And Another Thing… (about books for boys)

By Posted in - On Reading & On Writing on July 20th, 2010 21 Comments

Look at old editions of Treasure Island, Kidnapped, or any number of books from earlier eras and the cover illustrations make it clear from the outset that they don’t pander to girls at all. They are boldly, unabashedly male.

Yet today, the rightful heir to Jim Hawkins is nowhere to be found. The quest for masculinity has become un-PC and our boys are confused.

My friend and intellectual soul-mate, editorial assistant Jae-Jae Jones, has addressed this subject from a publishing standpoint on her blog, Uncreated Conscience, and quotes Scholastic editor Arthur Levine as saying, “I don’t believe there are ‘boy books’ or ‘girl books’. I believe there are simply good books.”

As much as I admire Arthur’s ability to spot a good story, he’s wrong. There are boy books. There have always been boy books. Until recently.

When Robert Louis Stevenson drew a map to amuse his stepson in the winter of 1881, he began to write chapters to go with the map, writing at the rate of a chapter a day. He wasn’t writing with a broad audience in mind. He was writing for his stepson.

What’s more, Wikipedia’s page on Treasure Island states that Stevenson’s stepson “insisted there be no women in the story, which was largely held to with the exception of Jim Hawkins’ mother at the beginning of the book.”

Here’s an excerpt from the introduction to my 1924 edition of the book: “It was, of course, for his stepson that he wrote, and the test of the story’s value was whether it was interesting to the boy. But as the author read each night the chapter he had written that day, he aroused the interest of other members of the family. Stevenson’s elderly father listened as carefully as the small boy for whom the story was written.”

Stevenson didn’t set out to tread neutral gender waters, and he didn’t set out to write for all tastes. He set out to write a story that would enchant a BOY. It just turned out that the rest of the world recognized it as a great adventure yarn and coming-of-age story in its own right. But the coming-of-age journey in this story is male and was always intended to be that, first and foremost, from the story’s conception.

It’s interesting to note that early covers only feature men on the cover. Even the point-of-view character, the teenage Jim Hawkins, is absent from the cover.

If bookstores and libraries ever evolve and create an area in the bookstore where boys can feel comfortable browsing for books they’d better not use the word ‘boy’ in any of their signage. Because boys aren’t aspiring to be boys. They’re aspiring to be men.

What’s sad is that so many grown women are almost exclusively reading books geared towards teenage girls.

Here’s another thought for the day… I wonder what proportion of the publishing industry’s gatekeepers were female in Stevenson’s day, and how that statistic compares with the female monopoly of the YA publishing industry today?

Update: This article was cross-posted to Reading for Teens Read Week and engendered a lot of fascinating further discussion in the comments. Take a look…

Further Reading:

The illustration for this post are from my childhood copy of Treasure Island, illustrated by Frank Godwin, published 1924.

(21) awesome folk have had something to say...

  • JJ - Reply

    July 20, 2010 at 4:50 am

    "Intellectual soulmate", I like it. 🙂

    I would hesitate to use Robert Louis Stevenson as an example of writing a "boy book", simply because the reading climate then is different than the reading climate now. (Less women read. Period. So there was no need to market to women. That environment has completely changed now.) Now, I also believe there are "boy books" (because, after all, if there are "girl books", surely there should be the opposite). Back in the day, there used to be "boys own adventure stories", but the medium for these pulp novels has shifted from books to graphic novels. I think movies have also replaced books for many boys. (Think of how many movies are targeted precisely for the teenaged boy market of 13-18 that books avoid.)

    Boys take in information visually, hence why I think it's easier for them to turn to comic books and movies. Girls take in information via emotions, which is easier to read about than watch. When placed against competition like movies and comic books, text-based novels are a harder sell for boys, I think, unless a book sounds so awesome they can't help but buy it. (I'm thinking of my 14-year-old brother as I write this, of course.)

    Which is why I advocate Arthur Levine. A great book will sell itself. Boys will find it, through word of mouth at least. We just have to publish more great books for them to find. (Not to be pejorative, but TWILIGHT ain't it.)

  • Lia Keyes - Reply

    July 20, 2010 at 4:59 am

    JJ, I think you've hit on a strong point when you mention how visual boys are, but I think it goes even further than that. Boys are do-ers first, and thinkers second. They prefer to learn by doing, by experiencing, rather than being told. That's why they love video games even more than movies in ever-increasing numbers. They can interact with a video game; and video games, more than books, have remained faithful to the boy's adventure story of old.

    I must, unfortunately, disagree with you about there being no market for girl books or books for women at the time Robert Louis Stevenson was writing. Women were HUGE consumers of novels, but often criticized for their choice of reading material, to the extent that Jane Austen herself parodied them in Northanger Abbey, published in 1818. Treasure Island wasn't published until 1883.

    Treasure Island is therefore no less relevant now as an example of what makes a book 'male' than it was when first published.

