YA literature – where are the boys?

This weekend I took my 11yo and 15yo sons to @YALC. Actually, that’s not really true. My sons took me to Comic Con and in between forking out a small fortune for Dragon Ball-Z figures and watching them play ‘retro’ arcade games I managed to persuade them to accompany me to @YALC on the second floor every now and then.

I write YA. I read YA. Some of my best twitter buddies and heroes are YA authors, so @YALC is perfect for me. A room full of YA books, friends and writers – what’s not to like? In the post-conference wave of love and euphoria, it seems churlish to focus on a negative but the reaction of my 15-year-old son to the conference kept me awake last night like a piece of Scrooge’s badly-digested cheese.

First, let me establish my son’s credentials. He read The Hobbit aged six and by the time he was seven my bedtime reading skills were redundant as he worked his way through the Harry Potter series. As he grew older, he became the literary equivalent of the Hungry Caterpillar consuming at least three novels a week. He read his first ‘YA’ novel aged ten (Noughts and Crosses by Malorie Blackman), read all of John Green’s novels when he was twelve and last year polished off the entire Game of Thrones series in a single summer.

But then he stopped. At first, I thought it was just a GoT book hang over. George R Martin is a tough act to follow. I bought him other fantasy books but they languished unfinished by his bed. He did have some success with Stephen King but then homework and mock GCSE’s kicked in, leaving little time or inclination for reading. I read that this was common: that the pressure of school work makes once prolific readers fall off the book wagon in their mid-teens but that they generally rediscover their love of reading in their early twenties. Maybe like the hungry caterpillar he had consumed too much and needed some time in his cocoon before emerging as a literary butterfly.

I think I was secretly hoping that @YALC would entice him back into YA books. With so much of his life taken up with friends, school, sport, sport and sport, books were the one thing we had in common. But within minutes of entering the second floor where @YALC was held I could feel his hackles rising. We circled the venue searching for people I knew and books to buy. Or at least I did. My oldest son grew tense, prickly and moody. ‘Can we go now?’ is all he kept saying.

After a bad-tempered exchange and some flippant remarks on both sides, we eventually had a calmer discussion over lunch. Initially dismissive of his criticisms of my beloved YA community, I was struck by one observation he made. ‘YA is not a genre,’ he said. ‘It is a marketing category. The key thing the readers have in common isn’t their age but the fact that they are all women.’

What my 15-year-old-son saw when he visited @YALC was a room full of young girls and middle-aged women like his mum selling, buying and talking about books. What he didn’t see was himself. I argued with him (as I often do) that he shouldn’t let that bother him, that he should just care about the books. But the books, he argued, are all about women too. Look at the covers, the titles, the lead characters. It is all about love triangles and endless internal monologues. Why aren’t they selling more fantasy books, he asked, gesturing to the (mostly male) fantasy community around us. Why aren’t they trying to get any of these (boys) upstairs? Then he dismissed his own question and returned to his food with the damning fact that ‘none of my friends read, anyway Mum. None.’

I am not saying my son is right (that’s my job, after all). But he has made me think. I worry, as I often do, about his concept of masculinity, about whether he has absorbed the subtle culture of misogyny that makes men dismissive of female dominated activities. I worry that he lacks the confidence to follow his own interests regardless of what his friends think and fret that my 11yo son (currently oblivious to gender) will soon follow the same sheep-trodden path. I worry that I expect too much of him, who at fifteen is desperately trying to understand what it means to be a man and negotiate a path towards it.

I worry.

I am sure there are lots of great books out there for young men that I simply haven’t found yet. And I am sure there were other young men at @YALC who had a great time. But still. His comments have stuck with me as the truth often does. I am currently writing a YA thriller and although I am trying to make it appeal to both sexes (and my 15-year-old son claims to like it), it has a female protagonist and star-crossed lovers and I suspect if it ever finds readers they too will be women. As the mother of two sons who worries about the (lack of) boys reading, I sometimes think I should write a book that would appeal to them. But I can only write the stories I want to read.

And perhaps therein lies the problem. The majority of YA authors are women. The majority of our agents, publishers and booksellers are women, so we get excited about the same kind of books. Is it any wonder then that the majority of our readers are women too? Are we in danger of creating a self-perpetuating echo chamber where we only speak to ourselves? I have not touched on other equally important aspects of diversity as others are more qualified to comment but these thoughts apply across the board.

This post is not a criticism of YA literature in general or @YALC in particular. It was a fantastic weekend and the people who worked so hard to make it happen have given so many people so much pleasure. YA literature is one of the most exciting and vibrant categories of fiction today. It is more than a genre: it is a community. But a healthy community questions and challenges itself. A healthy community looks at not just whom it includes but whom it (unintentionally) excludes and whether there is more that we can and should do to welcome others.

