Where are all the boys?

So if you’ve taken a stroll down the YA shelves of your local bookstore, I’m sure you’ve noticed the trends in the cover design. You’ve probably even noticed that entire block of shelves where the book covers are all just variations of each other. Pretty girls–usually dressed in a flowing dress or black leather–on a black background. Sometimes these girls are paired with a brooding, shirtless boy with remarkable abs. The title of these books are probably printed in some white gothic typeface.

Even without the category of “Paranormal Romance,” you know exactly who these books are written for: girls.

So you move to the other shelves–the fantasy shelves, the action and adventure shelves, the realist fiction shelves–but you keep noticing that the books all seem targeted to a specific demographic. Girls. Girls. More girls.

Now don’t get me wrong, I think this is great. I think it’s wonderful that teenage girls have such a broad range to chose from. I think it’s fantastic that we’re encouraging these girls to read, because I firmly believe that reading and literacy are fundamental to a person’s success in life.

What bothers me is the lack of books for boys. Don’t boys deserve as many books for them as girls do? Shouldn’t we promote reading and literacy in the young men we know in the same way we cultivate it in the young women?

I think they do, and I think we should, but that doesn’t solve the issue.

With a few exceptions, there are very few books on the YA shelves that are written for boys.  There aren’t even that many that are written about boys. I’ve heard it said over and over again that boys don’t read, that boys don’t like fiction, that boys would rather play video games than pick up a book. And I suppose that’s all good and well, and I suppose that’s probably the case for a lot of boys, but what about the boys for whom that’s not the case?

Where are the books for them?

Sadly, I don’t have any answers for this. I’ve heard editors and publishers talk about how there just isn’t a market for boy books, which is why they don’t publish them. I can’t help but wonder, though, if there is a market for them and we’ve just missed it because we’ve convinced ourselves that it doesn’t exist.

In YA scholarly circles, you hear a lot about “mirrors and windows.” It’s the idea that teens need a variety of books to read–some of these books will be windows into lives unlike their own, and some of these books need to be mirrors that reflect their life back at them. Teens–like everyone else–need someone they can identify with in their books. They need someone that they can point to and say, “Hey, this kid is like me.” They need to know they’re not alone in this world. With the amount of girl books on the YA shelves, I don’t think this is a problem for girls. There is a book out there for every 12 to 18 year old female imaginable.

But our 12 to 18 year old males are missing that mirror.

So maybe boys don’t read because they’re not interested in it. Maybe reading has, culturally, become a predominantly female pursuit. Maybe they don’t read books because they’d rather read Wikipedia or play video games. But maybe, just maybe, they don’t read because we have nothing to offer them.

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Life Lessons from Harry Potter

In case you’ve been woefully ignorant of my life for the last thirteen years, I am obsessed with Harry Potter. It’s a healthy kind of obsession, not an “I want to marry Dan Radcliffe and have his children” kind of obsession. You see, I grew up with Harry. I started reading the books when I was nine, just after the third one had come out. And I think it’s probably pretty safe to say that, outside of my parents/family and outside of church/religion-y things, Harry Potter has probably been the most influential thing in my life to date.

And because I’m on the brink of graduating from college and becoming an adult (uh…can you say scary?) and because I’m feeling nostalgic, I thought I’d share with you all some of the lessons I’ve learned from Harry Potter. So for the next little while, all you’re going to be hearing from me is how rad Harry Potter is. If you can’t handle that, then tough it up.

Lesson One: It’s okay to be a strong and intelligent woman.

The rise of Harry Potter happened at the tail-end of the nineties–a time where female role models for young girls primarliy consisted of Britney Spears and The Spice Girls. With the Harry Potter books, J.K. Rowling supplied my generation with an onslaught of strong, intelligent women. Here are some of my favorite examples:

Hermione Granger: She’s probably the first character to come to mind when people think of intelligent female book characters. I love Hermione. She’s gotten a lot of flack about being the stereotypical “smart but ugly girl” over the years. I would know. I once wrote a paper on how the people who thought that were just stupid. (Fact: I rocked that paper.) Here’s the thing about Hermione: yes, she’s brilliant, and yes, she can be a bit of a stickler sometimes, but she never (ever) backs down from what she believes in. Remember SPEW? But more than that, she’s completely dedicated to Harry. In the seventh book, when Ron deserts the horcrux quest, Hermione stays behind. She doesn’t chose to run off with the man she loves. She stays behind with Harry and lives in a tent in the middle of winter and helps with the fruitless hunt for horcruxes. And this wasn’t even the first time that Hermione stuck by Harry when Ron didn’t. (Think Goblet of Fire.) Hermione, for me, was the embodiment of a young woman who never tried to hide her intelligence, never tried to change herself for the approval of others, and never backed down when the path she’d chosen turned difficult.

Nymphadora Tonks: On the surface, I think Tonks comes across as a bit . . . airheaded, perhaps. I attribute that largely to her choice in  hair color and her clumsiness. But she’s a fully trained auror, and that takes quite a bit of work. Think of it like this: In order for a Hogwarts grad to be considered for Auror training, they have to take NEWT level potions. Tonks would have been one of Snape’s students, and he doesn’t take anyone into his NEWT class unless they achieved the highest score on their OWL. And I don’t think anyone would deny that doing that well in Snape’s class takes anything less than brains and a good deal of hard work. So here are the things I especially love about Tonks: she’s a smart woman who doesn’t fall into the “fun-sucking, rule-stickler” stereotype and she’s willing to fight for the man she loves. This is probably just the romantic in me speaking, but Tonks knew that she loved Lupin and she knew that Lupin loved her (but was just being a bit daft) and she wasn’t going to give up on him. Seeing as how the power of love is one of the overarching themes of the novels, Tonks’s love for Lupin and her willingness to stand by him regardless of the difficulties is an important part of the series (which was unfortunately WAY overlooked in the movies).

