Google+ Reading Teen: Teen Read Week: About Books for Boys... guest post by Lia Keyes

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Teen Read Week: About Books for Boys... guest post by Lia Keyes

I recently read an article by the amazing Lia Keyes and I asked her if I could share it with our followers here at Reading Teen during Teen Reads Week. Read this great article and I have bold-faced my favorite line near the end. Enjoy!

And Another Thing… (about books for boys)

Posted By Lia Keyes from The Scribbler on July 20, 2010 @ 12:00 pm In Opinion

Look at old editions of Treasure Island, Kidnapped, or any number of books from earlier eras and the cover illustrations make it clear from the outset that they don’t pander to girls at all. They are boldly, unabashedly male.
Lia Keyes
Yet today, the rightful heir to Jim Hawkins is nowhere to be found. The quest for masculinity has become un-PC and our boys are confused.
My friend and intellectual soul-mate, editorial assistant Jae-Jae Jones, has addressed this subject from a publishing standpoint on her blog, Uncreated Conscience [1], and quotes Scholastic editor Arthur Levine as saying, “I don’t believe there are ‘boy books’ or ‘girl books’. I believe there are simply good books.”
As much as I admire Arthur’s ability to spot a good story, he’s wrong. There are boy books. There have always been boy books. Until recently.
When Robert Louis Stevenson drew a map to amuse his stepson in the winter of 1881, he began to write chapters to go with the map, writing at the rate of a chapter a day. He wasn’t writing with a broad audience in mind. He was writing for his stepson.
What’s more, Wikipedia’s page on Treasure Island [2] states that Stevenson’s stepson “insisted there be no women in the story, which was largely held to with the exception of Jim Hawkins’ mother at the beginning of the book.”
Here’s an excerpt from the introduction to my 1924 edition of the book: “It was, of course, for his stepson that he wrote, and the test of the story’s value was whether it was interesting to the boy. But as the author read each night the chapter he had written that day, he aroused the interest of other members of the family. Stevenson’s elderly father listened as carefully as the small boy for whom the story was written.”
Stevenson didn’t set out to tread neutral gender waters, and he didn’t set out to write for all tastes. He set out to write a story that would enchant a BOY. It just turned out that the rest of the world recognized it as a great adventure yarn and coming-of-age story in its own right. But the coming-of-age journey in this story is male and was always intended to be that, first and foremost, from the story’s conception.
It’s interesting to note that early covers only feature men on the cover. Even the point-of-view character, the teenage Jim Hawkins, is absent from the cover.
If bookstores and libraries ever evolve and create an area in the bookstore where boys can feel comfortable browsing for books they’d better not use the word ‘boy’ in any of their signage. Because boys aren’t aspiring to be boys. They’re aspiring to be men.
What’s sad is that so many grown women are almost exclusively reading books geared towards teenage girls.
Here’s another thought for the day… I wonder what proportion of the publishing industry’s gatekeepers were female in Stevenson’s day, and how that statistic compares with the female monopoly of the YA publishing industry today?

Thank you so very much Lia for the use of this article. You have many great thoughts on this topic.

In honor of Teen Read Week
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  1. ‎"Guys read" is a website for middle grade boy fiction.. I like your article Lia, I agree they should have a boy section.. H.I.V.E. by Mark Walden.. It hits every kind of kid. They have a character for every type. Each one has a special talent.. Kinda like "Ocean 11...the movie"... There is also "Holes Books" and "Hatchet Books" and Percy Jackson a Mythology...
    .. I went to a boy book workshop and they talked alot about different genres for different boys like.. Fantasy= shy = escape. Or a nerdy protagonist with a very much needed quality which allows for his acceptance.... Hatchet book is for boys who are going through touchy things.. or maybe..Harry Potter Smiles or Boontz, the kid who is a lawyer? smiles

  2. Great post, Lia. I'm convinced that all this feminisation of books, education etc is one of the major reasons why so many boys are flocking to sports and video games - for teens, those are about the only interest areas still dominated by men. Don't you wonder if in our efforts to achieve gender equality we lost the plot a bit. We seem to have excluded the Y chromosome totally from adolescent lives but boy does it still dominate the higher reaches of business!

