Every once in a while, I come across something that’s so unique and interesting as to remind me that not every story has been told. There is still originality left to be discovered. This is why I love YA. Because it still embraces the fantastical, because its main characters are still innocent, but flawed enough for us to like them, because YA fantasy plots start small and then explode in fantastical and strange fits of whimsy and then loop back into themselves absorbing their own initially small plots to leave readers with a sparkle of enjoyment in their eyes.
I’m not a fan of plot summaries, as I think if you could really express the plot aptly, the author would have done so instead of writing the book, so I’ll spare you. But this book had levitating 80-year-old children caught in time warps, a big haunted-y house no one knows about anymore, a terrible secret danger you’d never be able to guess at and an endearing, scared kid who’s just like any other kid…except. All of this was set amongst real, collector’s photographs of peculiar children and strange, haunting scenes. This was unforgettable.
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.
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.