Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Why I'm Proud That YA Is A Girl-Centric Genre

This post will probably get me flamed, but I've been thinking a lot about this and I want to share. So here it goes:

I am so freaking proud that YA is girl-centric.

Are there "boy books" in YA? Of course. Do I think there's room for more diversity in YA? Always! But that doesn't remove the fact that I'm very, very happy to see all these books about girls written FOR girls. Why? Because girls need these books—I needed these books, and I didn't have them when I was younger.

I vividly remember my personal frustrations with books when I was a kid. I know a lot of writers read voraciously as kids, but I was a picky reader. I had a hard time finding books that I could relate with. Wading through the old time MG waters was hard (Harry Potter came out when I was in high school, so it was very different back then [gosh I am old]). As it is now, MG is still largely targeted to boys (there's a lot more "girl books" these days, but you can still say the MG market is boy-centric).

I noticed. I wanted to read about girls like me, and it was hard to find a girl protagonist. The ones I did find often didn't strike my interest, either (i.e. Nancy Drew, Babysitter's Club, and Sweet Valley High, which were shoved in my face from about 8-14 yrs. old).

Sadly, the problem didn't improve as I got older—it got worse. When I got too old for "kids books," there was this wall. A wall I wasn't sure I wanted to climb. On the other side of the wall was Grown Up Books.

I still liked fantasy and fun stories, but Adult Fantasy felt daunting to me when I was 13. I tried out a few, only to find more boys saving girls...plus some other stuff I wasn't quite ready to handle personally. I still wanted to read about girls, but there weren't girls in adult genre—there were women. The romance and historical novels scared the crap out of me based on covers alone (I was a timid child, not saying they were bad, just I was SO not ready). Adult thrillers/suspense were way out of my interests (I scare easily). And fantasy/sci-fi were dominated by the same things I'd seen in MG, just with older characters.

The truth? I stopped reading for fun after, like, ninth grade. After I read DUNE. I still remember enjoying most of that book, right up until the end when the main character decides to keep his "true love" as a concubine (the woman who supported him and had faith in him—heck, made him who he was and saved his life) and marries the empress as a power play. I felt betrayed, honestly. I really looked up to this guy, bought him as a hero, until that moment. It was the final straw for the "Girls play on the sidelines in books" crap. I was done. I read for school and that was about it (And most of that literary stuff was all guy, too).

My first experience with "new YA" was, of course, Twilight. Say what you will about that series, it blew my mind the first time I read it. But not for the reason you'd think—because it answered all my reading frustrations as a teen. This was a book for girls, with girl feelings and girl problems and girl fantasies. I started reading more YA, and each one made me not only happy, but jealous of the girls who now had so many choices in reading. I didn't have those choices. I couldn't find characters like me. Now? It feels like there's a book for every kind of girl. And we've seen both girls and women like me respond with the explosion of YA.

Finally, books for me. It makes me want to cry with joy sometimes.

I know we worry about the lack of boys in YA at times, but the truth is that the old system was always set up for boys. MG to adult genre fiction is what many boys still follow—well, that transition was always catered to them. Male-centered fiction has always been the standard. There has always been a place for them. Is it any wonder many guys skip YA?

Girls finally have a wide world of a genre to go. YA provides girls with the stories they've always been looking for—stories about them, stories for them. Girls don't have to be on the sidelines in YA. They are heroines. They shape the story with their choices, be they good or bad ones. YA reflects how different girls are, what they love and how they live and what they hope to be.

So while I will always welcome guys to read YA, and of course welcome more "boy centered" books, I will never apologize for the amount of girl-centric fiction in the genre. I would have killed for even half the selection girls have now. It's about time.


  1. Yeah, I'll buy that. No flames here.

  2. Sorry, I'm still giggling about you saying you're old. Harry Potter came out when you were in high school, and I was in LAW school. Now get off my lawn, you whippersnapper!

  3. I'm like you. I could never find books that held my attention when I was in high school (I'm even older than you) and I'm both proud and extremely jealous that my daughter has such variety today. There's nothing I love more than wandering the YA aisles with her and picking out books. We don't always read the same ones, but most of our choices overlap. It's the coolest thing to be able to share them with her.

  4. I love this post. <3
    one thing that bugs me, a lot, about the issue or guy vs girl books, though, is that the 'guy' books are okay for girls to read -- but I know none of my guy friends would ever consider picking up a 'girl' book. It's obnoxious.