    The point is that even back then, women and girls were drawn to different material than boys and men.

  • JJ - Reply

    July 20, 2010 at 5:10 am

    (I always thought it was telling that when it came to sexual titillation, boys went and bought skin mags–visual–while girls blushed over their mothers' romance novels–verbal. :-))

    I think it comes down to utility a lot. Boys are results driven, girls as process-minded. My friend and I were talking the other day about why not many girls like sports but love competitive reality TV. (I'm not a huge fan of either, to tell the truth–the only exception being soccer. I love soccer.) Boys like to the know the outcome, the score. Girls could care less. Where's the drama? The interplay between characters?

  • Lia Keyes - Reply

    July 20, 2010 at 5:29 am

    Another good point! Books used to have illustrations inside the book, not just on the cover. I remember putting back the books that didn't have any.

    But boys enjoy the drama and interplay between characters, too. Look at how they follow their favorite soccer stars, learning all the facts of their careers. The drama and interplay of characters exists for boys, too, but played out in action, on the soccer field, not in words.

  • Nancy Laughlin - Reply

    July 20, 2010 at 5:58 am

    What excellent points, Lia. I hadn't realized that coming of age books were always intended as male, but when I think of the ones I've read, you're right. Almost all the protagonists were boys.

    It's too bad that the publishing industry is looking for such gender neutral stories. TV doesn't do that, nor do movies or computer games. They recognize what the publishing industry is refusing to. Males and females have different interests. In the end, they'll create a generation of men who don't read.

  • Lia Keyes - Reply

    July 20, 2010 at 6:46 am

    I didn't intend to imply that coming-of-age stories are exclusively male, though they often do seem to have male protagonists. But let's look at what coming-of-age stories are—they are basically a journey of discovery, of how to become an adult. Until men and women are the same in every way, the male coming-of-age story will be different than the female coming-of-age story because the aspirations are different.

    The heavily romance-weighted YA section of bookstores and libraries is teaching girls to aspire to distressingly old-fashioned gender roles focused on finding a dreamy man for self-fulfillment.

    In this sense I think the publishing industry has actually gone backwards, because I remember reading books about girls heading out into the workplace as rookie journalists and all sorts of other internship-type jobs during their summer vacations. Where are those books now? They've vanished.

    In many ways, I'm as worried about the women we're encouraging our girls to become as I am about the slump in the number of boys who read. And there is a slump—one with repercussions at university level, where the girls are leaving boys in the dust academically. I can almost hear the whoop of joy from female readers in response to that last sentence, but those academically gifted girls are still aspiring to romance with a boy, but boys are becoming defensive and bitter. We need to help both genders in order for society to enjoy the benefits of a mature and balanced society.

  • claudine - Reply

    July 20, 2010 at 7:33 am

    Great post, Lia. I know this was not the main point of your post, but your comment about "finding a dreamy man for fulfillment made me think of this great title "Men are Just Desserts"


  • Leigh Moore - Reply

    July 20, 2010 at 7:36 am

    Hi, Lia!

    Great post! Just tossing in my two cents–I wonder if the lack of "boy books" could be the result of not as many men writing to the male teen audience-? I don't know. Or perhaps society has changed to the extent that men and boys don't really share the same interest in books now… hmmm…. no, that feels half-baked.

    I can say my husband would argue that there isn't any good fiction for *men* these days either, and he's a voracious reader…

    I don't know. In my YA writing, I try to always have a strong female protagonist. Romance might be part of the story, but strong characters trump all~

    Great points here.~ :o)

  • Lia Keyes - Reply

    July 20, 2010 at 9:05 am

    Yummy title, Claudine! What kind of story would that herald, I wonder?

  • Rachna Chhabria - Reply

    July 20, 2010 at 1:40 pm

    Hi Lia, wonderful post as always! Love the idea of an intellectual soul mate. Haven't yet found one.

    “I don’t believe there are ‘boy books’ or ‘girl books’. I believe there are simply good books.” I beg to differ. I believe that certain books cater to the boys and some books fall into the for girls only category. There are very few books that fall into the middle territory that both boys and girls can read and enjoy.
    These would be the books that would have an equal number of both boy and girl protagonists to hold the interest of both the sexes. And I feel boys are reading less and less, unlike girls, as boys are more action oriented and prefer games than books.

  • Emily Goodman - Reply

    July 20, 2010 at 6:32 pm

    I think the old truism is still true: girls will read "boy" books, but boys will not read "girl" books. Do you think the Harry Potter books would have been the same publishing phenomenon if they'd been the Hermione Grainger books? I don't. I think JKR got boys interested because her book was about a boy, and girls interested because girls are willing to read about boys. So she snagged a double audience.

    I remember loving Treasure Island as a kid even though there were no girls in it. And it's not alone: there are many great books/movies with no female characters at all (Moby-Dick, Lawrence of Arabia . . .), reflecting the different spheres in which men and women operated. I still can enjoy reading/watching them; at least I don't rule them out just because there are no female characters. But I don't think males return the favor with either novels or "chick flicks."

