Monday, April 12, 2010

No boys allowed?

I don’t know how the actual numbers shake out, but in my hazy memory of my childhood, there were not a lot of interesting books with female main characters. At least, not the kind I wanted to read. I found lots of coming-of-age stories and historical fiction and giggly romances and spunky but dull-witted girl detectives, but not a whole lot of the sword-swinging, spaceship-flying, world-saving stuff I’d come to love as I grew up in the shadow of two brothers. As I’ve said in earlier entries, my favorite memories of childhood reading involved mental cross-dressing because Tarzan, Frodo, Sherlock Holmes, Zorro, and the rest were just more interesting than their female guest stars.

So it really creeps the hell out of me that there’s apparently next to nothing out there now for boys to read.

For most of the twentieth century, teachers found girls more interested in reading than boys were, but the publishing industry tended to skew male. Male writers, editors, and publishers in the most popular genres chose books with male protagonists having manly adventures. Women got the romance section; girls got Nancy Drew; that was about it. Women would read books about men, but few men would read books about women, or so the conventional wisdom went.

But somewhere along the line, especially in children’s publishing, someone figured out that if girls read more, and more often voluntarily, than boys … well, then, girls were a better market, weren’t they? Add to that a sea change in the population of the publishing industry—including an influx of female editors—and the rise of chick lit and other female-centric trends in grown-up publishing, and you get what we see in bookstores today: an ocean of books with pink and foil covers, cute vampire boys, vicious gossip plots, and very little your average teen guy can be seen reading in public. Not helping at all is the fact that the rise of gay and lesbian YA fiction has accounted for a fair portion of the boy books still being published. Yes, I know, this segment of the population is long overdue for literary notice, but if the human population tends to assay out to no more than 12% gay on average (and I’ve seen no reliable higher numbers), that leaves 88% of teenage boys staring at bookstore shelves with the uncomfortable sensation that they’ve come to the wrong window.

I don’t blame the publishing industry for this—after all, if boys aren’t buying books, it makes little economic sense to be in the business of selling books for boys. But if they don’t buy books, and therefore nobody writes books for them, and therefore there’s nothing for them to buy, and therefore they don’t buy books and therefore nobody writes books for them … you see where I’m going with this? This trend has been a long time in coming, but it is now officially an ouroboros.

Even the boy books I loved as a kid aren’t doing as well as they might. Let’s face it, Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan novels, brilliant and exciting as they may be, are also flagrantly racist, their grasp of things like animal biology and behavior is appallingly bad, and all that makes teachers and librarians wary. I was a precocious kid, so the vocabulary in the Sherlock Holmes stories was no barrier to my eleven-year-old joy in discovering them—but now I teach high-school kids who can’t parse the great detective’s statements. Ditto Tolkien’s masterful language—too many syllables, and too many concepts that were easy and familiar to his original readers, but now almost require footnotes for young readers half a century and an ocean away.

There are some bright spots. Rick Riordan’s recent Percy Jackson and the Olympians series has drawn in several reluctant male readers of my acquaintance. There’s always the Harry Potter juggernaut. Heck, some guys read Twilight. And comic books and manga have moved out of the ghetto and into the libraries. But as anyone who’s raised or grown up with boys knows, there are boys who will hunt for things to read … and then there are boys who will stare at the shelf for a moment or two and then go play Grand Theft Auto. Category one will take care of itself, bookwise. Category two is rapidly coming to represent the average male voter. Do we really want our male citizens to give up voluntary reading by age ten?

As much as I enjoy writing Rae Masterson as a brave, intelligent, vulnerable heroine like I wished I had when I was roaming the children’s library, I also believe that my cherished ideas must periodically be tested if I’m going to keep them. I believe that there should be entertaining, well-written stories out there for both sexes, including girls who have real, live adventures. But if this is true and I believe that adventure fiction needs strong, interesting girls, then I must also remember that it needs strong, interesting boys. Preferably in the same book. This is a big part of why Masks is told from two points of view—one male, one female: because literary ghettoes do no one any favors. That’s why Rae and Trevor travel very different arcs, but each story has a heaping helping of both action and emotion. Both narratives see stuff blow up, and blood spilled, and at least one metaphorical pie in the face, and both characters laugh, mourn, and grow dramatically, albeit in dramatically different ways. And the two lives weave together in such a way that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Mind you, I didn’t set out to do this. I didn’t sit down one day and say, “Hmm, I want to write a story that’s as much for guys as it is for girls, and as much for girls as it is for guys.” Rae and Trevor were the two strongest characters in Masks when it was a serial, and they worked best when they shared a stage, and that was that. I followed the story where it led, and wrote down all the parts I personally liked, whether those parts were powerful explosions or tearful confessions. It wasn’t until months and years later, when I began finding out more about how books are marketed, that I realized I had written one book for two very different audiences. But I grew up reading everybody’s books, and soon pulled my female friends into boy books and my male friends into girl books, and they all read Masks. The distinction is not as sharp as we’d like to think. My last census of readers of the Masks serial showed a nearly even split between male and female, from a spunky junior-high-school girl who cornered me in a parking lot to an 80-year-old retired professor who sent me an email out of the blue and said he was interested in my concept.

I like my world that way. A culture where the two sexes never read the same books is almost as bad as one where only one sex reads. And I’ve found that putting strong male characters and strong female characters in the same story—egads—makes that story more interesting! It’s almost like we’re members of the same species or something!

Now I’d like to hear from the guys who lurk around this blog. I know you’re out there—40% of my Facebook fanbase identifies itself as male. What do you want to see in a book? What pulled you in when you were younger, and what keeps you coming back now? What do you want your brothers and sons to know is out there?

The early comic strip Little Lulu featured a precocious little girl who was constantly trying to get past the “No Girls Allowed” sign on the boys’ clubhouse. It would be a terrible shame for Lulu to finally make it in only to find herself alone.


  1. It's so important to draw attention to reading, and attract reluctant readers to it, especially boys. In fact, I've recently completed a feature magazine article on this subject that came out in October, "Help for Struggling, Reluctant Readers."

    I grew up as a reluctant reader, in spite of the fact that my father published over 70 books. Now I write action-adventures & mysteries, especially for tween boys, that avid boy readers and girls enjoy just as much.

    My blog, Books for Boys is dedicated to drawing attention to the importance of reading. And my new book, Lost Island Smugglers - first in the Sam Cooper Adventure Series - is coming out in July-August. Contracts are also signed for Captain Jack's Treasure and River Rampage.

    Keep up your good work.

    Max Elliot Anderson
    PS. My first 7 books are going to be republished by Comfort Publishing later in 2010

  2. "A book must be the ice-axe for the frozen sea inside our soul."
    -Franz Kafka
    Now couldn't agree?