  3. Love your post, Lia!
    In the Netherlands a major part of the children's books publishing industry is female. That shouldn't make a difference and it doesn't. They published my books - The Sun Spirit, The Soul Snatcher - anyway and they are definitely written for boys.
    But then they had to be sold...
    A 'boys section' in bookstores and libraries would have helped, as would a campaign aimed at boys. But that's the point when economics enter the equation. In short: stockholders and profits. With all the research results out there claiming that boys don't read (anymore), it is really hard for a publisher to convince the sales department in spending money on a cause that might not yield profits. From a business' point of view understandable, from a boy's point of view: a huge, huge loss!

  4. Absolutely. I think there is nothing wrong with having books being unabashedly for boys and books being unabashedly for girls. We are what we are.

  5. Loved the post, Lia. I feel there are certain books which cater to the boys and certain books predominantly for the girls. I feel boys like Artemis Fowl and Percy Jackson, while girls wing towards Princess Diaries, Twilight Series and other girlie books. Boys prefer action and girls romance. :)

    I agree with Dawn that there is nothing wrong with having books being unabashedly for boys and books being unabashedly for girls.

  6. I agree with this. A good comment. I have a son, so I know it's true. I think the old thing of "slugs and snails and puppy dogs tails" has never gone out of fashion. It's innate. Boys smell and like fighting and are pretty derisory about girls until they hit pre-puberty and that's OK. It should be reflected in literature but I think, mindful of subconscious influences, it's always good to depict positive relationships between boys and strong female characters, like a mother or sister. Even if it's just one instance. As a mother, I support gentle brainwashing!

  7. Sytiva, lots of great suggestions, but there really aren't many books of that caliber for teenage boys, and that's what I'm most worried about. The Lord Loss books are pretty popular, and Terry Pratchett's Discworld series.. but not enough is being published to sustain interest as middle-graders become teenagers. It's very sad.

  8. Jeannette, what interesting points you've made here! As the mother of a college-age son, I remember all too well the way he bridled at yet another woman in authority over him at school/library/home and how it made him determined to seek out the company of men at every opportunity. It's as though they feel their masculinity is under siege.

    Yet mothers, librarians, teachers and women at large sigh over the dark and brooding alpha male love interest in the teen books they devour!

  9. Mina, you're right, of course. The bottom line is "will this sell?"

    But with publishers allotting less money to marketing books because of the uncertainty in the industry and the recession in the world at large, writers are having to find inventive ways to get the word out about books themselves. It's no different for books written for boys. But it's harder to reach boys. They are less communicative and 'social' than girls. They communicate physically, through sports and video games.

    Maybe in the digital era, with more interactive features in e-books, we can lure boys back to reading!

  10. Dawn, I guess what I'm saying is that in an ideal world there should be all kinds of books, not just one or two. There's a place for books that share both boy and girl appeal. There's a place for books that are slanted slightly one way more than the other. There's a place for books in which the protagonist isn't particularly girly, and without being gay or tomboys. There's a place for books with protagonists of alternative sexual orientation. And books for tomboys. And all of those are lauded. I just wish there was more variety for boys, too. Both girls and boys in their teens need to vicariously explore the world they're about to inherit.

  11. Rachna, yes, there are definite differences, and boys are so much more kinetically wired. :)

  12. Marnie, I love your comment that even books that are unabashedly for boys should also provide positive female characters for the protagonist to interact with.

    It's a pity that young men have largely abandoned fields where women now have the majority (teaching/publishing, for example). Our schools are poorer for the lack of an equal ratio of female to male teachers.

    And with single parent families on the rise, it's becoming increasingly hard for boys to find male role models to guide them by example.

  13. Hi Lia, great commentary on this subject. I taught English in a small school for at-risk teens for 15 years. 95% of my students were male, they were also mostly reluctant and struggling readers so it was a pretty specialized population. Introducing books to them that they would connect with was one of my goals as a teacher. Anyway, when I write, even though I hope my stories will connect with a large audience, I do write with a male teen audience in mind.

  14. Great post. I do think boys are more into adventure than relationship. Have you heard of "Bloody Jack?" It's about a young girl who pretends to be a boy and stows away on a sailing ship. I wonder who's reading it.
    You have a way with words, Madame!