  • Nancy Laughlin - Reply

    July 21, 2010 at 3:02 am

    I absolutely agree with you, Emily. That's very true in my family. My father will only read a book with a female lead if my mother or I assure him he will love it, but I doubt even that reassurance would work on one of my nephews. If it has a female lead, it's a girl's book.

  • Nancy Laughlin - Reply

    July 21, 2010 at 3:06 am

    I keep hearing how boys like games and movies more than books, and I can't help but wonder if that is true because those media cater to the boys. They create boy games and boy movies whereas the publishers aren't doing that anymore. I think it's a Catch 22.

  • Leigh Moore - Reply

    July 21, 2010 at 3:37 am

    guerilla comment girl again–I keep getting follow-up emails on this post, and I still think the issue goes back to the writers. I say this because I recently read about an agent looking specifically for "writers of boy books," which to me implies there aren't as many writers out there targeting this audience.

    I could be wrong, but I'm thinking of those Percy Jackson books now–aren't they popular? Diary of a Wimpy Kid? City of Ember?

    Looking back at my previous comment, I see that it could be misconstrued that I believe women can't write for boys, and lord knows I NEVER intended to imply that. Of course they can, but I think that's a small group of writers simply b/c writers tend to "write what they know."

    I see boys reading quite a bit. I see men reading. But no one or two writers can meet the demand–esp. not at the speed of publishing.

    I think it goes back to an "if you build it they will come" situation. I suspect there's a need for more authors writing what these readers want or giving them characters to whom they can relate (a'la RLS).

    for what it's worth~ ;p

  • JJ - Reply

    July 21, 2010 at 4:04 am

    @Leigh: PERCY JACKSON and DIARY OF A WIMPY KID are categorized as middle grade, not YA. For some reason, middle grade boy books do pretty well, but MG boy readers don't go into YA–they go straight to adult fiction.

  • Leigh Moore - Reply

    July 21, 2010 at 7:01 am

    @JJ–hmm… now that you say it, I'm thinking of the boy readers I was ref'ing… and they're under 14, which I guess is MG–!

    (whisper) middle grade.

    This should be the challenge for the next NaNoWriMo~ 😀

    But I kind of get that HS boys would go straight to the adult section. Heck, when I was in HS, *I* was reading "adult" fiction (Marge Atwood, Toni Morrison, Barb Kingsolver, even Kurt Vonnegut–yik! ;o)…

    and honestly, aren't the Harry Potter books technically MG? (Sorcerer's Stone?) At least the early ones.

    I guess where's all our Robert Cormiers, S.E. Hintons, John Knowles, etc.? (Hey, what about Star Girl? :o)

  • Susan @ 2KoP - Reply

    September 12, 2010 at 3:12 am

    Great post. It reminds me of when my son, now 13, was in preschool and told me: "Mom, I don't do grills" (which is what he called girls). He didn't play with them, read about them or watch them on TV. Sadly, he is also not a reader, at least of fiction. I find many boys of the age for YA books turn to nonfiction.

    His younger brother, 12, loves to read and is knee-deep in "The Outsiders". He can't put it down.

    Wondering where the wildly popular "Hunger Games" series falls into this discussion. I've only seen girls reading it, but I don't think that's true across the board.

  • Lia Keyes - Reply

    September 12, 2010 at 3:17 am

    I think quite a lot of boys are reading "Hunger Games", drawn by the battle-to-the-death elements and grateful that the romantic elements are not too big a part of the plot. The third book, in particular ("Mockingjay"), has a distinctly war-zone feel to it that boys will appreciate.

  • Elizabeth Varadan - Reply

    September 12, 2010 at 10:28 pm

    Great post, Lia. Gave me a lot to think about. I think there really are differences in what attracts boys or girls to a story when they are looking for a special book; but some books have crossover appearl, too. When we were small, my brother and I both loved the Saturday night "reading feasts" my mother started. (We would read aloud from a book we agreed on, and have short intermissions where we snacked on some treat before returning to the next read-a-thon. It was usually quite late when we went to bed.) And my brother and I both enjoyed the books. Then we each had our favorites, that we read to ourselves. I think today's kids are like that. Some stories do appeal to both, and some don't. And I agree that we need more books out there that appeal to the boys. Manga is big with them, I know, but they need stories with more depth as well.

  • Nancy Laughlin - Reply

    September 13, 2010 at 1:03 am

    Saturday night reading feasts, what a great concept, Elizabeth! I love it. Your mother was a smart lady.

  • Lia Keyes - Reply

    September 13, 2010 at 1:16 am

    Yes, she was!

    I spent an hour reading to my kids every night. From the moment they were first interested and able to sit still (2 yrs old) until they were just past their mid teens. Sharing books gave us so much to talk about! And even though they read on their own very early on, they treasured that hour with Mum.

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