For once, I am not pretending to have all of the answers. But I think my fifteen-year-old son was right to ask these questions.

 

 

 

 

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34 thoughts on “YA literature – where are the boys?

  1. Has he read any Brandon Sanderson or Robert Jordan? I too have teenage sons (now 18 and 16) who once read prolifically and now only occasionally, whereas my daughter only slowed down on fiction when she went up to uni. An interesting post, especially seeing the YA publishing world through the eyes of a YA.

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    1. Thanks Jackie. I don’t think he has read those but I will check, thank you. Yes, it was a very striking experience for me, and of course once I saw it through his eyes I couldn’t ‘un-see’ it. Thanks again for commenting and I hooe your boys return to reading at some point. All the best Jo x

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  2. FAB FAB FAB POST! How this echos our dilemma… and many a few ‘chats’ about books with my son, also nearly 15… he adored stories from day 1 and once he could read became an ardent reader but once over 10 we noticed it wane and have spent the last 5 years trying to encourage him back… NOT with much success I’m gutted to report! It’s hard to work out if it’s the lack of books he wants to read or if peer habits & the e-world has distracted him …

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    1. Thanks Poppy. It’s so sad and also complicated to work out why they don’t read, but I think this weekend convinced me that we aren’t marketing books to boys in the right way. We have become too provider driven (i.e. what we as authors/publishers like to write/publish/do) and rather lost supply of the demand side, I think (i.e. who we are supposed to be writing for). I guess we have to trust the fact that humans crave stories, and that whether through TV, Netflix or E-books they will find the right stories for them. All the very best Jo x

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Jo, this is a very interesting post. Your son sounds a little like mine, who was an early and prolific reader, perhaps reading a bit more non-fiction being a history buff, but he combined the two. Then, at about 12, he jumped to adult books. All Quiet on the Western Front had a profound effect on him, I remember, and he then shifted to Nabokov (no, not just Lolilta) and Conrad, Steinbeck, Roth and reading a lot of poetry with his dad. Yes, with his dad, who frankly had, and still has much more of an influence on his reading tastes than I do. And perhaps this isn’t surprising when you think about it.

    One of the reasons we read, beyond the sheer pleasure of sinking into a gripping story, is to discover our place in the world and who we are as evolving people. I think this is a difficult thing for young men these days as society, quite rightly, shifts from a male dominated one, where men’s roles were as providers, instigators, achievers, etc and women were carers, nurturers, and reliable supporters. These are now jumbled up, anyone can be what they want if they’re willing to make the effort, women can be kick-ass saviours of the world, presidents of the USA, men can be house-husbands who bring up the children, or first husbands being charming hosts in the White House or Number 10. But how much does YA fiction, or any fiction genre, reflect this shift from the boys pov? My son goes back to the greats that speak to him in a language he can relate to. Unfortunately, they’re speaking to him from a very different past, not one that reflects the world as it is. I fear that he doesn’t read enough contemporary fiction that might help him find his place in the contemporary world, that offers visions of role models that he might try to emulate.

    For example, I just finished Jonathan Unleashed, about a young man in NYC doing work he hates to make ends meet while dreaming of writing graphic novels that he thinks will never earn him a living. Eventually he breaks out, moves out, and writes. My son is now a young man in NYC who is having to do shitty jobs to make ends meet while struggling to write poetry and a novel at the same time. Would he ever read Meg’s book? No way, I’m afraid. It’s a Rom Com, and in spite of the great sense humour and writing and the dogs, it will not be read by many 25 year old men struggling in NY. He has read Paul Auster’s New York trilogy, which is rather bleak, so I’m not sure that’s helped him much. And I wonder if there isn’t a deficit of contemporary literature that allows men to discover their place in the world in a positive but male-oriented way. Literature that makes it clear they are no longer entitled, just because of their gender, but instead have a much wider world of opportunities available to them if their minds remain open. (I may just not be aware of it, of course, it’s not aimed at me.) And would they read it anyway?

    So, for YA to appeal to young adult men, (or rather, let’s face it, teen-aged boys) I suspect that it will need a big shift from the female oriented base you describe to one that caters more to these young men. I’m afraid I’m not up on the genre, having skipped the meagre offering when I was growing up and shifting directly to the adult section myself. But maybe they need writing that helps them recover from being rejected because they are white and male and the organisation or field of interest they’re trying to break into is struggling to diversify, that helps them understand young women with ambitions as great or even greater than their own and how that effects relationships, that shows them that caring and nurturing are as valuable in society as commodity trading and engineering. Would they read it? I think we’ve come a long way in encouraging girls to break out from the career straight-jackets and explore other alternatives, but maybe we’ve not done enough to help boys see how their place in the world has changed and what it could be.

