Monday, July 30, 2012

How To Get Boys To Read Books With Girls As Protagonists

There is a MG author who hates teachers.  Really.  A few years back, Ms. MG ranted about how teachers are evil for teaching the classics and that they should teach only newer books (because classics are "outdated.")  More recently, she has started ranting that teachers are evil because we make boys think they can only read boys' books and that homeschooled boys read girls' books because they are free from the evil teachers.  Then, another author, this one a YA author, got into the rant as well.
As a teacher AND as an author, I'm pretty POed about this.
Neither Ms. MG nor Ms. YA has ever been a teacher, and neither woman has parented teenagers (yet).
I suspect that neither one of them knows much about pre-teen or young teen boys.
I've been a teacher longer than either one of them has been a writer.
Let me put out a few basic facts about junior high kids, and then we'll play a little game to see if you readers can predict which books teen boys would not want to read and why.  My goal here is to point out that it's not the teachers who are preventing boys from reading books with female protagonists.
Factoid #1 About Junior High Teens: In their own minds, they believe the entire world is watching them all the time.  They are the center of the universe and everyone will know if they are cool or uncool.
Factoid #2: The worst possible thing that can happen to a junior high kid is to be socially excluded.  To have the wrong hair/shoes/complexion/slang/folder/lunch period/hobbies/music/whatever is to be socially excluded.
Factoid #3: To avoid exclusion, which everyone else will know about because -- after all -- everyone is watching, one must appear not only to be incredibly cool but also to be far distant from anything uncool.
Factoid #4: Puberty-ridden teens are fairly often confused by all the hormones surging through them in unpredictable ways.  Most of them have no idea that their friends and classmates feel equally confused. Many of them also are willing to accept that some people are gay/lesbian, but they fear it might happen to them -- which would make them a minority and therefore possibly uncool.
(Please note: to any gay/lesbian readers or friends/parents thereof:  I am not implying that being gay is "uncool" or "bad."  I am merely pointing out that most junior high kids fear being different, which often leads to their fearing being perceived as gay -- even some of the kids who are gay.  I am merely trying to point out that these identity struggles play a part in how a lot of boys choose books/music/etc.)
Homophobia is a common problem, therefore, in junior high, and we teachers work hard to stamp it out -- like we do racism and sexism.

Now that you have these tidbits under your belt, let's see how well you do with predicting which books the average 12-year-old boy would NOT want to be caught dead with. lest he be perceived as uncool.
We all know the saying, "you can't judge a book by its cover."  Yet we all do that very literally all the time.  A great book with a bad cover will not sell many copies, and a bad book with an awesome cover will often sell well at first.  So let's look at some YA book covers.  Pretend you know nothing about the books.  Pretend you are a 12-year-old boy.  Which of the following would you NEVER, ever want to be seen with?

Choice A:

Choice B:

Choice C:

Choice D:

Choice E:

Choice F:

Have you got your choices in mind?  Good.  Hold that thought for a moment.  We'll come back to it.
Now, pretend you haven't seen any covers.  Pretend you are a 12-year-old boy and you are listening to your teacher describe books to the class.  Which of these books would you NEVER, ever want to be caught dead reading, lest you be considered uncool?

Choice A: This is about a warrior princess who leads her armies against a huge empire trying to take over her country.  It has werewolves, snow leopards, and vampires in it.

Choice B:  This is about a girl who must fight to survive in a government-run reality show that pits people against each other in a fight to the death for other people's entertainment.

Choice C:  This is a Cinderella-type story about a girl who is chosen for her beauty and talents to compete in a type of beauty pageant to be the wife of a prince.

Choice D:  This is about a girl who is part of Robin Hood's band.  The band is fighting against the unjust government by a usurper to the king of England.

Choice E:  This is an updated version of Cinderella, but it's science fiction, and the Cinderella character is an android and a mechanic.

Choice F:  This is about a girl who's trained to be a spy/assassin, but when she's sent on her first really big mission to find the traitor, she falls in love with the guy she's supposed to be spying on.

