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YA Books for Girls, where does that leave Boys?

Posted by Rowena Cory Daniells on September 10, 2011

Lara Morgan, author of the Rosie Black Chronciles is visiting ROR.



Take it away, Lara.

These days it seems that whenever you look in the YA section of bookshops the titles that smack you in the eye first are those dark covers with brooding images, aimed squarely at the teenage girl. Heroines with powers, heroines in danger, heroines with quirky side kicks – it’s all about girl power in the market. Or so it seems.  Blogs, newspapers, earnest people over coffee, are all talking about how there aren’t any books for boys in YA anymore. That the market has been overrun by books for girls, about girls, with girly themes, and that the implication then is this is all wrong and something should be done for the poor hard done by teen boys.

I, for one, am wondering if the teen boys in this question actually care. Has anyone asked them or are we all just speaking for them? And is the great female take-over really happening?

I’m not convinced. Actually after a century, or more, of books for YA being dominated by male characters, saving the girls, written by male authors, part of me is cheering just a little bit. A recent study of young adult novels released between 1900 and 2000 showed that males were the central characters in 57% of books published per year while only 31% of the central characters were female.


So, really, it’s only in the last eleven years that girls have started to become the more dominant lead characters in YA fiction. And I’m not going to be sorry about that. A part of me wants to say (hands on hips), well isn’t it about time we girls got to dominate something? Men have more of just about everything on this planet. More power, more money, more rights.  Is the fact that girls hold a bigger place in YA really such a tragedy?

I know some may say that is not a very PC view to hold, but I’m finding it hard to be repentant. It’s not that I don’t care about boys reading – I passionately believe all kids should read – but I don’t think there being a glut of books with female protagonists out there is what’s stopping them. Contrary to the hysteria, there are plenty of books with male protagonists, if that’s what you want.  I think boys not reading is caused by a range of issues and it’s certainly not a new thing, nor the result of more girls in fiction. Boys were reading less when I was in school and that certainly was before 2000.

I don’t have any answers, but what I do believe is, at the moment, girls read more than boys and I think girls are encouraged to gravitate more towards the inner life than the outer, but I’m not convinced that boys won’t read books featuring female protagonists. I think we train them not to and it’s such an ingrained habit that we don’t even know we’re doing it. I think part of the problem is that adults just don’t offer boys books about girls, probably with the greatest of intentions. The reasoning being; we need to encourage him to read so let’s give him a story about spies or pirates not that one about a girl who rides dragons. And even those of us who want everyone to read everything do it.

I write YA with a female protagonist and it is marketed for girls, though when I was writing it I didn’t think about who the reader would be, just what the story was. Now I have been delightfully surprised when people have told me their son read it and loved it, because I didn’t think boys would.  That fact I am surprised a boy read it shows I am also guilty of putting that boy in a ‘he won’t read that’ box.  You see how this mindset is everywhere?

So what do we do? Well we work on changing our own attitudes and try to pass that change on. Yes girls read more than boys, yes at the moment there are a lot of books out there with female protagonists but is that really such a terrible thing? For a long time girls have been reading about boys saving the world, about boys saving them and boys have been reading them as well and absorbing the message that they always have to be the hero, the strong one. Maybe it’s time to show a different point of view, maybe boys will be relieved they can be the side kick for a change with the wit instead of the sword. Give both sexes some credit and let’s see where this takes us.




Lara is giving away a copyof the Genesis and the question is:

What’s your favourite YA book with a female lead character, that you’ve read recently or as a child, and why?





32 Responses to “YA Books for Girls, where does that leave Boys?”

  1. /recently finished Unearthly by Cynthia Hand and the lead character, Clara blew me away. With the circumstances that surrounded her she easily could of ended up a whiny brat but instead shines through as someone to admire yet retains an honest and down to earth realistic feel. Also in my opinion there is definitely not enough YA for boys. Being the mum of a read-aholic son we often find choices very limited and frustrating.

    • Cecilia my boys went from reading children’s books to grown up books and refused to read anything that was branded as YA because they felt that was patronising.

      Have your bosy tried Richard Harland’s Worldshaker?

      If they are around 15 they they might like my King Rolen’s Kin books, they are top end YA cross-over.

      • He is only 11 nearly 12, but reading at around 14-15 years so he still mixes it up between child/adult. Your books are on his wishlist, I won’t let him borrow mine since hes a bender lol so I’ve told him he better save his pocket money and get himself a signed copy at Supanova 🙂

      • Nigel said

        I find that a bit sad, Rowena. As an adult, I still read YA novels. In fact, I often find them *more* satisfying than books intended for adults. For example, I much prefer Neil Gaiman’s YA books to his adult books.

    • Look forward to seeing him and saying Hi to you both, Cels!