    My son would like to get into publishing and I wonder if setting up a small imprint that caters to boys and young men like ours might be a niche he could fill. We’ll see. He’s still exploring the wide world out there.

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    1. Wow, Su. What a moving, insightful and well-written piece – you should post this yourself. You are absolutely right – it is about them finding themselves in the world, a point of recognition that says ‘that’s me, that’s how I feel’. I think my son would turn his nose up at Rom Com too and whilst fantasy is an escape I sense he is only reading it because he doesn’t quite know what else to turn to. I really hope your son makes it as a novelist and perhaps as an Indie publisher. He is living in NYC and persuing his dream and that is something many never get to do. Thank you for taking the time to share this with me. All the very best Jox

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      1. Sorry, Jo, didn’t mean to take over this great post, but it’s a subject I’ve thought about and discussed for some time, 10 years longer than you probably 😉 Your son will find his genre(s), but maybe it’s time to subtly steer him towards adult books.
        Another good, thought provoking post, Jo.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Wise thoughts from a wise young man. And wise words from his wise (ever worried) mother. I must admit having only a girl I’ve never considered it but yet it seems so obvious now. Maybe when he’s older he’ll become the one who adjusts the balance.

    Great post as always, Jo. Xx

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  5. My 15 yo daughter has no problem do ding YA books that appeal to get and my wife has enjoyed many of the same books. My son, onky 7 but keen to read, is a different matter. He’s read Roddy Doyle’s kids books but can’t do d anything much to appeal to his pre YA tastes. I still read with him and we’ve read The Hobbit, Lord of the Rings and Treasure Island and that’s the kind of thing he’s going to struggle to find in YA lit. Most boy targeted books seem to stop just before that YA age group and so boys, if they keep reading jump into adult books, game of thrones etc, that offer what they want in terms of adventurous story telling, often along with levels of sex and violence you wouldn’t necessarily want them to read as parents. I wonder if boys require they same level of character relatabilty/ wish fulfillment that seems to work for girls.

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    1. Hi Peter, yes I agree. You have just described my son’s literary journey! And I love Roddy Doyle’s kids books. My 11yo still reads the Rover books as they make him laugh. I hope he keeps his love of stories. All the best Jox

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  6. Thought-provoking post: I may well write piece on the topic. Thank you.
    Here’s a thought for you and your son: I went to Gollanczfest last year and found that far more boy-friendly if that’s any help. The SFF community there was both welcoming and open-minded too.

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  7. Quite a lot of this chimes with my experience as a school librarian in a boys’ school, especially the definite dip in reading in Years 10 and 11 and the preponderance of YA fiction aimed at girls. So much book reviewing online seems to cover fiction aimed at older girls. This is not to say that there aren’t boys who will read it, or who don’t enjoy the occasional story involving emotions and romance, just as there are girls who prefer action and adventure; but teenage boys generally are put off by what they consider to be ‘girly covers and plots’. There are some excellent books for younger teenage boys but you do need to be a dedicated searcher in order to find them. Also, there is that awkward phase when teenage fiction feels too young, but you are not sure what adult books to tackle.

    Has your son got a school librarian he can talk to or an English teacher he can ask? Not all of us middle-aged females read stereotypical ‘books for girls’. Although I sometimes get a bit downcast at all the marketing of books for young women, I also know from experience that loads of boys love reading and given a library of books to their taste, free choice and advice if asked-for, will devour them by the shelf-load.

    Quite often, by the time GCSE’s are over and boys are in the Sixth Form, they do come back to reading, although admittedly it may be to more factual books that they need to read for university, but they do also begin to disocver adult books too. If your son has no friends who will admit to being readers, there are some enthusiastic male book-tubers out there and communities on sites like Good Reads that he might identify with.

    Thanks for posting your thoughts. This has been preoccupying me for a while but this is the first time I have read a similar opinion online.

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    1. Thanks Lesley and I’m glad (or should I say sad?) that it struck a chord with you. Yes, he has some great librarians and English teachers at his school and he listened to them (and me) when he was younger but now he is 15… I think he will always be a reader. It will just take time for him to find the kind of books that speak to him as a young man rather than a child. All the best and it sounds like you are doing a great job. Jox

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  8. Interesting post – yes, it was very female. I was on a panel called Unheard Voices on Friday morning along with Alex Wheatle and Will Sutcliffe. We were all focusing on contemporary young men’s stories and perhaps, those were indeed the Unheard Voices. It was a great experience but we weren’t really writing the sort of books that many YALC participants often read. (Our signing queues reflected that!)