Molly Weasley: What I love most about Molly is that she’s a stay-at-home-mom, but everyone (the exception to that everyone being Malfoy, whose opinion doesn’t really count right now) respects her for it. After all, Fred and George would toe the line after Hermione threatened to write to Molly about their various misdeeds–these boys weren’t afraid of detention or losing points, they were afraid of their mother’s strength. She’s a strong woman–she has to be, raising six sons and one very headstrong daughter. And she’s happy and willing to stay at home and take care of the children and be the kind of mother they need. She’s not worried about having this grand career. She’s not worried about making lots of money. She’s worried about helping her children become the best people they can be. She’s a compassionate woman. After all, she always treated Harry like one of her own, despite the fact that money was tight in the Weasley home. She’s the mother Harry never knew, and she’s willing to fight to the death for any of her children. After all, can you forget how she took down Bellatrix at the end of Deathly Hallows? I thought not.

Minerva McGonagall: I can only think of one way to put this. McGonagall is a bad ass. Hands down. You don’t believe me? Please consult Order of the Phoenix, the Career Advice chapter, and Deathly Hallows, basically any scene after Harry shows back up at Hogwarts. She’s a smart woman and she knows when to stand her ground. She’s a Gryffindor, through and through, no doubt about it. And while she seems a little strict at times, there’s a lot of heart there, too. (Don’t believe me? Go back to when Gryffindor won the Quidditch Cup in book 3. She’s seen jumping up and down and crying in joy.)

This is only a glance at the many women in Harry Potter. There are plenty of other strong and courageous women (and especially strong and courageous mothers, namely Lily Potter and Narcissa Malfoy). At the same time, they are balanced with women who lie and sneak and abuse power and do evil things. Rowling paints a picture of women that doesn’t hide blemishes. She treats women as real people, just like she treats the men. And at the end of the day, she has provided young girls in generations to come an example of women who don’t deny that they’re smart and who don’t dumb themselves down to get the attention of a boy. These are role models who will last–not just for me, but for future generations of Potter readers as well.

Unlikable Characters: Love ‘Em or Leave ‘Em

I found myself once, in college, dreading a deadline for a research paper in my advanced writing pedagogy class. (Bear with me here, I swear this post gets more interesting). I was at a loss. It had been a long semester, and I was burnt out. Luckily for me my professor said that I didn’t have to write about pedagogy (which would have been as boring as it sounds). I decided to write about my passion, YA Lit, and about a certain topic that had been on my mind: unlikable protagonists.

It’s gutsy to write a book with a main character who is intentionally unlikable (if your main character is unintentionally unlikable, then you have bigger problems.) I know many people who will stop reading a book if the main character is someone who grates on their nerves or could be the poster-child for their pet peeves.

I’ve totally stopped reading a book because of an unlikable character. But then again, I’ve devoured many a book whose main character and I would never, ever be friends with in real life.

So what’s the difference? To be honest, the whole topic is inherently subjective. Though my examples may be disputed, I’ll argue that my conclusion is solid: Whatever unlikable traits the character has, it’s essential that the character has at least one trait that makes her or him sympathetic.

My favorite example is Death from Zusak’s The Book Thief. At first, I didn’t think Death was an unlikable character. But he totally is, at least in theory. Death is the mythic figure who reaps souls at the end of their lives. He is traditionally feared—perhaps due to the fact that he is guided by the undeterrable hand of fate. No matter how you beg, plead, or play chess (bonus points if you can name that movie), he will take you when he says your time has come. So why doesn’t he immediately register as someone who begs to be disliked? In fact, Death is amazingly sympathetic. Props to Zusak. Death is compassionate despite his job; he sees colors where there are none to be found; he even loves humans, despite what he’s seen them do to each other. His final confession is [minor spoiler warning=just go read this masterpiece already] that he is “haunted by humans” (p.550).

Here’s a controversial example: Harry Potter. Just kidding! But no, really. I’m talking about Harry in Order of the Phoenix. He’s angry, whiny, and a touch irresponsible. The first few chapters are painful to read. He lashes out at Ron and Hermione and blames them for following Dumbledore’s orders. He won’t tell Dumbledore about any of his problems, though we as the readers are screaming at him to be sensible. It seems his worst nature is emerging. And yet. Every time I read Order I notice that despite my frustration with Harry I can also understand why he acts the way he does. I’m not even speaking about character motivations. I’m talking about straight-up sympathy. You would be frustrated if you were stuck at home while the man who swore to murder you runs amok. You would be frustrated if you were stuck at home because someone you trusted—and who you believed trusted you—ordered it. You would feel anger if you’d just seen someone die, had strange and dark dreams, and began seeing deathlike invisible horses. Like I said, totally sympathetic.

I could introduce a few examples of truly unlikable characters, but this post has been long enough.  If anyone would like to add any heinous-but-sympathetic-characters in the comments, feel free.

[p.s. in case any of you are wondering how the paper turned out: crushed it.]