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18 July 2010 @ 11:05 pm
TOTW: "Boy Books"  

A few weeks ago I was in a Barnes & Nobles signing stock, and I passed by two sections shelved side by side. The first, the science-fiction & fantasy section, was populated by a group of guys sitting on the floor reading. In the second, the YA section, a couple of girls were discussing the books on display.

One anecdote does not a pattern make, but I’ve seen many people make these observations in chats and posts: that the YA section seems to be in danger of becoming a guy-free zone. But is it really? And if so, what does it mean, and what (if anything) should be done about it?

After a twitter chat in which this subject was discussed, I came up with the idea of creating a list of YA speculative fiction “boy books,” for the benefit of those looking for recommendations. But this, of course, raised a whole host of new issues: Should there be such a thing as “boy books”? What does “boy books” even mean?

I did make that list; but before I post it (on Wednesday), let’s hear what you think. And to start it off, here are some Inkies’ opinions. As you can see, we have come to no consensus on this issue…


Caroline Hooton: Personally, I think that publishers have created their own self-fulfilling prophecy whereby they associate boy-friendly books as being books with x, y and z, so they only put books with x, y and z out with marketing that says boys should read them.  Publishers will then analyse the sales figures for those books and if the sales are good, assume that they've hit on the only thing that boys will look at and if the sales figures are low, assume that this means that boys don't want to read. IMNSHO, boys want a good story exactly the same as girls want a good story.

Lia Keyes: It's not an issue that's going to go away any time soon. The more poorly that boys perform in school (a definite trend) the more the finger will be pointed at literacy during a boy's formative teen years—until it's no longer an issue, until bookstores and libraries make it easy for boys to find a good read, until there's sufficient choice for boys is on the shelves, and until boys feel free to talk about the books they read without feeling uncool.

Ellen Booraem: As a practical matter, the question is how a library or bookstore or classroom teacher can connect today's teenage boys with books they'd enjoy, and it's a rare teenage boy today who will be comfortable walking around with a "girly" book… Acknowledging that problem and struggling to keep reading alive as a pastime today doesn't mean we stop striving for gender freedom tomorrow.



So what do you think?  Is this a real issue? Is the concept of boys books a helpful step toward a solution, or just a part of the original problem? If you are a bookseller or librarian, what is your experience in matching up your male teen customers with books?


Lina: seagullharemstress on July 19th, 2010 03:47 am (UTC)
Ummm... why is the question about boys being left out of the YA "club," and not girls being left out of the sci-fi/fantasy "club"?
Leah_Cypessleah_cypess on July 19th, 2010 03:58 am (UTC)
Ha - good question! The answer is because the anecdote is just an anecdote; I haven't heard any widespread observations about women feeling excluded from adult spec fic (doesn't necessarily mean they're not, though I've never personally felt that way; but as a community devoted to YA & MG fantasy, it's not the topic we've been hearing about.)
(no subject) - haremstress on July 19th, 2010 04:16 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - leah_cypess on July 19th, 2010 04:27 am (UTC) (Expand)
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(no subject) - chocolatepot on July 19th, 2010 01:01 pm (UTC) (Expand)
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(no subject) - leah_cypess on July 21st, 2010 07:00 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - janni on July 21st, 2010 07:20 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - leah_cypess on July 21st, 2010 07:43 pm (UTC) (Expand)
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(no subject) - janni on July 22nd, 2010 01:07 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - leah_cypess on July 22nd, 2010 03:11 am (UTC) (Expand)
Lisa Greenlisagailgreen on July 19th, 2010 04:20 am (UTC)
This sure seems to be a hot-button issue! I really tend to think it is an assumption on the part of many that boys aren't reading YA. I know many who've read Hunger Games and Crank and several other big name YA books. I've seen boys and girls in the YA dept. of Borders and Barnes and Noble. I'm not convinced (unless someone can show me a serious study) that there really is THAT huge of a divide. Maybe I'm just being too optimistic, I don't know.
Leah_Cypessleah_cypess on July 19th, 2010 11:43 am (UTC)
Thanks for pointing this out, Lisa! That's one of the things I'm hoping to get information about in the comments... maybe librarians or booksellers will weigh in on whether this is merely a perception/assumption, or something they see happening out there in the trenches.
rosa_g: maskrosa_g on July 19th, 2010 05:22 am (UTC)
I agree entirely with Cindy Pon's comment about the so-called "Twilight-effect". The popularity of this series, and other similar books, seems to have skewed the way many YA novels are presented and marketed. The covers depicting dark/edgy female heroines, or heroines pining after a supernatural boy, don't exactly tend to attract teenaged boys.