    Perhaps it’s about taking books back down to Comicon too? As well as hanging on to well read, enthusiastic school and community librarians and acknowledging the importance of other types of books. My 16-year-old daughter stopped reading a couple of years ago, but will dip into manga. I love Ben Aaranovitch’s ‘Rivers of London’ series and there are now stories being published in graphic art form too.

    But – in all honesty, your son was right.

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    1. Thanks for this. And yes, that is why I wrote it because I felt in my gut that my son was right. And perhaps we should take a few stalls downstairs to comic con. My 11yo loves Manga too – there are some great books out there. All the best and thanks for commenting and reading. Jo x

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  9. I was at YALC on the Sunday and although there were a lot of women authors and visitors, there were quite a few guys and books about guys. I think it’s a marketing thing – YA tends to be marketed at teen girls, so it would make sense for more girls to be there. It’s definitely a problem, though.

    For books about/with guys, I can’t recommend Maggie Stiefvater’s ‘The Raven Cycle’ highly enough (three of the four protagonists are guys, and it is a wonderful series). Maggie was actually at YALC on Sunday, she was brilliant. 🙂

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    1. Hi Francesca I was only there on Saturday so good to know there were more guys there on Sunday. And yes I love Maggie Stiefvater and so does my 15 yo. He read everything she wrote a couple of years ago and really enjoyed them. Her series could definitely be marketed more towards boys as well as girls so that is a great idea.

      All the best and thanks for reading and commenting.

      Jox

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Your comments about YA publishing becoming a “self-perpetuating echo chamber” rings a lot of bells with me, but I’d say that the problem starts well before YA. Although there are plenty of male authors such as myself writing for pre-YA readers, the gatekeepers for the whole of children’s/YA literature – agents, publishers, booksellers, primary teachers, librarians, awards judges, reviewers – are predominantly female.

    Although there is a big push for more “diversity” “equality” and “inclusivity” in children’s literature at the moment, when it comes to gender, many people only see these principles as applicable to areas in which women are under-represented (after all, men dominate so many other areas of public life). I think there needs to be a major ideological shift in the culture of children’s and YA literature before things will change. In the meantime, children’s and YA books will continue to appeal more to one sex than the other.

    I’ve written about this subject at some length on a blog at http://coolnotcute.blogspot.co.uk

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    1. Hi Jonathan, thanks for this. I have just read your blog – very interesting and I agree with a lot of it. It must be possible to be pro-boy and pro-girl and it is such a shame that you cannot raise these issues without being accused of being sexist. As you say, it is not so simplistic or binary. I was fascinated by the graph which seems to show similar patterns of reading until 1985 and then a divergence. Any idea what happened either in the industry at schools that might have provoked such a shift?

      Many thanks again and I hope we can close the gap so we have equality for all.

      All the best

      Jox

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      1. Hi Jo. I think the graph you’re referring to shows the gender gap in O Level and GCSE results rather than reading. However there is a similar gender gap in reading for pleasure and a lot of research showing that reading for pleasure is strongly linked to wider academic ability.

        I think there are several factors underlying this shift, many of which are interacting with each other. I set up the blog because I think that one of the biggest – gender bias in picture book content (resulting from a heavy gender imbalance among picture book gatekeepers) – is largely ignored. Alison Sage (a friend of mine who’s views are quoted in this article http://tcat.tc/1DorzXE) has worked in children’s publishing since the early 70s and tells me that the industry has gone from being relatively gender balanced to female dominated in that time. Having said which, I’ve met more male children’s publishers in the last 2 years than I have in the previous 2 decades, so the tide may be beginning to turn.

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  11. Hi Jonathan. Ah, my mistake, apologies as I read it very quickly. Still an interesting divergence though. I hope you are right that there will be more males in the industry as I think this can only be healthy, alongside other issues of diversity. All the best Jox

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  12. This is a great post and much needed. Your son was spot on to make those observations and ask the questions. I’m a writer of children’s fiction struggling to get my first novel published. In 2014 I won the Commonword Diversity Writing Prize for Children and a Northern Writers’ Award for my YA novel. I was very excited, I thought I’d made it, I even got agent representation. It was unanimously turned down! Two of the publishers said it would not have enough appeal for a female audience of 30+ I had no idea that YA was a market aimed at, dare I say it, white, middle class (middle aged?) females. I now write MG fiction where apparently, as a man, I stand a better chance of publication?! It’s wrong but until people like your son start raising questions and demanding more not much will change. I strongly believe boys would actually read more, and enjoy it too, if there were enough ‘relevant’ books around for them (YA). Boys love books at primary school age, but then switch off in their teen years, it’s got to be the material on offer, hasn’t it?

