Boys love stories loaded with facts, they love understanding how things and societies work, and they love stories in which mettle is tested, with bad-ass heroes capable of graveyard humor in the midst of battle, and fast-paced action—but that’s not all. The most satisfying stories for boys are those that also analyze the significance of that action. Stories with high stakes, and clear and important goals. But all too many YA books are wishy-washy yearning books, their focus hinging on goals boys have no interest in.
Although there are some YA books they can read without puking, and even some they can carry without covering them in brown paper, there are few that actually engage them. They have no problem reading about a female protagonist, if that female protagonist has important goals and isn’t spending too much time pining for a guy en route to accomplishing them.
A female protagonist who has goals of consequence and has trouble keeping her mind off a boy’s anatomy might be closer to the mark, but who’s going to write that? Boys do yearn to be loved and understood, but they also yearn to be touched in a carnal, physical way by a real girl—they don’t yearn for an idea of femininity that can only exist on a supernatural plane.
So what are the preoccupations and insecurities of the average teenage boy? Books with boy protagonists need to relate story obstacles to peer pressure, shame, acceptance, performance anxiety, the weight of responsibility to look after people they care about, gaining power, how to handle it, and fear of the consequences of not gaining power. Are you seeing the difference?
They are focused on different issues than girls are, though some intersect. And that’s why slapping a more neutral cover on a girl book to get boys to read it isn’t going to wash. The content needs to deliver on the cover’s promise.
Boys need and deserve books addressed specifically to them, to overcoming the fears or ‘monsters’ that bedevil them. For what are great stories if not a vicarious exploration of one’s deepest darkest fears, vanquished by an unlikely but ultimately worthy hero?
If we agree that YA literature should address boys’ monsters, too—not just girls’—what form might a teenage boy’s monster take? What is the male fantasy equivalent of dangerous boyfriends of the supernatural persuasion? Or, if we’re staying with contemporary fiction, what are the average teenage boy’s deepest, darkest fears?
As an uncontrollable lust metaphor, vampires and werewolves are hard to beat. But controlling desires is not the only problem teenage boys have to handle. What other problems can writers allow boys to explore through a metaphorically physical manifestation that must be tamed or vanquished by story’s end? And is there a subconscious reason why teenage writing phenomenon Christopher Paolini chose to make his dragon in ERAGON female?
Do the majority of teenage boys leave their MG love of fantasy behind and look for more realistic, contemporary or historical fiction as they adjust to adult life?
One thing is for sure, teenagers of both sexes are still trying to find their place in the world. It’s a quest for an identity that fits just right. They try on all sorts of identities during their search for the right one. So the questions become “Who am I, really?” “Do I have a choice about that?” and, ultimately, “Who do I want to be?”
There’s a fear of making the wrong choices and finding yourself on a fast train to the wrong destination (with regard to which subjects to choose, which uni to apply to, what kind of job/wife/life/fate/destiny will await you). Terrifying indeed.
Teen years are also when the scales fall from our eyes with regard to our parents. We don’t idolize them anymore. They don’t have all the answers. The sobering truth is, we have to save ourselves. We fall out of love with them for a period and there’s loss involved in that until we fall in love with them again as people, instead of icons.
There’s so much going on in a teenager’s heart and mind, and it’s all so Romantic in spirit (as in Romantic Movement in literature). There’s sweep and drama, black and white, and very little grey. There’s passion and idealism and hope and fear.
And that’s why I love it so much. And why writers who don’t adequately plumb its depths, or fail to understand who they’re writing for, annoy me so much.
An awesome post and one that is so important because we cannot overlook half of our YA audience! I love the questions posted here and believe it or not, it sparked a creative idea. Great job!
Ooh, Tracy, I’m so delighted! You’ll have to tell me about it (off the air).
Thank you, Lia, for another great thought-provoking post. Made me think back to my son and what he loved, and what was important to him in his youth.
For him, I think it was mattering and feeling competent.
Interesting, Claudine! Do you think that’s specific to boyhood, the desire to matter and feel competent? Or is it a question of how much higher up the list of priorities such concerns rise in boys vs girls?
I’m afraid I have a very small survey to offer: just my son. 🙂 But, I’m guessing (in my chauvenistic way) that girls want to matter by helping, and boys want to matter by fixing. What do you think?
It would take a psychologist (which I’m not) to understand the different ways in which girls and boys accomplish things that matter, that make a difference. But I think it’s an interesting observation that girls tend to take a supportive role (helping) rather than a leadership role (fixing).
Great post! And I appreciate the other sites with the reading lists and such. I’ve bookmarked this post for future reference. It’s so true that boys have a different slant on life even as early as elementary school. A different energy, too! (Spoken as a former teacher.) It’s great to have this as a reminder of what to keep in mind, not just when writing FOR boys, but also for making boy characters believable in any kind of middle grade YA novel, whether for boys or girls. I think if the boy characters were more true to life, a wider range of books would have dual appeal. Thanks again, Lia
Thanks Lia, for this informative post. Its valid not just for YA novels but for MG fiction too. Makes me rethink my protagonist’s goals.
Yes the teen years are the most volatile, when the scales fall from our eyes regarding many things, including parents.
Teenage boys definetely leave their childhood obsessions with their MG love of fantasy behind, and yearn for more realistic, contemporary or historical fiction as they adjust to adult life.
Excellent post, Lia. Claudine’s right. It is thought provoking. I’ll keep this in mind as I finish editing my manuscript.
One further question I would add to your list around the power issue is, gaining power and not being able to control it and the consequences if the protag does accidentally harm someone with it. I think Wizard’s of Earthsea dealt somewhat with that.
