I come from a rather specific viewpoint when it comes to books and the book industry. I’m an enthusiastic reader, I’m a hopeful writer, and I’m a bookseller. It looks a little bit like this:
The one thing that marks all three of these is passion. As a reader, as a writer, as a bookseller, I bring passion to what I do. The thing is, that same passion marks a lot of people within our industry, no matter what part of it they’re in. From the writer’s mind through so many other hands until it finally reaches the reader, it isn’t just a job. It’s a life. Even where there’s the coldly practical element of needing a job to pay the bills, we’re there because we want to be there, because we want to be working with books and the people who love to read them.
What that also means is that we have a tendency to get very excited when people attack a perceived flaw in our happy little world. Back in early June, the Wall Street Journal (always a dubious source when it comes to YA) published an article saying that YA was too dark. There were some excellent rebuttals, including that of Maureen Johnson , as well as an impromptu #YAsaves on twitter, wherein thousands of people, within the course of just a few hours, sent in personal, impassioned, brutally honest confessions of how reading YA has helped them in their lives. (To be fair, the WSJ did collect some of these to present as a slideshow on their site.)
When I read that article, I was pissed. Not at the writer- though I certainly had a few choice words about her opinion- because I’ve gotten used to the misconceptions most people have about YA. Even people who read YA sometimes voice the most appalling, ill-informed inanities until it’s all I can do to nod and smile and bite my tongue. It was actually the bookseller that really got me pissed. It isn’t remotely reasonable to expect that booksellers will know every book on the shelves. We all have certain types of books that we prefer to read.
The thing is, any bookseller worth his or her salt also knows what the other employees read. Everyone on staff knows that I’m the one to ask for anything kids, and they know I also read in Sci-fi/Fantasy, History, Science, writing reference, and skim through mystery, fiction, and some others. I don’t read horror but I know who does. I don’t read current events or business, but I know who does. If a customer asks me about something I don’t read, I know who to take them to. If that person isn’t there, I can pass along books I’ve heard them mention, and I give the customer their name so they can come back for more recs. My co-workers know to pass customers to me for middle grade or teen questions.
So why didn’t that bookseller do the same thing? When Amy Freeman of Bethesda, Maryland walked into her bookstore, why did the bookseller- who admitted she didn’t know the section- sit and pass uninformed judgments rather than handing the Ms. Freeman over to an employee who did know the section?
But the thing was done, and the furor eventually died down.
And then there’s a new article. It’s the New York Times this time. I made a post a while back talking about the difference between boys and girls where reading is concerned. By the time they become teenagers, boys are reading substantially less than girls. It’s largely a function of how reading is perceived by society as a whole and the fact that boys aren’t encouraged to read the way girls are. Can part of it be blamed on packaging? Absolutely. Girls don’t mind reading a book with a boy on the cover.
Most boys wouldn’t be caught dead reading a book with a girl on the cover, because to be seen with such a thing would, of course *insert sarcasm here*, be a grave insult to their masculinity and be the equivalent of committing social suicide. Saundra Mitchell has some great things to say about that.
To paraphrase probably more than I should, the new article basically says that boys aren’t reading YA because there are too many girls in it. Editors are purposefully seeking female-centric manuscripts at the expense of books that boys would read, publishers are marketing too much to girls at the expense of boys who might otherwise buy books, etc etc.
To which I say: SHENANIGANS.
Maureen Johnson – who really is an amazing person, and if you don’t follow her on twitter you should (the passionate defenses of reading are balanced by sheer insanity, it’s lovely)- pulled out a post from her blog archives that answered that beautifully. It speaks to the way we’re educated, the overwhelming mindset that forms the way we view books and reading and gender.
But this also goes back somewhat to the bookseller mentioned in the WSJ article. What this really highlights is the amount of people talking about the books in the teen section that have no idea what’s actually in the teen section.
Are there dark books in YA? Yes.
Are there a lot of female-centric books in YA? Yes.
THERE ARE SO MANY OTHER KINDS OF BOOKS THERE AS WELL.
What about Anthony Horowitz’s Alex Rider series? Or Charles Higson’s Young Bond? Or the Cherub series? All high-octane, high-action spy thrillers aimed towards teenage boys. Anything Orson Scott Card, John Green, David Levithan. How about Scott Westerfeld? How about Suzanne Collins? Boys are devouring The Hunger Games, and the fact that it’s written by a female doesn’t factor into that at all- her MG series, Gregor the Overlander, is also a boy favorite. How about Hannah Moskowitz’s books, which are by the way narrated by boys? Catherine Fisher’s books? Too many books about vampires? Vladimir Tod is a vampire, and his story has certainly sold- TO BOYS. He mentions Walter Dean Myers, but what about Christopher Paolini and Christopher Pike and Riggs Ransom? What about Sherman Alexie? Markus Zusak? James Dashner? Paolo Bacigalupi? How’s about Michael Scott? Want me to keep going? D.J. MacHale, Neal Shusterman, Joseph Delaney, Michael Grant? And that’s not even continuing the list of female authors who write strong, central male characters.
And you know what? If boys- and their parents and friends and teachers- didn’t get so hung up on what the covers look like, there’d be even more amazing stories for them to discover, books with strong stories and strong guys. Authors like Sarah Rees Brennan, Holly Black, Cassandra Clare offer stories that should not, under any circumstances, be limited to girls. Holly Black’s White Cate? It’s about a boy from a family of magical con artists. IT HAS A BOY ON THE COVER. I wouldn’t call that a female-centric book, never mind that it’s written by a female author or that it includes female characters.
It isn’t about the number of males writing in YA (male writers make up most of the adult fiction ranks and yet it’s mostly women who buy the books), it isn’t about the books that are out there. The books are there.
What we need to change is the attitude that keeps the boys- and the parents- from finding all of the amazing options that are already out there.
Teens, parents, as a bookseller, I am begging you: ASK US. Ask your booksellers. If you’re looking for books for boys, for younger precocious readers, if you’re looking for books that stay away from the magic or the vampires or the sex/drugs/angsty issues, ask your booksellers. Ask your school librarians, who work so hard to keep up to speed on what kids want to read. Ask the blogging community, ask twitter, but ask us. We’re out here. YA isn’t just my passion or hobby, it’s my JOB. Don’t be content with people who don’t actually know the section. If that bookseller doesn’t know, ask if there’s another employee who does, and when they’ll be there. Ask us.
It makes our day as well as yours.