My last post shared some honest thoughts from Dave Rudden about boys and how they are taught by expectation and example not to feel. I hope that if you’re reading this blog post, you’ve given his excellent essay a read first. I have never been a boy, so my experience with this subject is certainly different, but I hope that my voice can join the discussion in a productive way. It’s an issue that we should all be talking about.
I came upon Mr. Rudden’s article through a YA newsletter that landed in my inbox. The writer of the newsletter took a few minutes to talk about the success of the Strong Female Character and how this is quite a win for girl readers. Instead of only reading about princesses waiting for rescue or blowing hankies while the boys go off on an adventure, girls can read about female knights, magicians, chefs, activists, and any number of other roles that a person can play. These fictional ladies can be role models to help girl readers envision themselves in new ways and understand the freedom that these authors want to tell their readers: you can be more. But while we are cheering for our girl heroes, there is little enthusiasm for books that show boys dealing with emotions outside of anger and fear. Echoing a similar question in the newsletter, I ask, where are the books that tell boys you can be more?
The modern American stereotype of a man calls for competiveness, stoicism, emotional shallowness, and sadly, stupidity. On a personal level, however, we know that men are capable of great emotional depth, intelligence, and feeling. Despite this, we too often fall back on the stereotype. We expect it. And worse, the stories we tell many times display it as a natural state of being. Sadly, in the realm of young adult literature, a place where many teenagers are looking for mirrors and maps, there are very few stories for boys at all.
Now when I say that there are few books for boys, I don’t want to give the impression that I’m making a distinction between “girl books” and “boy books.” As a girl who grew up reading St. George and the Dragon as an all-time favorite, I’ve never believed in putting books in gender boxes. What I mean is that there are few stories in YA for boys, ones that revolve around a male character, that deal with the unique pressures that boys face, or show them what it might look like to be more than what society tells them they can be. When I started writing my first novel, I knew that I wanted to write one for boys. Everywhere I looked, I found books championing girls and all that they can do and be, deeply invested in their dreams, their hopes, their heartbreaks, their pains. Lovely, timely books. But that same attention and care has not been shown to boys.
All the while, YA has been blooming, almost outrageously, in popularity and numbers, but proportionally, it is still largely focused not only on girl protagonists, but girl readers. As a writer in the querying process, I have submitted my manuscript for critique and discussed my work with peers. If I had a dollar for every time that someone told me to change the main character to a girl, I could have easily self-published by now. Often, this is offered as a piece of industry advice—it’ll be more attractive to an agent to have a strong female main character. Girl friendships are hot wishlist stories for editors. Others have told me that I should change my protagonist because mainly girls read YA, and they won’t identify with a boy.
Change it for better traction in selling your novel. Change it for the readers.
I’m not a remarkably stubborn person, but on this point I’m as obstinate as the sun rising in the east: if we continue to believe that boys won’t read, that they are not as emotionally fluent, and that they are naturally independent and strong, it should not surprise us that our society will continue to suffer losses in human connection. The damaging male stereotype prevents men from developing emotionally, and therefore psychologically and socially as well. And while literature is only one part of a much more overwhelming picture, it is vitally important, and it is my battlefield. Teen boys won’t read if they’re being told that there is nothing for them in YA, and they certainly won’t pick up a book if all they hear is reading is a girl’s hobby, you won’t understand it, you don’t want anything to do with feelings like fangirls oh my word, what you read might change your mind and that would make you look weak. And so my first novel is written about a boy named Ransom. He thinks he should be fearless and independent, that he can’t ask for help. But he’s breaking on the inside, and nothing is more important than making sure no one knows it. He won’t survive if he stays like this. Of course, the story isn’t simply this—no life is simply this. It is a hundred other pains and wonders. In these words shaped to fit your hands, I want to tell every reader, but especially boys, you can be more.
In his article, Mr. Rudden states, “That’s strength – the strength to speak up, for yourself and for others, the strength to be yourself, instead of what other people decide you should be. There’s no power in spending your life in retreat from yourself, and I’d rather not wait until I drop from a wound I’m pretending not to have.” I’m thankful that there are writers like him putting valuable stories on shelves and sharing personal experience to begin challenging stereotypes. This kind of work is never done, but while YA continues to draw such a passionate and sizeable audience, authors enjoy a unique forum to discuss these issues.
If you’re interested in further reading, I highly recommend Niobe Way’s work, Deep Secrets: Boys’ Friendships and the Crisis of Connection. Her research, spanning over two decades, suggests that maturity for boys should be redefined from independence to interdependence with meaningful relationships of both genders. Without this fundamental shift, problems will continue to surface in all aspects of society. Way, joining other psychologists, philosophers, and activists, argues that society is destroying itself by upholding these damaging stereotypes for men as natural roles.
Stack of books photo belongs to Ann Arbor District Library, Creative Commons use via Flickr.com