When YA Sports a Crew Cut

At this year’s BEA, an editor told me, “In YA, I’m sick of dystopia and vampires. I’m looking for emotional YA for boys.” At the time, I thought, Emotional books for teenage boys that they’ll actually read? Yeah, sure. I’ll get right on that…just let me feed my unicorn and plant my magical beans.

But I’ve given it some thought, and I think I know what she meant. Boys don’t read nearly as much as girls do and it seems that this is due to a back-and-forth volley of unfortunate circumstances between readers and publishers: boys don’t read much, so publishers are sometimes unwilling to take a chance on a book exclusively for boys. They try and add some element that girls will identify with so that they can market the books to both genders, making more money. This is, after all, a business. Consequently, the boys have a really small selection of YA books exclusively for them…so they look to other media like video games and TV for entertainment, even if they kinda sorta like to read.

Boys are a tough market because fiction necessarily involves the emotions and, let’s face it, guys usually aren’t as emotional as girls. While girls will get really involved in the lives of a novel’s characters—their popularity in school, their love lives, their self-esteem—a guy is more likely to shrug and move on, leaving the book about self-esteem or that cute girl collecting dust next to his stamp collection.

Is it a lost cause, then? Why write books for boys if they’re unlikely to read them, and publishers are reluctant to give them attention? Because some boys want to read and crave situations, characters and themes to which they can identify tightly—and, just as importantly, some publishers (like the editor I met with at BEA) crave an emotional book for boys that’s spectacular enough to take a chance on.

Boys’ tastes differ greatly from girls’. They don’t really want to hear about mean girls (terrifying) vampires (really? This again?) or romance (ugh). Then again, stereotypical subjects for boys like sports or military fighter jets that have little value beyond those hooks can be just as unsatisfying for them. The following are some trends I’ve picked up on in the past few years…

 Walk Like a Man

Being a teenager—either gender—is hugely about identity. Young adults are trying to get a firm handle on who they are, where they belong, who they aspire to be. For boys, defining what it means to be a man is a big piece of the confusing identity puzzle for teens. Books give them a private place, within their own mind, free from humiliating talk of feelings and emotions, to explore who they are, where they fit, and who they might become. Books also hold a type of silent authority, so that boys can really trust the morality and the themes within its pages. Reading books like Holes by Louis Sachar, for example, helps boys to informally reflect on elements of the idea of manhood, like strength, perseverance, assertiveness and doing the right thing. Holes (and many other books) created an environment in which boys could think about these elements without feeling preached-to and without that feeling that some old guy is trying to “relate” to them. Boys are not capable of or comfortable with discussing what it means to be a man with adults or with each other, and certainly not with girls, so this private environment for them is something they want, even if they don’t know that.

Romance, Schromance!

Teenage boys like women a whole hell of a lot, right? Wouldn’t they want some type of romance in their books? Shouldn’t there be a hot girl somewhere with really big boobs? No, not really. Every time I’ve asked a teenage boy anything about a teenage girl the response was the same: a disinterested shrug or a monosyllabic answer. Boys are tactile. They want to go out and experience women in real time, in their real lives, not sit around and analyze it, talk about it, or read about someone else’s experience of it. A boy won’t stop reading at the mention of a female, but if she comes to the forefront of the book, a boy is very likely to consider it the literary answer to chick flicks and move on.

 That’s Bad Ass!

As in most YA, there must be some extremely compelling or edgy element. Books about drugs (Crank), violence (The Outsiders), sexuality (Geography Club), jail (Miracle’s Boys) danger (Brian’s Winter), controversy (To Kill a Mockingbird, Stuck in Neutral) and completely new and undeniably cool worlds (The Giver, The Hunger Games) appeal more to boys than themes that have become almost standardized or stereotypical, such as popularity in school, vampires or romance.

There needs to be an element in YA for boys that is so compelling—like the world in The Giver—that it becomes less of a chore for kids to read through all the text to get the movie in their mind, and more of an awesome journey created just for them that delivers a message they’re actually willing to hear.

After writing this, all of that sounds like a pretty tough racket. But when someone comes along and does it right, it’s always unforgettable.


Posted on September 9, 2011, in YA and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. smatkinson @ Tamara I think you two have great points. It’s not that Boys aren’t interested in romance and emotion. it’s just a different type of romance and emotion that they are drawn to, and doubly they often can’t articulate or express those feelings interests, or what that particular type is

    I feel like any MG or YA book without emotion would be terrible, how bland and flat, would the lifeless characters and the situations they where in need to be to invoke no emotion? It’s kind of why we read fiction isn’t it? To get caught up and invested in another world.