  2. Robert Deckert said

    Alma Alexander’s Worldweavers series features a protagonist who has saved the world at least three times in the first three books. Oh, by the way, she’s a girl. Of the three books, I’m partial to the third, Cybermage, in good part because it features a fictional depiction of one of the most remarkable real men in history, Nichola Testa.

  3. Aleta said

    Anne McCaffrey’s “Dragonsong” is my favourite. It tells of Menolly, who, when her mentor dies, is forbidden by her community to play music because she is “just a girl”. Not being able to express herself nearly breaks her spirit, and she ends up living away from everyone she knows. Though isolated, slowly she regains both her self esteem and her music, and eventually becomes an apprentice of the Harper Hall – where she is able to live her dream of being a composer. Lots of wonderful messages for young women in this one.

    • Good point, Aleta. Girls have so much more stacked against them. This makes for more interesting conflict.

      • I loved McCaffery’s strong female caharcters, be they Killashandra, Lessa, Helva or Menolly, which is why it is always disappointing to me that none of them ever seem to make it to the top(I call them Glass Ceiling Girls). It always disturbed me that MacCaffrey always writes a man in their life who is just a little better, more senior, who has authority over them.

      • This would be due to Anne McCaffrey’s generation. When she grew up that was the paradigm. It’s very hard to escape the socialisation you recieve before you’re 10 years old.

  4. Reading diet is always a matter of taste. As an adult male reader, I want to be entertained. I want to be lost in a page-turner plot and with characters I can relate to – and whether they are male or female is irrelevant. Pehaps many/most YA readers want to discover, in stories and in real life, if other people of their own sex have similar feelings and problems as they do, and so gravitate to books that are orientated towards male or female characters – at least, for the main one. And they asprire to be like a book’s hero. But I’m guessing. At the age of 14, my favourite books were Gerald Durrell’s and David Attenborough’s adventues in Africa – and I still favour non-fiction.

    As a writer, it is the whole story that I want readers to be absorbed by (while I appreciate that if they don’t like the main character by the end of the third page, they’ll probably never pick up the book again). I hope the setting or time period is unimportant to readers, because I’m in Australia writing about characters in 19th century London. It’s a creative biography of a famous UK hermit, told from his brother’s and sisters’ imagined point of view – mainly his brother’s. But the child who grows up to be the hermit gets thrown out of school twice, is a spoilt brat, an embarrasment to his siblings and family …so I’m imagining there’s a possibility that it could be YA, but I’m not sure and I’ll let others judge that when it’s finished.

    All best wishes


  5. Braiden said

    Great post Lara! Now being a reviewer, 90% of the time I don’t care if I’m reading a boy or girl book because it’s the story and the messages and extrapolating the thoughts that count. But sometimes I do get frustrated when I constantly read the same thing over and over again just with different paranormal elements which all the girls ever like is the badass hot guy. When girls start swooning, I start gagging. Sometimes serious romance in books deters me but most of the time I just skim through it because it really does nothing to the story besides exciting the girl readers. If we look to The Hunger Games, I’m sure we see many boys reading it regardless that the protagonist is female. So I guess it’s entirely on the reader’s choice if they want to read something, however lately I have seen boys read “girl” books even if it’s out of curiosity instead of instinct.

    In terms of the question, I was going to choose The Hunger Games but that is an obvious question as Katniss is kickass to the bone. But I choose Eon/Eona by Alison Goodman as Eona exhibits traits that so few males do. Although knowing the risks, she masquerades as a boy to train as a dragoneye warrior and when she does she uncovers the truth of a spirit dragon, the Mirror Mirror Dragon that has a female dragoneye warrior and because females have been oppressed in the world, the dragon has not been controlled for years. So I guess what I’m trying to say is that Eona did what was wrong, in order to do right, and that as we go through the duology we see Eona take the world by storm and harness herself as a woman to save the world. And because of the oppression of women within the first book, Eona constantly denies to embrace her true nature. I guess you get my point about why I choose Eona. Alison Goodman has crafted such an ideal female character that we need more of in YA instead of the leads who constantly need a boy to save them.

  6. Chris L said

    I went through high school and college at a time when girls were being strongly encouraged to do science and maths subjects, to the point where successful women would come to school and talk about how wonderful life was if you only chose subjects that the boys normally did, For us boys there was nothing, and I think that’s dangerous. People assume there’s some type of historical momentum at work, but it’s just not true. If you get kids yong enough, you can change the attutides of a generation in one fell swoop and that’s what we saw. Suddenly girls were doing better at school and the guys were totally left inthe cold. Some might say “Well, it’s about time.”

    That attitide doesn’t help the boys of this generation.