  5. I saw an aspect of this discussion on another blog a few weeks ago. The blogger was bemoaning how there were fewer "girl books" than "boy books" there were. I was surprised by that statement. I started looking at my buying history (and my ereader) and discovered something interesting. I've read over 100 books in the past year and two of them feature boys as the main character. The rest have female MCs or ensemble casts.

    Still I know what you mean. YA and Urban Fantasy both have produced a wealth of female MCs in recent years.

  6. There's nothing quite like the feeling of finding a book that feels as though it was written just for you. I'm glad you found yours, Natalie, regardless of the format it took.

    And I agree, no way would I consider that guy from Dune a hero for that.

  7. I had a lot of the same experiences as you as a kid and as a teen, where I couldn't find a lot of "girl books" that appealed to me and my love of fantasy adventure (although I did stumble upon some really lovely books, like Robin McKinley's stuff, Ann Rinaldi's stuff, and so forth that had great female characters). I just got used to reading lots of "boy books" when it came to fantasy and sci fi, and I got used to reading adult stuff when I wanted "girl books" even though I found a lot of it boring or above me. I did enjoy reading historical romances when I was quite young, and for a while they formed the bulk of my reading material since they usually were somewhat adventurous and they featured female lead characters, which I craved to read about (but they were pretty squeaky-clean, as they were inspirational romances). Now that YA has gone through the transformation that it has, I read mostly YA even though I am an adult. I am SO PLEASED at abundance of spunky, strong female leads in YA lit.

  8. I completely agree. I simply find it difficult to worry about a lack of "boy books" in YA, when literature on the whole has catered to men and boys pretty much forever. Frankly, it seems to me that the majority of people bothered by the lack of male-centric YA are the people who want to write it, not those who might wish to read it. There's less of a market for male-centric YA, and I think that's okay.

  9. Well said! YA fantasy fills such an important place: I usually prefer it to adult fantasy after my few failed attempts into the world of Robert Jordan and the like (even though there are strong female characters in some adult fantasy, they are still sidelined more often than not). Huzzah for girls with spunk who are worth reading about at any age!

  10. As a library worker who struggles to find books for upper elementary girls, I will absolutely agree that MG is skewed toward boys. When you combine that with the fact that girls often read above grade level, you end up wondering what to give this 8 year old girl who isn't interested in books with boys and is too young for most of YA.

    1. Nope, no flames here, either. I very much agree. So very much of our historical literature centers on male characters. It's great to finally have female characters featured prominently - and consistently.

  11. Awesome post! I've thought and read a lot about this topic, but too often the jumping off point for discussion is an assumption that girl-centric YA is a bad thing. LOVE the perspective that it's not. Maybe we need to re-think how we talk about this topic and wonder why the assumption that girl-centric anything is a negative!

  12. THIS. I just realised this is probably why I spend 99% of my free time reading YA. I read Babysitter's Club and Nancy Drew, but you're so right that there were very few other options out there. Also probably why my favorite authors from that period were L.M. Montgomery and Louisa May Alcott. Now there's such a wide variety of options that it makes me giddy sometimes!

  13. Fuck yeah. Can I say that? And if the boys are cool enough, then they can handle reading a book with a girl as a protagonist, just as girls are comfortable reading books with boy protagonists.

  14. I can totally relate Roni! I loved fantasy and thankfully in high school I was introduced to Tolkien and Eddings, but after that I had to just wait it out. I am glad girls have many choices today and I am even more glad that strong female MC's are being created.

  15. One one hand, I find the commentary about "too many girl books" to be really funny and not in a funny ha-ha way. I've actually argued, like in person, about this very topic. I pointed out that it's a market. YA is allowed to be a market for girls. That's a good thing. Like for everybody.

    And think it through. Books girls like to read. BOOKS. READ. GET IT THEY ARE READING BOOKS?!

    On the other hand, as a parent of BOYS, I am sick and tired of hearing the trite and incorrect "boys don't read." No, it's "boy's don't read what you're selling." I've seen much commentary about this with dubious, and sometimes duplicitous, "research."

    The sparks fly when these two misconceptions interact with each other. It's like a convergence zone of sucky rationalization.

  16. I agree. I went from sweet valley high mysteries to Stephen King. Not a lot of wiggle room in between when I was in school. I did read Outlander WAY too young though. Totally had no clue what was going on in some bedroom scenes!

  17. Great post, great discussion. I've heard a lot of talk at conferences from agents about the lack of books that appeal to boys, and about how girls will read boys books but not the other way around (reminds of the way Hollywood thinks, too). I, too, laughed a bit at the Harry Potter comment, as I had a 9 year old son, I think, when it came out.