  15. It's an interesting point, but as a teenage girl, I think it's unfair to say there are 'boy books' and 'girl books', in the same way I dislike the concepts of 'girl colours' and 'boy colours'. Personally, I think it's sexist (no offence intended) and whilst boys are more interested in action (in general) and girls in romance, the ideal book appeals to both. I dislike things such as 'Twilight' and I grew up reading 'The Belgariad', 'The Mallorean', 'A Wizard of Earthsea' and various other male-centric coming-of-age novels with slight/overtones of romance. I believe a truly good book should reflect life - an adventure, primarily about oneself, but with additions of romance, friendships and familial ties that make it whole. This is why books such as Harry Potter are such a success: because they're not boy books or girl books despite having both a male lead and a coming of age style and romance. Personally, I don't think there should be more of a market for boy books, I think there should be more of a market for books (like Harry Potter) that have both and appeal to both because they tell a story about life, however fantastical or adventurous.

  16. Paul, thank you for all you've already done for our future by being a teacher! That you taught reluctant and at risk teens makes you even more of a hero in my eyes. I wish you all the best with getting your books out there!

  17. Lili, I was so delighted by your comment because you sound so much like me! I loved stories where girls stowed away, dressed as a boy, in order to subvert societal expectations and be free to have adventures! I also loved epic hero's journey-style fantasy like 'The Belgariad', 'The Mallorean', and 'A Wizard of Earthsea' but all those were written some time ago and the nearest thing written in recent years was written by... a teenage boy: Eragon by Christopher Paolini.

    But your next point is the one I love the most. It bears repeating, so here it is...

    "I believe a truly good book should reflect life - an adventure, primarily about oneself, but with additions of romance, friendships and familial ties that make it whole."

    And I couldn't agree more! Whether books are written with a male or female protagonist (a factor which seems to act like an on/off switch for whether boys will read a book), they should ALL encompass the well-articulated and balanced worldview you've expressed here.

    But I must make a plea for variety in literature available for teens. Some girls really just want to escape into a world of dresses, balls and romance for a while. A world that boys have no interest in reading about. And why shouldn't girls have that opportunity? It doesn't define them, unless that's ALL they read!

    The same goes for boys. Sometimes they yearn for a totally immersive exploration of masculinity, and that's okay, so long as they read other things as well.

    I'm a HUGE fan of Harry Potter, and I think your reasoning on why it has such broad appeal is bang on (not forgetting the delightful and inventive world-building, of course).

    What I love about Harry Potter as well is that it's a book that reflects the ups and downs of life so well. It doesn't play one emotional note over and over, but has us laughing uproariously one minute and shivering with horror the next. It's a book that makes us wish the main characters were personal friends of ours in real life. And it's a book that admits that adults don't have all the answers for teens, even if they mean well.

    It started as a middle-grade story and moved into young adult territory as the series progressed. Not many other series have done that, if any. Can you think of another series where that happens?

    And in the current sea of frankly feminine YA fiction, what can older teenage boys read, without having to go forth into the more jaded worldview of adult literature?

    The very thing that defines young adult fiction is the thing that teenage boys need most. Hope.

    Perhaps that's why Steampunk has emerged as such a strong emerging genre. It's anachronistic, inherently rebellious societies subvert all norms. Girls can be engineers (Firefly), have adventures of the ilk of Boys Own adventures of yore and still wear a frilly frock in time for the ball!

    I hope you'll friend me on Facebook, Lili, because you're a girl after my own heart and when my book comes out, know that I wrote it with you on my mind.

  18. ps. Now you know why I write novels instead of short stories...

  19. Great post Lia! Thanks for sharing this. My story has mostly female protagonists, but has been well received by boys as well because of the adventure elements (I believe anyway). Kids should get to be kids and not have to force themselves into specific gender models at an early age. Some do if they are comfortable with it, but those that hold out are often ridiculed by their peers which is a sad thing.

  20. Oh, Alan. So many sad stories recently about where that leads. Breaks my heart. I may be advocating for more books for boys here, but that doesn't mean gender stereotyping. It just means more late teen perspectives from boy characters of all kinds.

    Adventure stories and humor, too, are much appreciated by boys. Many of them adore Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels. :)

  21. Great article Lia! There definitely needs to be a modern Robert Louis Stevenson. There needs to be more adventure stories of treasure maps and secret islands and swashbuckling pirates and rogue sailors...too many boys nowadays are drawn to video games and computer games because there are not enough adventure stories out there for them....Adventure needs to be put back into YA literature...

  22. Oh, YES, Kim! I'd love to read a rollicking great adventure for YA boys! Off you go and write one, there's a dear. I'm trying, but it's harder than it looks!

    There are some updates that need to happen for the current market, I feel. What do you all think they might be?

