Are Teen Guys Under-Represented in Young Adult Literature?

I’ve been following the debate over the relative dearth of young adult novels targeted specifically at guys. I blogged about the subject last month. Robert Lipsyte decried a lack of edgy novels targeted to teen guys in the New York Times recently. Saundra Mitchell responded with an excellent list (I’m being self-serving here, given the first title on that list) that includes numerous edgy YA novels featuring male protagonists.

My reaction? I went looking for data. I didn’t find much, so I gave some thought to how I might compile some. R.R. Bowker’s Books in Print database was a bit daunting (I’m trying to write a blog post, not a dissertation. I’ll leave the dissertations to the other, smarter half of my household, thank you very much.) Finally, I hit on the idea of using NetGalley. I classified every book they had listed under “Teens & YA” on 8-26-11. Note this is not very scientific. To keep my own bias to a minimum, I accepted publisher definitions of what constitutes a book for “Teens & YA.” (Board books? Really? Shouldn’t publishers know the difference between a board book and one teenagers read?) Also, NetGalley is mostly large publishers and lists only recent and forthcoming titles. So it’s a rough snapshot of what traditional publishers are pushing for the YA market now. Here’s what I found out:

NetGalley Books Under “Teens & YA” on 8/26/11 (n=240)
# Auts # Prots. % Auts % Prots % Teens
Female 161 121 67% 50% 49%
Male 79 55 33% 23% 51%
Non-fiction 64 27%
Black 3 5 1% 2% 15%
Hispanic 4 4 2% 2% 15%
Asian 2 2 1% 1% 5%

Both male authors and male protagonists were under-represented in this sample. A current YA book on NetGalley is more than twice as likely to be written by a woman and about a female protagonist than by or about a guy.

As I’ve written before, I don’t blame the publishing industry for this. If I were working for a New York publisher, I’d be privileging YA targeted to girls, too. That’s what sells.

It’s important to put the problem in context. Racial minorities are underrepresented far more severely than guys. Minorities are represented in the teenage population between 6 and 12 TIMES more heavily than authors or books portraying them were in this sample.

What do you think? What can we do to address these problems? Let me know in the comments, please.

16 thoughts on “Are Teen Guys Under-Represented in Young Adult Literature?

  1. You make a great point here. When a girl comes into the library looking for a book I am usually excited because I know I can help her find something. When a boy comes in I have to start racking my brains hoping he likes what little I have and isn’t scared off by the age of the book. I would agree that it is certainly harder to find fiction written for guys especially newer fiction. Of course I have my old standbys, Horowitz’s series, Gary Paulsen, Rick Riordan, etc… But when the guys are looking at my new shelf, most of what they find is directed to teen girls–with maybe the exception of the nonfiction and the graphic novels. I wish we could see more written for guys, but you are right, it isn’t where the publisher are going to make money. Too bad guys and minorities are so underrepresented. I can’t wait until your book comes out–I already have some guys here at the library I have been hand selling it to!

  2. That’s great! Thanks, Melissa. Riordan and Horowitz are definitely bright spots, in that they appeal to boys and sell very well. My sense is that they’re largely read by the 10-14 year-old crowd–is that about right? I worry about what we hand to teens who’ve graduated from Riordan and Horowitz.

  3. Mike, I think it is an extremely serious problem—both for males and minorities. Reading is the gateway to education. I’m not against comic books, interactive books, video games and Sesame Street. All teach, but real learning comes from reading. And boys aren’t reading. I commented on what I considered Ms Mitchell’s simplistic solution of teaching boys to appreciate girls’s feelings. Great idea, and should be done, but it ain’t gonna work. Few boys are going to be interested learning much about girls except to improve their sex lives. We need more real books written by authors from a young male’s prospective. And maybe some women can do this, I don’t know. I suspect your book will be one of these; can’t wait to read it.

  4. Mike, there were over 1,300 children’s writers and illustrators at the SCBWI national conference (including faculty) and do you know how many of them were male? Lin Oliver made a joke about the fact that they’d finally broken 150 male attendees. And yet, I’d say over half of the faculty were male.

    Female attendees were more than a thousand strong. If that’s any indication, there are approximately 100 female YA writers to every 1-2 male YA writers. So, to me, the marketplace shows its still easier to get a book published per individual male than it is per female. And you’re also much more likely to hit it big in the conference circuit as a male, as well.

    I agree that males and minorities are underrepresented in fiction and I hope more male and minority writers step up to play the game. But it’s tough to get up in arms about the discrepancy when you notice the lineup at bat.