I haven’t noticed my nephew being willing to read about a female protagonist, even in Dungeon and Dragon’s type series he reads, but maybe that’s just him. 🙂
Nancy, Thanks for the suggestion of Wizards of Earthsea by Ursula LeGuin as an example of the responsibility that comes with power. It’s also a book that many teenage boys read!
I remember when I was a teenager even as I girl I thought YA literature was crap. It tends to be too touchy feely and plot lines don’t feel fully developed. My mothers answer was to throw classic children’s literature at me like Treasure Island, The Hobbit, Sherlock Holmes, and Jules Verne at me. We tend to forget today that all of these stories were written for children and boys in particular. In fact most of them were written not for teenagers but for boys between the ages of 8-12 years. Incredibly we in our modern supposedly civilized world cannot read at that level that young any more. I suggest rather than spending $10 on a new copy of YA story we simply dig out our classic dime novels, and adventure stories and give them to young teenage boys. Because they are the people they were written in the first place.
Naomi, you make such an interesting point about what the sophisticated level at which even pre-teen children were reading in the not that distant past. Do you think that social media is entirely to blame for the dumbing down of language use since then?
My heart glowed when I read which books you grew up with. What a clever mother. I wish that giving a child Treasure Island, Sherlock Holmes, Jules Verne and Tolkien could work today, but children are increasingly unable to employ the patience required to wait while those readers ‘get to the point’ of their stories.
For me, much of the pleasure was in allowing myself to be gently drawn into another world, but now kids want to be ‘in the moment’ on page one. It makes me sad, but I think there’s also some middle ground between the two styles. That’s what I strive for in my own writing.
Great post-these are things I try to do (think I do) and yet I never really pondered them for YA. Really beginning to wonder lately if I shouldn’t try to lean my book toward YA.
Hi, David! The YA arena is the most vibrant in publishing these days. You could do a lot worse than leaning your book that way. For one thing, YA readers won’t put up with a meandering narrative and weak storytelling structure. Writing for the YA market disciplines your writing skills and will always hold you in good stead as a writer.
I visited your blog and grinned when I saw you collect swords. I do, too!
This? Was pure genius. I’m suddenly really glad I’m only one chapter into the YA book I’m writing. I would hate to have read this AFTER I wrote it. Thanks for the insight.
Kimberly, you’re so kind. I don’t know that I’m right. I only know that this is what I believe and how I feel. There are so many ways to write a story. Don’t let too many voices into your head while you write. They’ll mess with you something rotten. Just write the story of your heart and you’ll be just fine.
I graduated from High School in 2003 so I am not too far away from being a teenager. And social networking was beginning to take hold at the time. However, we should keep in mind that in High School I was reading Jack Kerouc, Karl Marx, Machiavelli, and The Three Musketeers for a laugh. I believe that the lack of sophistication is due in part to social networking, but i also believe that authors are working on an assumption that to be a teenager means to be less intelligent than an adult and thus have less of an ability to comprehend complex plot lines.
I do not believe modern teenagers need to be in the moment as you say. Rather I believe a sense of adventure, gripping characters, and a well thought out plausible plot line is the best thing. A lot of the YA books out there are rather patronizing and really written at a level more for an 8-10 year old than for someone who is 15 or 16. As writers we have to give our audience credit for their intelligence and not assume that they are stupid. If we treat our readers or in my case audience as if they are intelligent, rational, humans with basic reasoning skills we will get that. If you look at Harry Potter the reason it works not just as an YA series but as an adult series of books, it is specifically because Rowling assumes that everyone regardless of age can deal with issues ranging from racism to fascism, she assumes things like genocides can be understood by people regardless of their age. To be really great you have write under the assumption that the people reading you are as intelligent as you are not less so.
This is a very thought provoking post. I have often thought about the differences between the female and male point of view.
Hey, Amber! Thanks for your comment. I’m delighted this post has got so many people thinking.
Enjoyed your post. Seems silly, but I had never even thought about how teen boys would react with the influx of YA literature out there. I know what the girls like, but you don’t see young men lining up to get the latest vampire romance novel. Made me think about the next story I’m going to write and I think I have a pretty interesting idea. Thank you so much for your insight!
Go for it, Shawna! Let’s write some irresistible books for boys, and I suspect the girls will read them, too. Why not double your readership?
The most kid-like book my son liked was Skellig. Otherwise, no YA at all.
I thought I commented on this the other day–this is such a great post. I felt as I read that I knew these things, but I’ve never seen them spelled out this way. Good stuff. Thanks, Lia! :o)
I LOVED Skellig, Claudia! David Almond is such a wonderful writer. I like The Fire-Eaters, too. I need to read more by him. So what non-YA stuff is your son reading? Non-fiction? Adult fiction? Manga/Graphic novels?
Leigh, thanks so much for your comment. Blogging takes a lot of time, and it's heart-warming to know that it's worth it!
Hi Lia, I really liked your list of things that boys worry about. I taught English to reluctant reader teenage boys for many years and loved it when I could connect a boy with a book.
Hey, Paul! How lovely to get a comment from someone who knows what it's like on the front lines! 🙂
I'm sure there's a ton of other things boys worry about, beyond the few I mentioned. Feel free to add to the list!
Our society is to blame. And the parents. Everything is rush, rush, rush. And it's the publishers fault for dumbing down books to make the sales. And it's the people behind curriculum development that dumb down frameworks and what is taught – for better test scores? I don't know. But there is not one person to blame. I think kids/teens are way smarter than writers give them credit for. Writing upper mg, I refuse to dumb it down. Kids are smart. Great post!