Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Lost Boys

I blame Flat Stanley. He started it all.

When I was 5 and in first grade, I met Flat Stanley. He was so cool. Squashed nearly 2-dimensional by a falling bulletin board, Flat Stanley permanently changed the way I saw the world. When he stood sideways, you couldn't see him. When his mom lost her diamond ring down a roadside grate, she tied him to a piece of string, dangled him like a human yo-yo into the grate, and he retrieved her jewelry!

Oh, Calvin, you knew Flat Stanley, too. How I miss you both!

Yes, Flat Stanley started it all: my fascination with physics and my lifelong love affair with fantastical what-if-they-were-true stories.

Eventually Stanley and I broke up. I moved on and let other boys take me on wild adventures: First there was Henry Huggins. Then Alec Ramsey (my first real literary crush ~sigh~). Then Huck & Tom. Johnny Tremain. Bilbo & Frodo. Arthur & Lancelot. And hundreds of others.

Oh, I had girlfriends, too. Nancy Drew and I were very close. And Lucy Pevensie and I were practically inseparable. But the boys were my favorites. In real life, I couldn't be bothered with them (something for which my mother remains thankful to this day), but they heavily populated my reading.

This is why I found novelist Robert Lypsite's recent article "Boys and Reading: Is There Any Hope?"  in the New York Times, so disturbing. “Boys don’t read,” it trumpets. A publishing executive is quoted saying that girls are publishers' primary readership. They want stories "about mean girls, gossip girls... and vampires." So that’s what gets published.

In other words, if you're a YA reader, you get to choose: Bullies or Bella.


Though Huffington Post writer Charles London posits that “Boys today are consuming more text than at any time in human history. Adults simply are not valuing the reading that boys are doing,” it doesn’t change the publishers’ tune:

Boys don’t read. So male protagonists don’t sell.

I refuse to believe this. Here's what I suspect is closer to the truth: Boys don't read what's being published, so publishers have written them off.

I have to confess, if my primary options for topics to read about were “mean girls, gossip girls, and vampires,” I doubt I’d be a reader either.  Does this mean that for every Bully Book that gets published, a book with the potential to be this generation’s Hardy Boys or Encyclopedia Brown gets rejected? Probably.

That’s not only tragic. It borders on the criminal.

What do you mean, “male protagonists don’t sell?” With that kind of attitude, kids will never meet another Harry Potter, Eragon, Artemis Fowl, or Stanley Yelnats. They won't meet characters they can relate to who to protect the weak, push through to the end even when things look bleak, and stand their ground and attempt the impossible.

Boys (and many, many girls) are not interested in choosing between Team Edward or Team Jacob. They could care less about bitchy frenemies. Frankly, statistics show that many prefer nonfiction to fiction. So why not give it to them?

Isn't publishing more books that cater to a different audience and create more lifelong readers way-the-heck more preferable than wringing our hands and lamenting the loss of the literary Y chromosome? 'Cause, frankly, if publishing sticks to the Bitches & Bloodsuckers route, odds are they're going to lose a lot of girls, too...

For great stats, advice, and titles hand-picked by guys for guys, check out Guys Read. Want to add your two cents to the discussion? Chime in on the comments. (No mean girls or vampires, if you please.)

Photos by Kevin Rosseel


Anonymous said...

I agree. There are probably several books out there being turned down because of the main characters gender and thinking it wont sell, but in actuallity it has to do with whether someone can relate to the character not whether its a girl or a boy. Bring back the boys!

Ami Hendrickson said...


Hear, hear! I would argue that the literary world could readily do without another "mean girls" book. Ever. But it can't do without 3-dimensional protagonists that connect with both genders of all ages.

The publishing industry pros are horrifically shortsighted if they think pandering to only the lowest common denominator of their possible readership will result in anything more than literate girls who begin to put into practice the bullying tactics they've been spoonfed as "entertainment."

Let's hear it for the boys! And the girls! Vive la difference!

Sharon Wachsler said...

I don't see how this is possible in a post-Potter world! I mean, seriously.

Girls have always read male characters. It was a problem that there weren't as many good girl protags as boys.

I never understood the allure of mean girls, even -- or especially -- when I was being tortured by them.

As for the vampires ::head:desk:: Are there ANY markets left that want non-genre work? It seems like almost every CFS I see is for paranormal this, shapeshifter that, fantasy, SF, etc. Is realism ever going to come back into style?

Rant, rant, rant.

Ami Hendrickson said...


I, too, was surprised at the current climate. I double checked the dates on several of the current dire "why boys aren't reading" articles I came across to see if they were 20 years old.

I live for the day when publishers will reap what they are sowing during this Mean Girls phase, and their readership shuns them and publicly castigates them for their shortsightedness.

I also live for the day when some YA nonfiction books hit it big with characters & story that appeal to both genders. Maybe that would encourage the publishers to rethink their WishLists.

...As long as I'm dreaming, I'd like Shiloh Fernandez to star in the movie version of my WIP... ~sigh~

Unknown said...

I'm really struggling to find books that will peak my nine year old son's interest in reading. There's so many great books out there for girls--we NEED someone writing for our boys!

It doesn't help that my son hears his dad saying reading is boring or teasing me about crying over a book I'm reading, telling me, "It's not real! It's just a book!" He doesn't get it...because he doesn't read. But I don't want our son to end up in the same boat, believing reading is boring and missing out on everything there is to experience in books!

I love the link to Guys Read and the lists of books for boys to read--guess where we're heading later today?? The library!!

As for me--I haven't fallen for Twilight, I have no interest in the undead or bullies. We need to expose our kids to something more positive, more encouraging-there's enough ugliness in the world already. It doesn't need compounded in the books they're reading.

Ami Hendrickson said...

I hope you succeed in giving your son the gift of a lifelong love of reading. Who knows? Maybe you and he will be able to convert your husband as well.
Here's wishing you an armful of boy-friendly books at the library, with a lengthy wishlist of great titles to check out later.
And here's hoping that many writers hear about your desire to find great "boy books" and determine to find ways to provide them for your son and others like him.

David A Ludwig said...

Ah, this is sad... And yet I find hope in your position on the issue. I (a boy) used to absolutely love reading, but have always been in it for the story and characters which anymore I seem to get my fix from other media--video-games, role-playing, TV and movies.
I've never really liked the idea of writing for one gender or the other, since off-hand that seems like an unnecessarily severe limit on your readership. Though I have to admit I do love genre, and though I can't stand bullies I do like undead if handled well.

Ami Hendrickson said...


If you used to love reading, what (in your considered opinion) could lure you back to the fold? What would it take? What was missing that made you turn to other media?

I think that writing for a particular gender OR writing in a given genre might limit a particular author's readership. I have no problem with authors who specialize in an area. I do, however, find fault with publishers who pander to a particular gender demographic. But that's probably my problem and not theirs. After all, they must always keep their eye on the bottom line.

Which brings me full circle: what can be done to keep boys reading -- and keep publishers publishing books for ALL readers?

I believe part of the answer, for good or for ill, lies with self-publishing and e-books. They allow authors whom publishers bypass to cultivate a readership anyway...