    Everyone needs role models. I’m not saying it’s up to publishers to select stories with equal numbers of F/M protagonists. I’m saying it’s up to writers to look at the market and provide strong role models for both sexes.

  7. laramorgan said

    HI everybody and thanks so much for commenting on my post – sorry I’ve been absent I was playing the author role at the Big Sky writers festival this weekend so have been away from my computer.

    It’s especially great to see books being mentioned I haven’t yet read – so more to add to the ever increasing ‘to read’ list.

    Peter – I think you make a good point about why people gravitate towards certain kinds of books. And, just as an aside, My Family and Other Animals is still one of my favourite books. Mad family!

    Braiden – I think one of the reasons those paranormal romance books – which make you gag and which I agree can have a lot of similarities – are so popular with girls is that from a very young age girls are fed this line from society that their greatest goal should be to achieve that ‘great romantic love” and now that bad ass hot guys are the ones who can provide it. Never mind in reality bad ass guys are generally just, well, bad. Maybe its all of us being soaked for too long in the cinderalla syndrome. But I also think that girls know it’s a fantasy – which may be why those books are so popular. If you can’t really have it, reading about it is the next best thing. And hey maybe those boys you’ve seen reading the ‘girls’ book might do it for enjoyment and to pick up tips on what girls like. hmmm

    Chris – very interesting comment about your school years. I’ve been under the impression though that, as a whole, girls have always done better than boys in school if you look at grade averages. did you mean girls were doing better at science and maths in school than boys? I agree with you though that it is not the right way to go – encouraging one sex in favour of the other does no one any favours. Maybe there can be a drive to encourage boys to consider the arts as a career? I’ve met so many male authors who say they were teased or ostracised in high school because they would rather read and write than play sport. I think its time we stop pigeon holeing genders and let people be who they want to be. If only it were so easy!

    oh and Rowena – love that you referenced Buffy. Buffy is and always will be a total legend (thanks Joss Whedon) and a great model for girls AND boys

    thanks so much

  8. Brendan said

    One thing I like about many of the books I read as a kid is that the characters weren’t boys and girls, they were just children. In The Enchanted Wood, while it is true that when helping around the house Bessie and Fanny may have done washing while Jo worked in the garden, when they went on adventures their gender made little difference, and that while prettier, Silky was just a little less naughty than Moon-Face.

    I suppose if I had to give top place to one female lead it would be Kelandry in Tamora Pierce’s Protector of the Small series. Kel is not special in any way except for her determination and intelligence, which puts her above my favourite Pratchett women(Susan, Esk and Tiffany), although to be fair Tiffany is written to be as good as she is at witching for the same reasons, since her real “special talent” is cheese making(close second?).

    As the site Topless Robot says in it’s 10 Badass Women from Fantasy Literature
    It has to be said that this list could almost be totally made up of Tamora Pierce’s awesome heroines. That’s as may be, but Keladry of Mindelan is no second choice.

    My last word on good characterisations comes from Avatar: The Last Air Bender. When Sokka appologises to Suki for treating her like a girl and not a warrior, she tells him “I am a warrior… but I am a girl too.” It says it all really.

  9. Melita said

    My name is Mina by David Almond. It expresses the stifling of creativity,imagination and original thought that too often happens in schools and the kick arse main character invents the best words! It also uses typography to great effect and it really helps you enter Mina’s magnificent world.

  10. […] can slip into the gender-divide mindset. Over on the ROR blog, Lara Morgan, YA writer was talking about gender and YA when she […]

  11. […] can slip into the gender-divide mindset. Over on the ROR blog, Lara Morgan, YA writer was talking about gender and YA when she […]

  12. Nigel said

    I cannot really comment on other countries, but in Australia there has for some time been a strong strain of anti-intellectualism. Reading for educational or entertainment purposes is not a mainstream pursuit. And this trend is stronger in boys/men than it is in girls/women.

    I grew up on a farm. Our nearest neighbours lived about 10kms away, and they didn’t have kids. We had a TV, but the only channel we got was ABC and it was powered by a generator, not by mains power. I had a choice — read, or go slowly insane from boredom. And this set the trend for me. But I recognise that that I’m in a minority.

    Even amongst my roleplaying game buddies (far from the blokiest of guys), actually reading fantasy books is far from a universal activity. Their interest is in dragons and wizards and magic, not in reading about them. The distinction seems odd to me, and I’m constantly trying to encourage them to read fantasy books I enjoyed, but to limited avail.

  13. Nigel said

    One of the most interesting, and disturbing, experiences I have had was playing World of Warcraft (WoW), on and off, for about a year.

