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Teenage Wasteland?

Posted on Thu, Dec 20 2012 9:00 am by Kurtis Scaletta

Flickr CC: montereypubliclibrary

A writer recently emailed me with questions about the state of reading world for boys, asking if the landscape was “a wasteland,” and why writers aren’t flocking to that market.  

Let me start with a quick disclaimer: books do not line up on opposite sides of the gym like sixth graders at their first dance. There are plenty of great books with girl heroes that boys will love (see this terrific list for suggestions), and vice versa. I don’t really like the boy book/girl book false dichotomy. At the same time, I think it’s realistic to say, for example, that Jimmy the Jeep and the Dangerous Jump, will be read by more boys than Princess Mermaid and the Sea Unicorn. Some books skew to a boy audience, and those are the books I’m talking about.

I don’t think the kid lit world is a wasteland for pre-teen boys at all. In fact, we’re seeing a boon for boy-friendly books. There are new transitional chapter book series to hold their own against the Judy Moodys and Junie B. Joneses of the world, such as Jennifer Holm’s Squish, which is about a school-aged amoeba, and Megan Macdonald’s Stink. Meanwhile, the bestseller list for youth books actually skews to the boy hero, thanks to Rick Riordian (of Percy Jackson fame) and Jeff Kinney (The Wimpy Kid guy). Number 7 on that list is R.J. Palacio’s Wonder, proving that even serious, realistic books about boys can compete with the action-packed series and comic high jinks. Also, there are high-profile imprints that clearly have made the boy market part of their strategy, particularly Macmillan’s Feiwel & Friends, HarperCollins’ Walden Pond Press, and Abrams Amulet. I think it’s a great time to be writing for a pre-teen boy audience.

Things might look more like a wasteland as you move on to the Young Adult (YA) book world. At a glance, it seems like the books are exclusively about skinny white girls with long flowing hair. If you delve deeper, you will find other demographics—boys, teens of color, GLBTQ youth, girls who aren’t standing in front of a leaf blower—but the pickings are slim. You can also follow blogs that review contemporary/realistic titles (see Guys Lit Wire) and order the ones you want from your local independent bookstore. But it’s unarguable that the books that have the most visibility and the highest publication numbers are the girls-with-flowing-hair books, and (moreover) that boys looking for something to read might find the YA section off-putting and head to the fantasy/sci-fi section instead. I’m sure there are some great books hiding behind those cookie-cutter covers, but a teen-aged boy is unlikely to find out.

Second, why aren’t writers flocking to the market? Is there less competition when you submit a manuscript with a boy protagonist? Is the demand/supply ratio a bit better in the writer’s favor? I get the reasoning, but I don’t know the numbers. I checked with somebody closer to the scene in New York, a literary agent who specializes in middle grade (ages 9-12) and young adult (ages 13-17) titles. She confirms that manuscripts with boy heroes are selling fine for middle grade readers, but also says “guy YA can be really difficult to sell,” despite the success of series like The Maze Runner. She also confirms that the slush pile for YA manuscripts mostly feature female protagonists, due to the high visibility of such books.

I suspect there’s a kind of negative snowball here: boys don’t read YA because there are no books for boys (or it seems like there aren’t), and publishers don’t publish as many titles because boys don’t buy YA books, which means fewer writers invest their time in boy-centric projects, which means there are fewer stand-out manuscripts, which means fewer get published, which means there are fewer boys in the YA section… you get the drift.

What does that mean for a writer?  It means (a) if you’re writing for younger boys, you should feel optimistic, and (b) if you’re writing for teen-aged boys, your manuscript might stand out in the slush pile but it also might be harder to “place,” so (at best) it’s a wash. So, don’t “flock” to the market, but if you have a great premise, the ability to create relatable, realistic teen-aged boy characters, and a burning desire to write a book, write it. We need more books like that, and we need to get the snowball rolling the other way.

Kurtis Scaletta is the author of four middle-grade novels published by Knopf Books for Young Readers including The Tanglewood Terror, winner of the 2012 Readers’ Choice Award at the Minnesota Book Awards, and The Winter of the Robots, which will be published in October of 2013. He is also the author of the six-book Topps League chapter book series published by Abrams Amulet.  If you’re interested in this topic, you might want to sign up for his online class, Beyond Farts and Firetrucks: Writing Books for and About Boys, which starts on January 28, 2013.