Okay.  Are you ready to tell me which books would be completely avoided by the 12-year-old boys?  And can you tell me why?
Notice that these are all fairly recent books, all YA, and all with female protagonists.  But I, as a long-time teacher, can guarantee that certain books on this list will be treated as leprous by the boys in the class. AND THIS WILL HAVE NOTHING TO DO WITH THE TEACHER, BUT EVERYTHING TO DO WITH THE BOOK COVERS AND THE STORYLINES.
You see, it is not the teachers who are making certain books so that boys will not want to read them; it is the authors and the artists who design the covers who do that.
The two authors I mentioned before are dead wrong about who's to blame -- and they are not looking at their own work to realize that.  (No, I haven't put either of those two authors here on purpose.)

Well, then, my readers.  Please be brave.  Put your comments as to which book(s) you think the boys would avoid and why in the comments section.
Tomorrow, I'll post the teacher's answers and explain why.

UPDATE:  The post with my answers is now ready.  Just click here.


  1. Let’s see, from the covers:
    Choice A – No. Girly font and the only thing to attract them, the white panther with fangs bare, is in the background.
    Choice B – Yes. Bold angular font and “games”.
    Choice C – when the devil starts wearing long johns. Maybe.
    Choice D – Hmm, maybe. She is beautiful and the knife is a plus.
    Choice E – again. Devil. Long johns.
    Choice F – Another maybe. Manly font, a good looking woman holding a crossbow and the word “Grave”.
    From the descriptions:
    A – Yes. Warrior princess, fighting, werewolves, snow leopards and vampires. As long as the vampires don’t sparkle.
    B – Maybe. Lost some of them at “about a girl”, but “fight to the death” might bring some back.
    C – No. Maybe if it had pictures of the girls in the beauty pageant, but short of that, no interest at all.
    D – Maybe, again it starts out with “about a girl”, but quickly connects her to Robin Hood, fighting and overthrowing a government.
    E – No – although android and mechanic may catch the interest of a few, the Cinderella story will probably deflect most.
    F – Hmmm. If you hook them with the spy/assassin and tracking down a traitor, and gloss over the love story part, you’ll have them.

    1. The vampires in Cry of the Icemark do not sparkle. I promise. :)

  2. Great post. If I offered these books to my teenage boys, I think they would say no to any cover except Choice B. Based on the content descriptions, I think any book would have a chance except the two that mention Cinderella; however, if they liked the description and then saw one of those other covers, then it would be a deal breaker.

  3. YA Reads sent this tweet:

    YA Reads
    @lisamshafer I love this!! I'm a teacher too, and I teach what the state and my principal tells me I have to. Sheesh.

  4. I think that most boys (not all) would only read The Hunger Games in front of other people. They MIGHT read the other books, but I think that they would read them out of the sight of others. It was be considered "uncool" for a boy to be reading a book with a girl, dresses, or female body parts on a book. Kids are cruel.

  5. Covers only
    A: yes -- girl in armor, snow leopard. I think boys would be okay with this cover.
    B: yes -- symbol is mysterious, cover design is simple and begs explanation
    C: no -- blue frilly dress.
    D: yes -- the eyes and the knife are intriguing
    E: no -- I have no idea, really. I don't think a 12 y.o. boy wants people to see him reading a book with a stiletto heel shoe on it. But what do I know?
    F: no -- I think the crossbow is too subtle. If the boy notices the bow, then maybe.

    A -- yes. war, monsters, evil empire. I think these are timelessly acceptable to young boys
    B -- no. Girl, reality show. I think that would lose them.
    C-- definitely not. Cinderella is for girls. Beauty pageants is for girls. The boy would be scared of people thinking he is gay.
    D -- Yes. Robin Hood is boy approved (I think). Fighting unjust governments sounds like it would be appealing to boys, (and girls), too.
    E -- ?? cinderella as an android mechanic. I think the android mechanic bit might be strong enough to win out over the girly stereotype of a Cinderella story.
    F -- no. Love story with girl protagonist. Not a chance. Even if she is a spy.

    OK -- I was hoping you had already posted the answers so I didn't have to risk writing my opinions down and getting them wrong. But, alas. I must continue to wait.