Fat Books & Thin Women

Male Characters in YA Lit; Or, Boys & Reading (3/3)

Tamora Pierce and Hannah Moskowitz both tackle in their previously mentioned blog posts (check out my earlier entries on young adult literature and on strong female characters if you’re new here) the question of Why Boys Don’t Read, and the accompanying question of why publishing houses aren’t printing for boys.

As a woman, and as, you know, a woman, rather than a young adult, I may not be qualified to tackle this question. But it’s an interesting one, and is inseparable from the earlier ones I asked about what young adult literature “should” look like and what sort of female characters we should be pushing girls to read. (If we should be pushing them to read particular books in the first place.) Amanda at Desert Book Chick did what I think was a great series, back in September, on boys and men and reading, why men aren’t reading, what sorts of reading we “count” as reading, and to what degree what men read ties back into what they read, or didn’t read, when they were boys.

It’s been a while since I’ve been in an English-language bookstore,[1] but Amanda’s description brings it back: “Take a walk into the local bookshop and check out the YA shelves. It’s hard to escape all those girly vampire, relationship and chick lit primers on the shelves.”

When I was younger, though, there were a lot of books for boys out there. Tamora Pierce does a fantastic list of some of the authors writing books aimed at boys: “Gary Paulsen, Walter Dean Myers, Terry Trueman, Chris Crutcher, Robert Parker, Will Hobbs, Roland Smith, Dave Conifer, Brent Hartinger, David Levithan, Ned Vizzini, Dave Lubar, Gordon Korman, Paul Fleischman, Joseph Bruchac, David Klass, Gary Soto.” This is a not insignificant number of authors who are writing stuff for boys; I remember reading a lot of their books when I was growing up because they were often more interesting than the offerings for girls at my local library.

The difference between these authors and the big name “vampire authors,” the reason why when we talk about boys and reading the issue of there not being material out there for boys always comes up, may simply be that these writers are in the midlist now, and are not being pushed the way the “girly vampire” books are.[2] Pierce writes, “Why do publishers appear to publish so many books for girls? Because girls buy books. That’s it, clear and simple. Guys don’t. They take books out of the library, or they borrow books from girls, but they don’t buy. Not like girls do.”

Is this true? If it is, why do guys tend to borrow rather than buy books? And again, is this true?

It’s necessary to think about the economic reasons that books for boys aren’t getting as much press as books for girls, but Hannah Moskowitz looks in other directions: namely, that books with realistic and multi-dimensional boys[3] aren’t being written, or aren’t being published. Moskowitz’s argument lies in the direction that there aren’t really good male characters being written because they’ve been crushed by the feminist spirit of new female leads, which I am not buying though her post makes for a good read.

If this is the case, then, might it just be part of a cycle we need to break? That boys, for one, don’t buy as many books as girls do; that publishers therefore have more interest in placing copies of the latest teen romance (or whatever) at the entrances of thousands of Barnes & Nobles; that authors thus have an economic interest in writing for girls; that boys find the numbers of new books geared at them are dwindling; and so it goes.

But now I have a couple of questions. For the guys reading this (god, I hope that one of my two readers is male), what did your reading look like as you were growing up? I know I read a lot of books that were geared towards boys, and so I still picture the young adult boys section of any bookstore as overflowing with adventure and detective stories. I am probably a little off here, but I cling to my fantasies.

And how do bookstores look different today, to a guy? Are there fewer books for boys? My last clear memory of a young adult section in an American bookstore is pretty jammed with covers either bedazzled or showing some suggestive vampire imagery: girl books. Or are there still good books being published for boys that simply aren’t receiving the shelf space that the books for girls are?

Do you think Moskowitz has something in her argument that there aren’t strong male characters being written in young adult, and that this is something limiting boys’ interest in reading the (supposedly nonexistent) books aimed at them? Or that strong male leads have been replaced by strong female leads?

And, a topic of abiding interest for me: why don’t boys read “girl books”? I get that there are some a 13-year-old boy wouldn’t want to read (there are a lot I wouldn’t want to read), but what is it about a book having a female main character that keeps boys from reading a book? Tamora Pierce writes that she has plenty of male readers in her fantastic lady knight universe, but I’m not sure I buy this. As she points out, though, her books are full of sword fights, war, adventure, monsters…why wouldn’t teenage boys be into this stuff?

The ultimate question when we’re discussing boys and reading may be why we are so concerned that boys aren’t reading fiction in the same volume as girls are. As Pierce notes, there are a lot of things besides novels that guys can be reading: “Magazines. Comics. (The ones they don’t read already.) Short stories. Audio books. High impact books–lots of action, short length. Nonfiction.” And as the Reading Ape notes in a guest post at Desert Book Chick, men tend to read more newspapers and blogs than do women; so despite all the hand wringing over why men aren’t reading, they are, but not always novels.

What’s the specificity of our focus on young adult novels for boys say about how we value different types of reading materials? If a boy is reading not novels but comic books or graphic novels or magazines or something on the internet, would you rate that as valuable reading, or is it only reading novels[4] that “counts” when we’re discussing the reading habits of teens? Do you think that the reading habits of teen boys has changed significantly since you were a teen, or is it just that we’re writing more articles about it now?


  1. Wednesday – YA Lit: What it is, and What it “Should” Be (1/3)
  2. Thursday – The Need for Strong Female Characters in YA Lit (2/3)

[1] However, it might not be that far off from what I see here. There are a few bookstores in Macedonia’s capital, Skopje, that I’ve been in, and they’ve all got Macedonian translations of Twilight front and center. (I may own one of these Macedonian translations of Twilight…) Not to go off-topic (I so rarely do), but think about it: there are translations of Twilight in Macedonian, a language with roughly two million speakers. Will it ever be stopped? Back to text

[2] Is this entry nothing more than a test to see how many times I can write “vampire” in one post? For that matter, is that what this whole series is? Back to text

[3] As my GRE-studying self would say, as through the mouth of E.M. Forster, “round characters.” Back to text

[4] Twilight. Back to text



Not so hard to understand. Boys are not word oriented. They are visual and action oriented. Much of the storytelling for boys is on film and television rather than in books. Some is not classified “YA” such as graphic novels.

For me it was all Tolkien and Lewis, Asimov, Bradbury and Heinline. My 3 sons have Potter, Eragon and Unfortunate Events, but mostly it is Caribbean Pirates, Marvel on the Big screen, Transformers. Instead of a book for Christmas, my sons would rather have tickets to the next Potter and Dawn Treader, or the complete Star Gate set or the next season of Doctor Who.

Thrillers end up in mysteries or the general fiction section. Science fiction and fantasy has its own section. And horror… well, lets just say boys think vampires should scare your socks off. The idea of sparkly vampire lovers is to laugh at.

The Fiction Side: The Storyteller http://mgkizzia.wordpress.com/
The Non-Fiction Side: Word & Spirit http://michaelkizzia.wordpress.com/

Comment by M G Kizzia

thanks for the comment. it’s interesting for me to hear it from a guy’s perspective – because inevitably anything i write about this is from the perspective of someone who IS hardwired for words more than visuals or action. and like you say, a lot of the books boys are interested in aren’t classified as YA…now that I think of it, a lot of guys I know grew up reading books shelved under science fiction. love your description of twilight, too.

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

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