  5. You know what though, how about adding up some MG numbers? Honestly I think there are far more books w/male protag in that age range then there are girls. Think Percy Jackson and Harry Potter–where girls will still read these books, boys are FAR FAR less likely to read a book about a female protag than girls are to read a book with a male one. That is a society thing, not a lack of good books thing.

    I think looking at YA numbers alone is sort of misleading. YA is so losely defined, and honestly I have not read a single YA book this year that was not centered around some sort of romance. Well we know that romance isn’t exactly a big market for guys anyway. Yet no one is complaining about guys being under represented in the chich lit romance genre ;)I believe if you were to remove the paranormal romances, the urban fantasy romances, the dystopian romances from the YA numbers you would see a completely different story–mainly most of the books would be missing.

    It seems like where we lose guys from reading is in the MG years, and I don’t think there is a lack of good books in that age range. I think as a society we are failing to keep them interested in literature.

    Just think, how many young adult books were there when you were a kid? Not that meany right? Because it’s a milestone you don’t have to hit. You can go from “kids” books like The Chronicles of Narnia and Fablehaven into a lot of adult books.

  6. Oh, I also forgot to mention I am half Mexican American. I never really paid attention to the race of the main character as a kid reading however, as a writer I have written several books with hispanics as protags (Heroes & Vallenez, The Last Double Crosser of Avenue M, Barneby Knotts) and I find my positive responses from them higher. I have had an agent tell me she is actively looking for books with minorities but that no one is writing them.

  7. @Ben Thanks for the interesting comment. You touch on sex–I think that’s precisely one of the problems. Teen guys and girls look at sex differently–I can dig out the research if anyone doesn’t believe me. Some of the most popular YA is populated by boyfriends who gently croon to their love interest while she snuggles safely in her own bed. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that–it’s great for girls to have books that meet their needs. But it’s not going to interest most teen guys.

  8. @Alina, I wonder why more than half the SCBWI faculty was male? My impression from the blogosphere is that the vast majority of children’s editors and agents are female, although I don’t have data to back that up. I could quantify what portion of agents are female by looking at all those accepting YA queries on QueryTracker, for example. Is there a similar list of editors anywhere? Maybe I’ll do another blog post on that topic.

  9. @Angela, Yes, I’ve heard again and again from teachers and parents that we lose male readers in the transition from MG to YA. The great readers skip right to adult work (which is fine). The rest largely quit reading (which is not).

    I think “romance” can sell to guys. I recall thinking constantly about “romance” when I was a teen–wait, I still do. Nevermind. It’s just that my idea of romance isn’t sitting at the foot of some girl’s bed strumming a guitar while she sleeps. Nothing wrong with that, and obviously it meets a need for some girls, but equally obviously it’s not inspiring guys to read.

  10. Alina and Mike: You’re right Alina about men and conferences. I attended SCBWI Midsouth last year, and one twenty-something female editor told me she would remember me. It wasn’t because of my writing or stimulating conversation; I was an old white haired guy in a sea of women. And Mike, I don’t understand the ratio at national either. That’s not my experience at conferences. This years Midsouth faculty has 9 women and 2 men.

  11. I may have been exaggerating about over half, but it was a much greater percentage than what the audience was composed of. It just struck me because of Lin’s comment, mostly.

    As for minorities, in my novel coming out next year there is a Chicana character who plays a big part. I hadn’t considered that such a thing might be unique.

  12. Chicana characters are certainly rarer than they should be, so that’s awesome, Alina! I’ll do the YA agent data compilation sometime. I can’t think of an easy way to do editors, though. Maybe Publisher’s Marketplace keeps a list?

  13. Boys’ brains work very differently than girls’, so they are attracted to a very different kind of book. They do judge a book by it’s cover, and sometimes we have to trick them (i.e. Hunger Games) into reading something we know they will like – even if the protagonist is a female.
    Female authors have been using their initials for years, as boys will not pick up a book written by a woman (see S.E. Hinton or J.K. Rowling).
    Finally, boys really do need much more stimulation – writing that is action packed and more vivid. We lose so many male readers right around age 13, and they revert to comic books or just magazines.
    I guess I’m in trouble, as my current WIP has an Asian male as it’s main character.

  14. Keep Tanglewood Press in the back of your head, Jay. They’re interested in both male YA protagonists and multicultural literature. They’re publishing ASHFALL, of course, but also the excellent Chengli and the Silk Road Caravan this fall. You don’t need an agent to submit to them, either.

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