Very soon after I decided that I wanted to be a YA writer, I learned the following “truth:” that girls will read novels with both male and female protagonists, but boys will only read novels with male protagonists. So if you want the widest crossover, you write a boy protagonist, and if you write a girl protagonist, that means you’re mostly writing for a female audience.
Then I heard the oft repeated story about how J.K. Rowling decided to use her initials as her author name so that the readers would not know she was a woman. And I heard about how YA was dominated by women writers, sometimes as though this were a bad thing.
Then I heard a couple of male writers who I respect talking about the problem of there not being enough boy books in YA. Later on, I heard about what a problem it was that there were too many female protagonists and “girl books” in modern YA.
Shall I define “boy book” for you? A boy book probably has a male protagonist. It features action and adventure and is quick paced. It probably doesn’t have much if any romance. The language and structure might also be more straightforward and simple, since one of the main reasons having YA boy books is supposed to be important is to encourage reluctant boy readers to read.
A “girl book,” by contrast, probably has a female protagonist. It may have action and adventure and be quick paced. It almost certainly includes a romantic element. It might focus more heavily on social interactions and relationships in general, as well as issues of social status (because of course, men aren’t interested in status at all. Ha!). There might also be a stronger focus on emotions. The language and structure run the gambit between simple and complex.
I’m not going to mince words: these truths about boy readers, the YA genre, and boy and girl books are harmful and sometimes flat-out false. If boys won’t read books with girl protagonists, especially by the time they are teenagers, this is not a good reason to write and publish fewer books with girl protagonists. This is a red flag that something is wrong with the message our society is sending to these boys.
Often this argument gets lost in the rush to emphasize the importance of boys learning to read. It’s fine to perpetuate this “truth” of boys being unwilling to read anything not entirely male-centered, the unstated message goes, as long as we can wheedle them to read anything at all. And this is how sexist thinking gets passed on to the next generation.
Obviously boys learning to read is important. It’s important that everyone learn to read. And it’s also important that we throw away outdated and harmful ideas about gender and stop teaching boys that girls and anything related to girls are somehow shameful or uninteresting or embarrassing. THESE CAN BOTH BE IMPORTANT AT THE SAME TIME. Revolutionary idea, I know.
If YA did have such a predominance of female protagonists, I’d be happy, given all the messages female teens receive to the contrary, that there was at least one place where they could experience other females being front and center, having agency and their own individual identities. But it is not necessarily even true that YA has more female protagonists than male. According to this study, 49% of YA protagonists are male. 49%. And only 36% of YA protagonists are female. (15% have protagonists of both genders.)
You know what else isn’t true? That YA is dominated by women writers. The same study found that 56% of YA writers were women, which is hardly an overwhelming majority.
When we talk about female protagonists in YA books as if they’re somehow a bad thing, we’re strengthening harmful stereotypes. When we believe boys won’t read books with female protagonists, we’re sending them the message that they shouldn’t want to, or that there’s some kind of problem with reading these so-called “girl books.”
The Feminist Batwoman wrote a fabulous essay called “Boys Don’t Read Girl Books and Other Lies My Society Told Me.” She ran a successful experiment exposing her little brother to novels about girls as well as boys, and she has this to say about boys not reading books with girl protagonists: “My outlandish theory is that if boys aren’t belittled for reading books about girls, if they’re not taught that girls are lesser, if they’re not teased about cooties, if we don’t teach them to fear the feminine… they’d probably like more “girl” stuff.”
We need to stop talking about boy books and girl books as if this is some kind of important and valid distinction. We need to wake up and realize that 56% of YA writers being women does not mean that women dominate the genre. And we need to think long enough to realize that if girls are happily reading novels with protagonists of both genders, there’s no reason we can’t work towards encouraging boys to do the same. Plenty of boys already do.
For a long time I took these assumptions about YA and YA readers for granted. I’m guessing I’m not the only one. Therefore, if you think this is an important and interesting issue, I encourage you to share this essay or start a conversation with your friends and colleagues. Let’s challenge what everyone knows and find out what lies underneath, shall we?