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The YA Boy Problem (Again)

the only thing relevant here is that this dog is a boy
Don’t blame me for all the dead horses littering the aisles of bookstores. I’m not the one who keeps beating them and I'm just as fed up as you are that we keep having to revisit this topic thanks to the laziness of others. I’m just trying to wade through the blood and guts and muck and MESS the other folks leave behind. So let me strap on my big girl boots and take yet another stab at responding to the "sky is falling" rhetoric that keeps popping up here and there as supposedly educated persons with lofty literary opinions once again read two YA novels and suddenly feel they have a grasp of the entire age group. So yeah, yet another article about something or other WHY CAN'T WE SAVE XYZ YA READERS? I won't link to the original, because I'd like y'all to stay awake, but I will link to two fantastic rebuttals that approach the topic differently than I do here, by Saundra Mitchell and Phoebe North. To begin, we let's call these persons who write these articles YA Tourists, as coined effectively by Kurtis:

Kurtis ‏@kurtisscaletta @kurtisscaletta @sbrezenoff @SaundraMitchell @jonnyskov Like a lot of ppl writing about YA as a tourist, did not talk to a librarian. Retweeted by Saundra Mitchell 

Dear YA Tourists,

You do yourself a disservice. Not only are you blatantly disregarding what has become the most varied, sophisticated and heartfelt groups of writings out there today—writings which break identity barriers, question social mores and, in the process, tell stories of exceptional quality and beauty— and the most sophisticated group of readers out there (see, for example, teens up in arms over whitewashed covers, etc.) you are introducing yourself to the YA and kidlit world as yet another redundant critic of something you don’t understand. We YA authors and readers are sharp. And, more than any other group of people, see bullshit for exactly what it is.

But enough of the attack. What I would really like to do is help you. As a fellow woman wanting social equality for all—men, women, nongender—I worry that the way you’ve pigeonholed the meaning of “Man” is dangerous for all young generations working so hard to break free of the outdated norms the generations before them were assigned. One of the loveliest things YA fiction has taken upon itself is to question rigid gender roles that minimize how fully a person of any gender can be true to themselves. 

No other genre or age group of fiction can question gender norms as well as YA. Why? Because one of the very definitions of YA fiction is that it explores the self and coming of age in the greater context of society. YA novels question the very nature of who a character was (under the close eye of authority), who the character is now (as s/he pulls away from authoritarian forces) and, most notably, who on earth s/he is going to become, outwith the forces of authority and in the presence of a changed world.

Teen boys today are in a unique position to come of age in a time when they can find representation of themselves and who they want to be, in every possible form, in YA fiction. Putting aside the problems inherent in whining about not being able to find white, middle-class boy books when, in our society, theirs is already the dominant narrative, I would argue that wonderful boy YA novels are all around us. From the traditional tortured hero on a quest in fantasy (not usually shelved as YA, alas, thanks to gender barriers that YA Tourists insist on perpetuating); to straight, white, upper middle class males questioning the privileges that benefit them, but hurt those they care about; to gay and questioning-gender boys trying to sort out how to be male vs. how to fit in the narrow confines of “Man;” to boys of color navigating social, cultural and educational barriers; to boys questioning the role of the military on their personal values; to rural boys, suburban boys, city boys, athletic boys, nerds, lovers and friends, boy characters in YA run the gamut.

Those who take the time to talk to a librarian or source material themselves will find that YA is rife with boys who fit every possible model of manhood out there, including new ones that, sadly, YA Tourists are too drenched in fear to accept. I’m not sorry to be the one to break it to you Tourists, but the world is changing and the range of which teen boys can read about and consequently find references to their own experiences is broadening. Thank goodness. The more we, as YA authors and readers, can normalize boy experiences that don’t fit with antiquated ideals of what it means to be a “Man,” the better off we’ll all be.

In the interest of not just critiquing YA Tourists' thoughts on YA, I wanted to offer, with all the hippie love in my soul, a source for them to find what they're looking for so that they can work for a real change of opinion and come to respect YA as much as millions of readers have. There are "boy YA" lists elsewhere, but here is yet another one. Any others to add, dear readers? Leave us a comment!


