Fat Books & Thin Women

YA Lit: What it is, and What it “Should” Be (1/3)

Months ago Tamora Pierce wrote a piece on her blog responding to those people who think that, far from there not being enough strong female characters in young adult books, there are too many. Before reading her post it had never occurred to me that people might think there aren’t enough young adult books written with male characters. Is this a sign that things have changed? When I was growing up I read Nancy Drew and The Babysitter’s Club, for sure, but my favorite books were by Bruce Coville and Roald Dahl, were from the Indian in the Cupboard series. They were, in short, books with largely male leads, and this wasn’t something that ever struck me or bothered me. That they were boys and I was a girl was a moot point, and frankly I never thought I couldn’t do anything in those books simply because I was female.[1]

Pierce wrote her post in response to a post by Hannah Moskowitz. The two are on different sides of the issue; Pierce writes books with female leads, and Moskowitz writes with male leads and argues that we need more young adult books that appeal to male readers. What I want to say on this can’t be said in one post; working as a teacher and building a library and thinking about the types of books that will appeal to my students, male and female, has had a way of putting everything I want to say about young adult literature on steroids.

So I’ll start with some questions, that grow out of my own life and my reading habits and where I’ve ended up as a result of them. In the next couple posts I do on this topic you’ll probably notice that my thoughts are confused and contradictory enough that few of the things I write here have any real impact on what I think about young adult literature today.

Like I said, I read a lot as a kid, and I never based my books on the gender of the narrator or main characters. Some of the books I loved had strong female characters, like Tamora Pierce’s Lioness Quartet, but that I connected with those books had more to do with the plotting than with the gender of the main characters. Because the gender of Pierce’s characters is often a central part of her books’ plotting, they couldn’t be male; but if they were, it would make no difference to me. Their femaleness in an already difficult to navigate world (full of puberty, becoming a knight, wars, school, and so on) is central to the books. If Alanna, of the Lioness Quartet, hadn’t been a girl, much of the drama in the book would have fizzled out – she would not have had as much to fight against and overcome as she did.

But the gender of the characters didn’t matter to me. I devoured Bruce Coville, and with the exception of his Nina Tanleven books (The Ghost in the Third Row, The Ghost Wore Gray, The Ghost in the Big Brass Bed) most of his characters were male. I didn’t care that the lead of Aliens Ate My Homework was a boy, Rod Albright. What mattered to me was that the characters were strong and believable.

This is in part what Hannah Moskowitz is arguing for: for “real” characters of either gender. She writes:

Stop writing this boy you’ve imagined in your head and write a real boy. Make him gross or sweet or angry or well-adjusted or affectionate or uncomfortable or confused or ambitious or overwhelmed or smitten or anxious or depressed or desperate or happy. Write a boy the same way everyone has been telling everyone, forever, to write a girl; free of gender stereotypes, three-dimensional, and relatable.

I don’t agree with how she arrives at this point; earlier in the piece she writes, “We’ve stripped boys of substance and we did it to empower girls.” But the end point, that we should have real characters in young adult fiction (come on, it should be in all fiction), is true. Nina Tanleven, Rod Albright, Alanna, pretty much every character from Harry Potter; they were real to me, and they are still real to me, because the authors put time into creating real people rather than boys and girls meant to showcase a specific quality.

This seems like a good and honest point on which to close. (You know now that I will keep writing for a while.) That maybe one reason kids aren’t reading young adult literature[2] is that they just don’t believe the characters, that political correctness and a desire to sanitize what kids are reading has stripped contemporary young adult books of all reality.

But then I have to come back to myself. I believe what I’m saying, that we need “real” characters, but I also look at the types of books that are being published for young adults and I shudder. I work with students who don’t, especially the girls, have the same opportunities that their counterparts in the States have, and when I get books for them into the library I want them to be books that show them what they can do with their lives. I want to have characters who act as examples of how to behave intelligently and ambitiously and with a sense of self. I want characters who show what is what, and what is right, and who will give these kids some kind of guide posts for their own futures. But when I look back on all these statements, and then back a little further to this idea that we have “real” characters, I’m not sure what I’m arguing for; are the characters that I want for my students “real” if I want these characters only for the possibilities they can show my students – not for their complexity as characters? And it is strange or wrong that what I now want out of young adult literature, characters that will act as positive examples to my students, is so different than what I want out of adult literature, which is characters that probably are not examples of anything other than themselves?

Young adult literature aimed specifically at girls is inextricably tied up with these questions, because it’s mainly the girls I’m thinking of. But that does raise other questions, as Moskowitz notes, of the impact on reading materials for boys – and maybe impacts not just what they’re reading, but if they’re reading. Those posts are coming.


  1. Thursday – The Need for Strong Female Characters in YA Lit (2/3)
  2. Friday – Male Characters in YA Lit; Or, Boys & Reading (3/3)

[1] Though to get right to the point, I can’t do any of the things in those books. I will never discover a Golden Ticket or find myself owner of a chocolate factory; I will never open my medicine cabinet to discover that one of my toys has come to life; an alien spaceship will never crash land into one of my science projects. Just writing this makes me want to reread all these books. Back to text

[2] Keeping in mind that I am out of the country, with irregular access to US news and with no access to the young adult section of the Philadelphia Library. (Sigh.) Anything I say on this subject is necessarily done on the theory that the people I’m reading are somewhat correct at least in their statements regarding that there is some kind of problem in young adult literature. Back to text



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