    For those who don’t know WoW is a combat-heavy online roleplaying game. In it, you assume a role such as an orc warlock or elf mage or undead warrior. I experimented with a few different combinations, including female characters. But the prevailing attitude amongst the mainly male player base seemed to be that doing so implied some deepseated psychological problems. I found this quite odd. Roleplaying another species seemed to be OK. Roleplaying a mage or warlock seemed to be OK. But a guy roleplaying a female character was viewed with deep suspicion.

    And that’s where things lie, I think. Real men don’t roleplay female characters. Real men don’t go to chick movies. And real men don’t read books by women, for fear that it will turn out to be chick lit and their buddies will think they’re gay (even though much of what is written by women isn’t really chick lit).

    But I would have expected more of the fantasy genre. One of the central themes of fantasy is the exploration of ‘other’. Why shouldn’t this include the other gender? Women have for some time been reading fantasy by male authors with male (and often extraordinarily masculine) central characters. Why shouldn’t men be reading fantasy by female authors with female central character?

  14. davefreer said

    Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones. Because it helped me understand girls better, and because I had always loved Tam Lin, and because no one does that feeling of a magical world just under the realism better than she did.

    A couple of points:

    “So, really, it’s only in the last eleven years that girls have started to become the more dominant lead characters in YA fiction”

    The article you cite says that they reached approximate parity in 1990. So, actually, that’s 21 years. A generation. Or in other words, not the generation of YA readers picking up your book today, but their parents generation. It only managed to achieve the image of bias (31% you quote) by averaging back to 1900. As books have a copyright life of 12 years unless still in print, and most age off book-store shelves in 3 months, with 3 years being a good run, this is now at the point where you cannot find older YA from pre-parity in libraries, let alone anywhere else.

    “And I’m not going to be sorry about that. A part of me wants to say (hands on hips), well isn’t it about time we girls got to dominate something? Men have more of just about everything on this planet. More power, more money, more rights. Is the fact that girls hold a bigger place in YA really such a tragedy?”

    That depends on what sort of future you want for tomorrow’s girls. There is a direct correlation between violent crime and education. There is a direct correlation between education and reading. Men are (thank you testosterone) more likely to commit violent crime. They are also IIRC on average 1.2 times bigger stronger, faster etc. As Rowena will tell you, all else being equal, a man will beat a woman in a fight. I have beloved God-daughters, and I hope to have grand-daughters one day. I have a strong vested interest in seeing boys grow up into readers too. Besides, discrimination usually backfires.

    “About time” -well, if you had a time machine, yes, wholeheartedly. But the readers you’re so happy to see excluded weren’t even born when parity was reached. All you’re doing is supporting the creation a fresh generation of victims of discrimination, based purely on their gender. Does that make you feel satisfied? It just makes me feel sad.

    Besides as a writer I fail to see the point in wanting to willfully exclude 50% of the possible market.

    Finally: who benefits from this? – besides the little glow of ‘we’re on top’ schadenfreude? As far as I’ve been able to work out it’s no-one. More boys reading YA will not take away your audience. I’m really struggling to understand this ‘it’s a woman’s preserve and that’s okay’ attitude. It just seems so… narrow. Honestly, the presence of a boy or gender-neutral book on the same shelf will not give your book boy-cooties or steal your readers unless you were only selling to because of a lack of competition.

    “yes at the moment there are a lot of books out there with female protagonists but is that really such a terrible thing?”

    No. IF and only if boys will read them though. I’m not convinced the gender or color of the lead protag makes a squat’s worth of difference. However, there are things that do – covers for one, in my opinion. Would it not be worth trying to find out what those issues really are?

    “I’ve been under the impression though that, as a whole, girls have always done better than boys in school if you look at grade averages.”

    Actually, no, Lara. Girls started to ‘outperform’ boys very recently at school level, basically as a result of changes in how work was assessed. There have been enough good solid science studies done to indicate that there is no real difference in median intelligence (which, as we share the same genes bar one chromosome, is logical) so in theory the results should be the same. I speak from memory here but IIRC corrective measures started being employed in mark allocation from about the ’60’s (before that boys always got higher marks on average). IIRC correctly the gender balance point for university entrance in the UK was 1990, or 1991. The situation had actually got so bad remedial action (very sensibly done IMO – not throwing the baby out with the bathwater, but moving partly back to some individual work, and tests, instead of all group work and projects) has been undertaken and this year is the first year the trend has actually reversed back toward 50:50. It is apparently in a worse case in the US, where many liberal arts colleges have passed 75% point. There is still some denial about this being a problem, by those with vested interests, but it’s becoming obvious something needs to be done.

  15. SCSIwuzzy said

    Given that Heinlein and Forester are pretty timeless, I’m not terribly concerned if most of the new YA fiction is girl oriented. Any decent library has plenty of options for boys that don’t want to read about weepy sparkly vampires 😉

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