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    1. Thanks for this Dale. Yes I have been struck by how many male authors have contacted me with a similar story. This post really was just a quick brain dump of something that was bothering me it seems to be a genuine problem. As a YA author myself (currently represented but not published) I too am starting to question exactly who my audience is. All the best of luck with your (MG) writing career and let’s hope more YA books that appeal to young boys AND girls get published. All the best Jox

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  13. Interesting post — I’m also a mum of boys, just a few years younger than yours, and I had this discussion somewhere else recently (Twitter + have forgotten where); it boiled down to YA being one option for young adults but not exclusively. My eldest (12) doesn’t want to limit himself to any genre. He’s been reading the Ranger’s Apprentice and Alex Rider series but also dips into Pratchett, Hobbit/LOTR, non fic, and anything he fancies at the time (we’d vet adult books). As he looks for more complex reads now, I’m also bringing up older books — reviewing Grimm with him, etc. This won’t be his main reading matter but he’s interested in seeing styles that are new to him. I just asked him about it again since we’re chatting about your post, and he said, ‘It doesn’t matter what age it is for me, as long as I enjoy it. If there’s a book for 8y/os that I like, I’ll read it, or an adult book.’ But as I say, we’re a bit younger — I’ll be interested to read this post again in three years’ time, when I might be coming back in a panic. (Please follow up if you find any great answers!)

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    1. Thanks Tracy. It’s great that he loves reading and doesn’t restrict himself to any genre. Our 15yo also loved LoTR etc. He has also read GoT (after I read one to check they weren’t as graphic as the TV show!). My 12yo son still enjoys reading but I find he is more and more reading Manga (although that is more to do with lack of time due to an increase in homework, plus he does love them). So it will be interesting also to see what he reads in the next few years. He too would read a younger book if he liked it, but my eldest in a race to grow up. Best of luck with it all and I guess as long as they enjoy stories – in whatever format – they will be fine! xx

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  14. Sadly, I think that the solution for boys is to skip most of YA entirely and go straight to the younger-aimed adult fantasy or science fiction, as others have suggested. It will take a degree of careful selection, because some SFF is very adult-aimed, but I think it’s the best bet for teen boys. It was certainly what every teen boy read when I was that age (before YA really existed as a major genre).

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    1. Hi Patrick, yes I agree. And actually when I was young we didn’t have YA so by 14/15 I was into Stephen King etc. so it is probably a branding thing. I just worry that we make it harder for young people to find the books that will appeal to them. Thanks for reading and commenting. Jo x

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  15. (Hello! I know I’m really late here, but it’s never too late to read books, I guess.)

    I know the struggle as well. I’m a girl, but after reading so many YA books (known for their action/adventure and drama) I started to get tired of all the female protagonists, especially when they were either shy and intelligent or brave and strong.

    So I decided to look for male protagonists. And it wasn’t easy. So then I started looking per author, and not just title or cover, I came across Mr. Laurence.

    You wrote that your son actually likes fantasies like ASOIAF, so I’ve got the absolute perfect book for your son:

    ‘The Broken Empire’, a trilogy by Mark Laurence. It’s pretty much like ASOIAF, regarding tone. The 1st person narrator and protagonist, Jorg Ancrath, starts as a 14yo boy, prince of a relatively good kingdom. But his father hates him, so Jorg, depite hating his father as well (for ordering the killing of Jorg’s little brother and his mother for political reasons) tries to gain his approval so he can be the heir by going on mass killings, destruction of villages and other very not so good stuff. It’s a grim dark fantasy, definitely not for the faint of heart, but If you’re worried if Jorg is a bad influence to your son, don’t be. Sure, at first he kills, rapes (very off screen scenes) and other vile things, but as the trilogy progresses he becomes a much better person. Yeah, he still kills, but this time not for pure enjoyment but because he really needs to. Besides, he says some really deep stuff.

    The worldbuilding, the writing, the atmosphere, the plot twists and the unreliable, realistic and ruthless protagonist will make your son love the books, I hope.

    -Aline

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    1. Ooh, thanks for this Aline. This is SO helpful and timely as I am just wondering what to buy him for Christmas so I will check this out! it does sound the sort of thing he would like as he loves politics too. Thanks so much for reading and taking the time to comment and recommend this book. Much appreciated.

      Jo xxxx

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