    But boy emotions and girl are so different. Ask a boy and girl to describe the same book to their peers and you’ll get completely different descriptions. I remember reading Brian Jaques Redwall series as a kid and being completely wrapped up in the emotions of the characters, their friendships, and relationships, I shed a few tears once or twice. But when I was asked by friends what the books where like my answers were usually something like. “They’re these really cool stories about these, like, sword fighting mice, and castles, that get attacked and stuff, and the rabbits are really funny.”

    Of course the richness of characters and the way their relationships played on my heartstrings, emotionally investing me in the stories where why they where so good. But I knew if I just reported on the great action to draw my friend into reading the book then he would keep reading because of his emotional investment as well.

    But I wouldn’t be able to draw a friend at that age into reading a book by promoting the emotional side of the story.I think a girl would have reported it in the opposite manner when suggesting and describing a similar book to her friends.

  2. I wouldn’t say boys aren’t interested in romance/emotion, it’s that it’s not socially okay for them to be interested in it. Young boys, like most young people, boy or girl, are confused emotional train wrecks. They shrug things off because it’s the only cool response they can give, but boys want to make a human connection as much as anyone–and it’s all the more harder because they “can’t” talk about it. Engaging boys on that level makes for a harder book to write because it can’t just be a swooning romance. It has to be more real, and yet it has to be something they wouldn’t be embarrassed to be seen with. Very hard to write. Might be part of the reason there aren’t that many books like that out there.

  3. I agree in general, but I think boys are much more interested in romance than they appear. Of course they’re going to give a disinterested shrug when you ask about girls. What are they going to do, start spewing sonnets? Talk about shining eyes and racing hearts? That would be “gay” (no homophobia intended; but we live in a homophobic culture).

    However, a teenage boy’s concept of romance is probably significantly different from a girl’s. Girls like pining and sweet moments and grand gestures. Boys roll their eyes through Pride and Prejudice and say, “Why don’t they just f*** already?” They want companionship, not melodrama. They want Princess Eilonwy to help Taran on his adventures. They want Princess Leia to be an active fighter in the rebellion. Girls will accept purely decorative hotties because the emotional rollercoaster is the real story, but boys want their love interests to have substance. They can drool over boobs in real life or the Internet; books are about /character/.

  4. Thanks Lauren for a comprehensive post. I read it with interest trying to relate it to my YA fiction. No dystopia or vampires in mine, but there is a dragon humanoid. There is romance but it’s not the main theme. Ultimately it’s a story of advenure that should appeal to both boys and girls. It’s weak on the boy exploring his identity as a teenager to become a man. From all the books that you listed, I only read “the hunger games” and now folowing your posts going to read “the giver.” I guess a story focusing on adventure should appeal to boys and girls. Your latest post is worth reading a few times to understand what should be in a book appealing to boy.

  5. In my experience, what teenage boys really want is adventurous stories. In my day, it was comic books and Star Wars novels. Today, shonen manga has more or less taken over. Play to the need for excitement.

  6. Hmmm…I’m a male middle school English teacher…are the boys drooling all over my desks? I better be on the lookout for that behavior! Actually, Lauren, this post totally hits on what I’ve been thinking and conveying to my 8th grade boys for the past few years! This year we are reading The Last Book in the Universe by Philbrick, Everlost by Shusterman, The Maze Runner by Dashner, and Lockdown Escape from Furnace One by A. Gordon Smith. ALL of these books, in my humble opinion, appeal to BOYS and GIRLS. At least they have in MY classes, but they are getting harder and harder to find! That is exactly why I steered away from vampires/dystopian with my novel, and I look forward to hearing your appraisal. Guys want know how they fit into this crazy world. What’s my purpose? Thanks for one of the BEST posts I’ve read in a long while!

  7. Amazing post. I am the mother of three teenage-ish boys. They are smart, articulate and given the right material, they have A LOT to say about characters, plots, and decisions that characters make. We have an amazing male, middle school English teacher who loves science fiction, Ray Bradbury and hard core topics. The boys drool in his class (girls too I think). Good writing about compelling characters who have to make interesting decisions in novel settings are what get my boys to turn the pages. I wish I could clone this middle school teacher. Why are they only interested in cloning sheep? Thanks!

  8. Yay- second comment. With writing, I think it’s best to be comfortable in your fictional environment. Holes is a great example because Louis Sachar has fun with the story that has Jim Crow racism, rattlesnake venom, and the scariest prison warden ever, and we the reader have fun with it as well.
    If you have fun with the excitement in your YA book, regardless of the target audience, you’ll probably avoid stereotypes that prevent your readers from having fun. Tamora Pierce was able to pitch her Immortals quartet to an elementary school kid successfully even though it had a female protagonist. If Tamora can do it . . .

  9. Great Post. I’m working on YA thriller with a male protagonist – first person, present. I’ll be querying you as soon as it’s done. There isn’t a vampire in sight – but danger, danger at every turn. ; ) –

    Your posts are awesome, Lauren! Thanks!

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