It's not necessarily because they don't want to read YA fare that they're not hanging out in the YA section at the bookstore (or library), I think it's often because they aren't aware that there are books that might interest them. I can say that as a teacher I am guilty of trying to influence the reading choices of my students (both male and female), and enjoy finding books they'll enjoy. Boys will read... they just won't necessarily read supernatural/damsel in distress stories. I know quite a few boys who really enjoyed YA works such as Hunger Games, Leviathan, Eragon, and Artemis Fowl... but they're the first to admit that as much as they loved the books, they probably wouldn't have read them if I hadn't strongly encouraged them to do so.
lunalilalunalila on July 19th, 2010 10:04 am (UTC)
Been thinking about this for a while now. I'm working on a YA book co-stared by boy and girl, but romance isn't the main thread of the story, nor the secondary. It may bloom, but it's not the important part.
I agree though that it's not a problem boys don't read YA, the problem is if they read at all. But if we want YA to survive we'll have to broaden readership as much as possible, and boys are an important part.
(Anonymous) on July 19th, 2010 11:48 am (UTC)
Twilight clones
Cindy said it. Boys don't want to read about a girl pining after dreamy supernatural creature X. Most YA books post-Twilight have become just like the adult female chicklit section, only substitute something paranormal in place of attractive, rich male love interest, and substitute high school in place of manhattan apartment and publishing job. Guys have no interest in that, and frankly, neither do I.

And to the poster above who said women are excluded from Sci-Fi and Fantasy-- just look at the Sci-Fi and Fantasy section. You'll see plenty of female skewed books there.
dpeterfreunddpeterfreund on July 19th, 2010 01:00 pm (UTC)
Re: Twilight clones
Anonymous, I'd LOVE for you to point out to me the "adult female chicklit" section of any bookstore, or ANY book published in the last 12 months that features the manhattan apartment and publishing job scenario. Heck, find one in the last 24 months!

I think you'll find about as many "female skewed" books in adult SFF as you'll find "male skewed" books in kidlit SFF. A few RECENT releases to get you started: Monstrumologist, The Maze Runner, Leviathan, ANYTHING by Rick Riordan... And then you've got the books that are very boy friendly even though they aren't written by boys and/or star boy MCs: like The Hunger Games, Uglies, White Cat, Going Bovine, etc.

