When I was in middle and high school, I read a lot. More than a lot. I was a machine. I read every book I owned at least three times. Mostly I read fantasy novels by authors like Terry Brooks and Robert Jordan. I read a lot of other stuff too, but Fantasy was my comfort genre. Why? Because many of the stories were about young men with humble beginnings who were destined for something more. I was looking for characters I could relate to and fantasy offered me stories of heroes without a clue. Stories of young men stumbling their way through life, just trying to do the right thing.
Back in those days, I never stepped foot near the YA section. I suspected that there might be books that spoke more directly to what I was going through. Even in my early twenties, books like that would have spoken to me. But I didn’t know they were there.
It’s no secret that boys are falling behind in literacy. Seemingly they read middle grade fiction like Harry Potter and Artemis Fowl, but then they disappear. Sometimes they go off to non-fiction and sometimes, like I did, they go to adult books. But more often, they just give up reading. Why? I believe it’s because they don’t see themselves represented on the bookshelves. When the MG stories begin to feel a little too young for them, and they turn to the teen section, they see stories dominated by emo bad boys and the girls who love them. The covers are nothing but pictures of shirtless men or vacuous groups of kids or headless girls. Even the books that are aimed at young men are feminized in order to appeal to girls because they are the main purchasers of Teen lit.
A terrible cycle is created. Boys don’t buy books because they don’t see themselves represented, so less books are published for boys because they’re buying fewer books.
The bookshelves become dominated by stories written by and for girls. Now, I should put in my disclaimer here that I’m not speaking absolutes. And I also find much of the teen lit written for/by girls to be quite good. But I’m an adult and no longer read YA to relate. I read it to enjoy. But when I was a teen I was looking for books to relate to. And for boys, it’s a wasteland.
There are really three problems:
1. Authors, seeing the lack of potential for boy-aimed YA lit aren’t writing any.
2. Publishers (who I understand are in this business to make money) buy boy YA books but then do very little to promote them. Then they use lack of sales to prove that there’s no money in boy-oriented YA.
3. Drawing boys back to the table is a daunting and difficult process. We simply haven’t given them any incentive to try Teen lit again.
Is there any one person to blame? No. Authors have to eat, publishers have shareholders to answer to, and boys don’t want to dig through the mountain of vampires and werewolves to find one book that appeals to them.
So what’s the answer then? I don’t know. I’d really love to see a publisher take a chance and spend as much on promoting a cool boy oriented series as they do on the newest trend for girls. I read about the amazing marketing plan my own publisher put together for Becca Fitzpatrick’s HUSH, HUSH. They went to showings of New Moon and handed out books, they put up ad’s during the movie. And it worked. HUSH, HUSH has been doing really well (congrats to a fellow Tenner!). I’d like to see that same kind of enthusiasm put into great boy-oriented series’.
But I also think we need to go beyond that. One advertising campaign won’t be enough to bring back the boys we’ve lost and it won’t be enough to keep from losing anymore. There needs to be a continued effort to write and publish and support great boy books for teens. There needs to be a way to get those books into their hands.
And for that, I have the beginnings of a plan that I’ll discuss more about later this week.