    I remember falling absolutely in love with ISLAND OF THE BLUE DOLPHINS when I was in MG, and also devouring everything by an author named Sally Watson, who wrote historical fiction about stubborn, independent-minded, adventurous girl characters. My best friend and I fell in love with her books.

  18. I liked Babysitter's Club and Sweet Valley Twins when I was in grade school. But like you, I wanted more young adult books for girls like me when I became a teenager, and there just weren't enough of them; at least, there weren't enough of them that I could relate to and that I liked. There were books about girls from different time periods, but I was always looking for more books about girls from contemporary time periods, because they were easier to understand.

  19. I never thought much about this until I read your post. Probably because I always had a tendency to shift from one series to another and only rarely read books that were stand-alone.

    I've always been a picky reader, but my childhood interests were already limited enough (no animals, no me) that it didn't bother me how little selection there was for girls. Buuut, I was also quite happy with the Goosebumps series ;-p

    I was more attached to "Baby-Sitters Little Sister" than the original series itself, though even that stretched the boundaries of my mind. I mostly stuck with Pony Pals and Animorphs until Harry Potter came around, aside from the few classics I gobbled (Black Beauty, White Fang, Call of the Wild... see the theme? xD)

    I'm willing to wager this is one of the reasons I'm so attached to YA now. The selection is better, and often times it seems the stories are more enjoyable than the stuff found in adult fiction.

    'course, it's also possible I just don't want to grow up!

    Thanks Natalie!

  20. Great post!!!! This is why I write YA novels too!
    CKHB, you crack me up!

  21. I wasn't a picky reader at all, so I didn't figure out why Robert Jordan's WoT series depressed me so much until I was nine books in (I'd graduated college by then). I gave up on the series and started looking for books with female protagonists. That's how I rediscovered YA. I LOVE that it's chock-full of female POVs, and I want more of that in adult fiction of ALL genres.

  22. If you haven't stumbled across them yet, I recommend the Circle books by Tamora Pierce along with her "Song of the Lioness", "Immortals", and "Protector of the Small" quartets.

    All of them have strong female characters(the Circle books has one main male character too), and clean stories without a lot of "adult stuff". They are some of my favorite books and will always have a place on my shelf.

    Also, "Ella Enchanted"....ok, I think I'm done now :D

  23. YES YES YES!!!!! A thousand times yes!!!

    I generally keep my mouth shut about all things unPC, even if they offend me, but I'm not afraid to say this one out loud - the boys get EVERYTHING in the world, can we just have our one thing please?!?

    You said it girl.

  24. Yes! It seems as though we went through similar struggles as young readers. I had all but stopped reading by the time I graduated from high school. Now my shelves are once again full and my poor husband has banned me from going to the bookstore by myself.

  25. I never thought about it that way. There wasn't a "YA" when I was that age either. My friends graduated to Loveswept and Mills & Boon, I ended up in these gritty, urban stories, about black chicks in the inner city.

    Maybe that's why so many grown women read YA. We didn't have it to read back then.

  26. As a teen boy who liked to read, my selection was pretty horrible. I found myself trying to read adult-difficulty sci-fi/fantasy (which admittedly was too difficult for me) because the MG just felt really kiddie and "dumbed down" with inconsistent plot lines, silliness etc. I like that YA is usually quite good at not doing that, and for all I know MG boy has improved past the issues I had 20 years ago.

  27. You know, I've heard a lot of people say things like this. I'm really glad, too, don't get me wrong-- but I never had trouble finding LOTS of things to read that tickled my fancy (I was born in 1984, so it sounds like we're about the same age). Tamora Pierce was a huge one, and Robin McKinley, but also Anne McCaffrey (her Harper Hall Trilogy are basically YA), Madeleine L'Engle, Tanith Lee, Francesca Lia Block... Patrice Kindl is lesser known, but has some great ones; same with Clare Bell. Philip Pullman, despite his presumed Y chromosome, writes wonderful heroines (he taught at a girls' school for a number of years), as does Garth Nix (Sabriel!) and Avi (oh, Charlotte Doyle...). And there were non-fantasy ones, like Julie of the Wolves, and authors who blurred the line like Zilpha Keatley Snyder (always a favorite of mine!). There were lots of others, too, whose names I can't remember. So... were these just not ones that did it for you? I'm only curious!

  28. No flames from me!

    My brother is actually writing a boy centered YA book, getting it together.