Every few months, it seems that someone gets their underoos in a twist about boys and books. They sound the sirens and get everyone up in arms. I admit, that even I have been caught up in this from time to time. It’s easy to look at the declining book sales and the dearth of seemingly boy-friendly titles in the YA book section and assume that boys aren’t reading.
But authors like Andrew Smith have convinced me that, not only are boys reading, but they’re reading better shit than I did when I was a kid.
So the other day, I read a Huffington Post story by Elizabeth Vail that took umbrage with the idea that we should actively seek out books with male protagonists. Her argument is that “women have been reading, enjoying, and relating to books with male protagonists for centuries without our femininity being “threatened,”” and therefore boys should just suck it up and read books with female protags.
I’ve heard this argument before. It was BS then and it’s BS now.
First of all, I’ll grant that literature has been dominated by male protagonists for a long time, despite the fact that some of my favorite books (A Wrinkle in Time and The Chronicles of Narnia, and The Blue Sword spring to mind) had female protagonists. But that argument doesn’t mean that we should just throw up our hands and declare that the time of boy heroes is over.
Vail says, “Books about girls are seen as being “for girls,” with the intrinsic femininity of such stories inevitably drowning out any other worthwhile lesson, theme, or idea a boy could possibly derive from them.” This is an argument I throughly disagree with. I grew up reading Judy Blume along side The Great Brain. It’s people like Vail who imbue books with genders. I had adventures with Ramona Quimby AND Johnny Dixon, never caring whether the MC was a boy or girl, only whether the story was awesome.
See, I think the fact that we’re in the midst of a surge of female protagonists is awesome. It’s a golden age of YA. I think that the experiences and adventures of women are just as valuable as boys’, and I think that boys would certainly get a lot out of reading them. But to then turn around and say that since there have been so many boy protags over the years that we shouldn’t worry about encouraging new writers to write them, simply devalues the experiences of boys. It really is cutting off your literary nose to spite your face.
Vail mentions Katniss Everdeen, so I’ll use her as an example. When I read The Hunger Games, I didn’t see Katniss as a girl hero. I saw her as a hero. Full stop. Deeply flawed and wonderful. And I think, so too did many boys (as evidenced by the popularity of The Hunger Games). But boys deserve (just as girls do) books that speak directly to their experiences as young men.
Judy Blume understood this. Hell, I read Are You There, God? It’s Me Margaret. I took something from it, but it didn’t speak to me as a young man the same way it spoke to young women. And Blume could have been content to say, “Screw it, boys have lots of other books, let them learn about their bodies through this book or go read something else,” but she didn’t. And she wrote Then Again, Maybe I Won’t. It was similar to Margaret, but from a young man’s perspective. Dealing with issues that spoke directly to MY experiences. Growing up, that mattered to me.
Vail says, “Maybe it’s time to actively encourage boys to pick up and read about a heroine,” and in that, she’s got a worthy goal. Encouraging anyone to read is a worthy goal. But to dismiss the male experience simply because boys have had their time, is asinine. And worse yet, what lesson does it teach our daughters? That once you’re on top, it’s okay to dismiss everyone else? Heroines are awesome, and the fact that we’re seeing some amazing equality in literature only serves to enrich our world, but going from one extreme to the other shouldn’t be the goal.
I think it’s time we admit that there is no single model for boys or girls. Some boys will want to read books from a boy’s POV, some will read any book. Some girls will only want to read books from a girl’s POV while others will read anything. There is no blueprint for masculinity or femininity. There are only books. There are only experiences. There are only the lives we lead and the stories we tell. And I’ve got news for Elizabeth Vail: They’re all important, regardless of gender.