And then you've got all the realism in YA that is boy friendly and boy written, books by Barry Lyga, Chris Crutcher, Jay Asher, John Green, David Levithan, etc.
Re: Twilight clones - leah_cypess on July 19th, 2010 01:48 pm (UTC) (Expand)
Re: Twilight clones - dpeterfreund on July 19th, 2010 02:11 pm (UTC) (Expand)
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Re: Twilight clones - readwriterock on July 20th, 2010 03:49 am (UTC) (Expand)
Re: Twilight clones - janni on July 21st, 2010 06:39 pm (UTC) (Expand)
Re: Twilight clones - leah_cypess on July 21st, 2010 07:12 pm (UTC) (Expand)
annastanannastan on July 19th, 2010 11:50 am (UTC)
Great discussion. This is such a tricky issue, but as has been pointed out already, one major problem is that boys don't seem to want to read about girl characters. I think this goes much deeper than YA. A friend of mine reported that her elementary-aged son loves to read but won't go near a book with a girl on the cover. That's a huge problem and one I see over and over. Even in MG, there's a big boy book/girl book divide and, unlike in YA, that often has nothing to do with romance. One of the roots of this problem might be the way books are marketed but there's also the way our society seems to want to emphasize a boy/girl "dichotomy."
Leah_Cypessleah_cypess on July 19th, 2010 12:02 pm (UTC)
That's definitely a good point - there's a belief in publishing that if you put a girl's face on the cover of the book, boys won't read it. (Though if you notice the number of books with girls' faces on the cover, publishers don't seem to care!)
(no subject) - meganbmoore on July 21st, 2010 12:33 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - leah_cypess on July 21st, 2010 06:29 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - meganbmoore on July 21st, 2010 11:08 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - leah_cypess on July 22nd, 2010 12:22 am (UTC) (Expand)
boreal_owlboreal_owl on July 19th, 2010 12:41 pm (UTC)
Just think of all those "pretty" covers in YA fantasy, with a photo of a girl on the cover (even a supernatural girl). You've lost the potential boy readers right there.

I think one reason HUNGER GAMES does well with both boys and girls is that it has a strong graphic cover that isn't at all girly.

When my friend's son was MG age, I asked him what he liked to read. He might read a book with a girl main character or a girl on the cover but *only at home*. He refused to read any potentially girly book where his friends could see him and tease him.

Edited at 2010-07-19 12:42 pm (UTC)
dpeterfreunddpeterfreund on July 19th, 2010 01:02 pm (UTC)
Ah, but try convincing the publishers of that. There are also lots of books that might be more boy-friendly (Look at Sarah Rees Brennan's debut) but even though they featured a boy on the cover, it was NOT a boy-friendly cover. Beautiful Creatures, they avoided putting ANY face on the cover, and that had a boy narrator, even though it was definitely part of the "paranormal love story" trend.

Devadeva_fagan on July 19th, 2010 01:04 pm (UTC)
Fascinating discussion so far! Thanks Leah, and everyone who is commenting!

The thing I find interesting is the difference between MG and YA fantasy, and boy/girl protags. There are tons of male protags in popular MG fantasy (HP, Percy Jackson, Nix's Mister Monday, Stroud's Bartimaeus series, the Magic Thief books, and many more). But indeed I don't see the YA equivalents of these. Or if they are there, maybe I'm just not seeing them?
Leah_Cypessleah_cypess on July 19th, 2010 01:54 pm (UTC)
The difference between "the Harry Potter effect" and "the Twilight effect"? Publishers are always chasing the latest big thing, after all. Maybe we are one male protag YA bestseller away from this whole discussion being obsolete. :)
katecoombs on July 19th, 2010 01:08 pm (UTC)
Since people are talking about those book jackets--if you stand in front of the new YA books display in B&N and take a step back, then scan across the books, you will see an astonishing number of photos of girls on the covers. And so many of the books' plots reflect "the twilight effect," as Cindy has named it so well.

I've had male teen students read The Hunger Games, but then, notice that the book doesn't have a girl on the cover (for a change)!

From a feminist standpoint, I'm fed up with the whole "damsels in distress" vibe mentioned above. E.g., the MC will have special powers, but needs to be protected, even shepherded towards her destiny, by a supernatural hottie. Some of these girls even faint at regular intervals (at the ends of chapters, natch).

Edited at 2010-07-19 01:11 pm (UTC)
ebooraem on July 19th, 2010 01:42 pm (UTC)
I've taught boys who will read ANY fantasy, regardless of protagonist. Just ran into one who was a huge INKSPELL fan and who is now reading ALICE IN WONDERLAND. But I don't know that any of them would walk around the school corridors with TWILIGHT--because, as several have said above, its reputation indicates that it focuses on romance.

