn't seem to care what the cover looks like or what gender the MC is, he just wants a good story. He started to read Will Grayson, Will Grayson — which does have a same-sex relationship — and stopped, but not for that reason. He hadn't got to that point yet, he was just a little bored. (No accompanying audiobook: this is a big deal. He's 90% more likely to stick with a book if he also has an audiobook copy.)

    But if I was picking books out I thought he'd like, I'd almost certainly pick stereotypical "boy books": boy MCs, lots of fighting. Just goes to show.

    Great post!

    1. Thanks, Stephanie. My own son (10 years old) gravitates toward books with male MCs (Alex Ryder, etc.), but he also enjoyed it when his older sister read THE HUNGER GAMES to him, and I'd be willing to bet he'd read other "girl" books if the concept and story were intriguing enough.