  23. Lia, thanks so much for this post! I think it's "spot on"! And I love the fact that you're unapologetic about the need for more YA books geared toward guys! I agree! I have an eight year old boy right now, and there are so many fantastic books for him, but I can't help but wonder what he's going to want to read when he gets into his teenage years. I think that Steampunk may be the beginning of something great! I know Leviathan is a fantastic YA that might be geared toward guys. When I've asked all my guy friends what YA book they would recommend, they have all said Leviathan. But, it's sad that there aren't many more that can be named. I hope that this changes soon, for my son, and for all guys looking for something that interests them.

    Thanks again!

  24. I'm delighted you said that, Andye, as I'm working on a Steampunk novel!

  25. I was just trying to think of more books that might have been written with teen guys in mind, and I was wondering about White Cat by Holly Black.

  26. Will Grayson, Will Grayson? Lord Loss series?

  27. There's a list on Good Reads here:

    Vote for your favorites if they're not already there.

  28. Lia,
    As a mother of 2 sons and 7 (yes) grandsons, I know you're right. My grandsons are active in sports and love video games but they all read and loved the Harry Potter books. Their mothers and fathers are readers, they've been regular visitors at the library since they were toddlers which is important too. I have a 7 year old grandson who is devouring the "Diary of a Wimpy Kid" series and they make him laugh out loud. I hope he continues to find books which delight him.
    Mary Jo Hazard

  29. Books exist in a context, informed by history, the writer's society, and what other writers have created. I think authors like Stevenson wrote romantic adventures that can be enjoyed by both boys and girls. That his books were less read then by girls was a function of his world, which didn't encourage women to think much outside the home. As far as today's fiction, I don't know much about YA. But it seems to me that the harder we try to create categories, the more we stifle young minds.

  30. Mary Jo, I hope your grandson continues to find books that delight him, too, but the statistics are against that happening once he hits fourteen (if you're even that lucky). Other things (sports, video games, girls) take priority. That's why books for boys have to be particularly high-octane, either in the ideas they express, the action, or the conflict, to keep them riveted.

  31. I couldn't agree with you more, Larry! I hate categories, but I understand why parents and librarians feel they need them.

    I grew up in London, where my school (think Hogwarts) from the age of 12-18 had not one but two libraries. One had more research and non-fiction books, and the other was filled with fiction, but had no dustjackets. The books were in alphabetical order but weren't arranged in categories. So reading was like trying to find the right boyfriend in the dark. I only had the title and the first few pages to go on. I had very little idea what I'd end up with.

    As a result, I read The Agony and the Ecstasy by Irving Stone (a biographical novel about Michelangelo) at the age of fifteen and was blown away. I traveled widely in the landscape of the mind in a way that just wouldn't have happened if the books had been categorized, labeled, arranged and sanitized. And the literary advantage it gave me was profound.

    I urge readers to be open. Read the title, think about what it might mean, read the first few pages and see what promise the author is making you about what kind of story will unfold if you read on, and make your own mind up about whether it's for you or not.

    It is right to protect pre-teens from unfettered access to ideas they may not be ready for yet, but teenagers are practicing for life, and books that help them experiment vicariously, coupled with parents willing to guide discussion of questions that may arise, forms a perfect storm that enables a lifetime of intellectual power.

  32. Many thanks to Reading Teen for letting me sound off on one of my favorite subjects! And thanks also to all the passionate readers who responded with such great comments. It was a real pleasure to hear your thoughts.

  33. I'm delighted to be able to share the good news that Barnes and Noble has rearranged its teen section to separate the two most popular genres—paranormal romance and fantasy/adventure—from teen fiction. Their reasoning is that it will "enable teens to easily filter out books they're not interested in and go straight to the genre they're looking for." To read the announcement in full:

    Happy browsing! :)

  34. Regarding the female monopoly of the YA publishing industry today (and all publishing): I think this "pink collar ghetto" will persist as long as publishing is a low-pay, long-hours career, as are the other fields dominated by women like teaching and nursing.

    I feel the pain of these boys who have to read books about girls or not read at all, because around 95% of all books I was ever assigned in school were about boys &/or by men & it bugged me. But I guess if I were working in a shrinking industry like publishing, I might also end up lavishing more of my attention on the demographic that reads more and buys more books.

  35. Wow! This post and follow comments said exactly what needed to be said about boys and books. I have four boys, so book hunting is a major league sport for us. My oldest is 13 - what will I if Rick Riordan ever runs out of material? Thanks for bringing the "meat and potatoes" to the literary dining room!

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