Attitudes toward things that are typically "female" are a huge societal problem--it's gotten much better than it was 30 or 40 years ago, but we have a long way to go. Think about the change in attitude toward "secretarial" jobs when they stopped being a male province and gradually became female after the 1920s--and the later attitude persists today.

On a simplistic level, I guess, it's all about marketing. Publishers aren't necessarily into social engineering--they want to sell books. If the primary market for a book is teenage girls, you get a pink cover. It's unfortunate that pink has that connotation these days (I've been told it was a "boy color" a couple of hundred years ago)and it's tragic that books get pigeon-holed, but you can't blame publishers for wanting to make a living. The key is to persuade them that a more gender-neutral cover would help sales.
Leah_Cypessleah_cypess on July 19th, 2010 07:03 pm (UTC)
>The key is to persuade them that a more gender-neutral cover would help sales.<

I think a lot of them do recognize that gender-neutral covers help sales to boys... but also possibly hinder sales to girls. And for the most part, they're betting on the girls' purchasing power. (It's not just publishers; years ago I worked at an inflight magazine, and we were discussing the fact that in one issue, every single article was geared toward women. The editor kind of flipped her hand and said, "Oh, that's fine; I'm sure women are the only ones who read the magazine anyhow.")
(no subject) - readwriterock on July 20th, 2010 03:55 am (UTC) (Expand)
Rae Carsonraecarson on July 19th, 2010 01:47 pm (UTC)
I only have anecdotal evidence, but I've spoken with several boys who will not read a book with a female protagonist.

So, there is an interesting question here of whether or not we're providing good literature that boys can relate to.

There's an even more interesting question, though, about the social forces at work that make it difficult for boys to empathize with members of the opposite sex. It's possible that the issue is so much deeper and more complex than covers/stories/protags.
Leah_Cypessleah_cypess on July 19th, 2010 02:13 pm (UTC)
I agree, we have to consider the deeper social issues. But I think (or perhaps hope) that it's not so much lack of empathy as lack of social acceptability. In our society, girls can be "tomboys" and still retain the respect of their female peers; boys who are perceived as "girly," though, do not fare as well.
(no subject) - raecarson on July 19th, 2010 02:15 pm (UTC) (Expand)
A Deserving Porcupinerockinlibrarian on July 19th, 2010 02:49 pm (UTC)
I'm not sure if I'm adding to the discussion or getting off-topic, but reading this and the comments, I keep remembering how, as a young girl, I didn't like reading books about BOYS. In fact there were many books I didn't read until much later-- or never got to at all (I was the hugest Nancy Drew fan, but I've never read the Hardy Boys. NEVER!)-- just because the main characters were boys. I actually got over that as a teenager, but when I was YOUNGER, if I read a book with a boy protag, it was a book my mom chose and read TO me. So I guess that relates in that, when the adults whose opinions you respect HANDS you a book you wouldn't pick up on your own and tells you you'll like it, then that works, so yes, letting boys know about particular "girl" books they might like is a good idea. Still, I wonder how clear the line between boys-won't-read-about-girls-but-girls-will-read-about-boys-or-girls is, if there are just as many girls who won't read about boys or boys who will read about boys and girls, and they just don't get as much press. Or maybe the trends DO lean the other way, just not as dramatically.
Leah_Cypessleah_cypess on July 19th, 2010 07:05 pm (UTC)
That's such a good point! I also devoured Nancy Drew and avoided the Hardy Boys like the plague. (Actually, I read one or two Hardy Boys books, and I liked Nancy Drew better.) While my brother read only the Hardy Boys. On the other hand, when it came to speculative fiction I read books with male protagonists voraciously - maybe because there was no marketing directive, "THESE are for girls, THESE are for boys"?
Lynnetlynnet on July 19th, 2010 03:19 pm (UTC)
I don't know if this is a trend, but the YA section in the bookstores in my town has a huge very prominent display of the paranormal romance Twilight clones, and you can't see the YA books that aren't paranormal romance until you walk around to the back of the display. I spent several minutes wandering the YA section looking for books that didn't feature vampires or werewolves before I realized that they were hidden away in the back. I don't think many teenage boys are going to risk being seen in the paranormal romance section for long enough to figure out where the books that they might be interested in are.

Also, I think it's important to realize that this new paranormal trend is going to be turning off readers of both genders who aren't interested in paranormal romance, as well as parents who don't want their children reading it.
radshaunradshaun on July 19th, 2010 03:31 pm (UTC)
Before we can find a solution to this problem (and it IS a problem) I think we first have to recognize and not be afraid to admit that boys and girls think differently. Boys may not be as comfortable with themselves as girls, which may be why they're not as likely to read a book with a girl on the cover (or a book with a girl narrator) as a girl is to read a book that's considered more boyish. Should boys be taught to value female POV's and such? Absolutely. But in the meantime, we can't ignore that girls and boys are different.

The problem as I see it is that girls DO make up a larger portion of the YA audience. Therefore publishers actively seek books that will appeal to girls. They market books to girls, even the books that would appeal to boys. I use The Demon's Lexicon as a great example. Fun book. Well written. Great characters. Both were teenage boys. The romantic aspect of it was minimal. However, the US cover of the book, I felt, was marketed toward girls. In other words, my teenage self wouldn't have been caught dead reading it in public. And that's too bad because it was an awesome book. When I sold my own book, one of the things we worked on was upping the romantic element so that it would appeal to a broader audience.

This is just a fact of the business. It's not that boys won't read YA, it's that they're intimidated by it. Take a walk down the YA aisles. It's filled with books covered in slender, pretty bodies. Many of them look close to romance novels. Whereas sci-fi/fantasy novels are safe. And yes, those are dominated by white males. Wonder why? Because that's what they grew up reading. Welcome to the cycle. Boys are scared of YA, they start reading scifi/fantasy, and then when they grow up and write books, they write what they know.

As many have mentioned, boys will read YA if it's not intimidating to them. Patrick Ness' Chaos Walking series, Hunger Games, Carter Finally Gets it. These are books that appeal to boys that they can read without worrying about getting picked on. I come at this topic from a place of "been there, done that." I was a reader growing up. And while I devoured anything and everything I could get my hands on, I was very careful about what books I read in public.

This may be an unpopular idea, but I think that if publishers took some of their YA books that would work for boys--books like The Forest of Hands and Teeth, and The Demon's Lexicon, redid the covers, and then grouped them together with already boy-friendly books by people like MT Anderson and John Green, and then put them in an easily accessible Guy YA section or even merged them into the adult sections, I think we'd see a surge in the number of boys buying YA books. I know that sounds like a step backwards in terms of political correctness, but shouldn't we be doing anything and everything to get boys to read?
Leah_Cypessleah_cypess on July 19th, 2010 07:06 pm (UTC)
Excellent point, Shaun, and I think you've managed to hit on all the disagreements that make this topic so thorny. :)
(Anonymous) on July 19th, 2010 04:14 pm (UTC)
Two Separate Problems
We're mixing two separate issues here. One is societal or governmental. After finally admitting that females had been treated for centuries as second class citizens, our society and our government responded in the usual brilliant way:

by deliberately trying to treat males as second class citizens.

Surprisingly (to some) this has started to produce problems, especially in the males most vulnerable to this sort of treatment:


Well there isn't a lot we can do about this (or other government caused or aggravated problems) beyond taking it into consideration when we decide who to vote for.

However, private sector contributors are a different matter. There is money to be made, probably quite a lot of it, for the publisher that discovers (or rather REDISCOVERS) how to sell YA (or what we now label YA) to boys (again), and the beauty of a private sector solution is that no one will think it necessary or advisable to shortchange girls as part of the solution.