YA with a focus on male protagonists:

 My Name Is Not Easy - Debby Dahl Edwardson
Charm and Strange - Stephanie Kuehn
Knights of the Hill Country - Tim Tharpe
Mexican WhiteBoy - Matt de la Peña
Marcelo In The Real World - Francisco X. Stork
The Perks of Being a Wallflower - Stephen Chobosky
 Flight - Sherman Alexie
Going Bovine - Libba Bray
Where She Went - Gayle Forman
 You Against Me - Jenny Downham
Ashfall - Mike Mullin
Where Things Come Back - John Corey Whaley
Nobody But Us - Kristin Halbrook
The Brothers Torres - Coert Voorhees
Will Grayson, Will Grayson - Green and Leviathan
Something Like Normal - Trish Doller
47 - Walter Mosley
The Marbury Lens - Andrew Smith
Monster - Walter Dean Myers
The Piper's Son - Melina Marchetta
The God Box - Alex Sanchez (or any Sanchez)
Boy 21 - Matthew Quick
Insignia - S.J. Kincaid
The Raven Boys - Maggie Stiefvater
A Confusion of Princes - Garth Nix
Wheel of Time series - Robert Jordan (all about Rand learning how to be a man)
Of Monsters and Men series - Patrick Ness
Finnikin of the Rock - Melina Marchetta
Kristin Halbrook

Kristin Halbrook is the author of the critically-acclaimed young adult novels Nobody But Us (HarperTeen, 2013) and Every Last Promise (HarperTeen, 2015). She likes many things.

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  1. Great article, and I couldn't agree more! I have a handful of others to add to the list: THE MAZE RUNNER series by James Dashner, THIS DARK ENDEAVOR by Kenneth Oppel, AN ABUNDANCE OF KATHERINES by John Green, and VARIANT by Robison Wells. I know there are tons more, but my brain is blanking at the moment.

  2. There are a LOT of Australian YA books with a focus on male protagonists!

    - THE MESSENGER (I AM THE MESSENGER in USA) by Markus Zusak (amazing book, just as good as the book thief)

    - When Dogs Cry (Getting the Girl in USA), Fighting Ruben Wolfe, Underdog by Markus Zusak (Wolfe Brothers series)

    - Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey

    - Girl Saves Boy by Steph Bowe

    - Six Impossible Things by Fiona Wood

    There's more but I've just listed my favourite books here. ;) If you haven't read them, do so!

  3. Nice article, but one note: "men, women, transgender, nongender"

    As an agender person I appreciated the inclusion of the word nongender, but "transgender" is not a noun. Non-binary trans* people are not "transgenders." A transgender man or woman is either a man or a woman, not a "transgender." I would strongly suggest taking out transgender as a noun and not using it in the future. It's dehumanizing, misgendering, and propogates the idea that trans men and women cannot be recognized as simply men and women.

    1. Thank you for the discourse, Anon. Article has been updated. I appreciate your comment!

  4. All right! I'm currently writing a series with YA male protagonists, and I'm having a hard time locating YA books with male protags. Strike that--male protags who are well written. I've read some real stinkers in my quest. I love my male characters and I hope someday other girls will swoon over them, too. :-)

    1. You know I'm already swooning over one of them! <3 LOL

  5. Fantastic article. As a female writer who habitually writes first person stories about all kinds of males, I really appreciate this article.

    Call me odd, but there's something liberating about writing the opposite gender. XD

  6. Thanks for this. I thought I'd add some more Australian titles with male protags:

    All of Steven Herrick's books explore what it is to be a boy and a man as part of their bigger story:

    Love, ghosts and nose hair
    A Place Like This
    By the River
    The Simple Gift
    Black Painted Fingernails
    (and others! check them out)

    Nick Earls, too:

    48 Shades of Brown
    After January
    Monica Bloom
    World of Chickens (crossover/adult title)
    (among others...)

    Scot Gardner's books pack a bit of a punch:
    The Dead I Know
    Happy as Larry
    Burning Eddie
    One Dead Seagull

    Mahalia, by Joanne Horniman - about a young man who is raising his baby daughter alone

    The Gathering, Isobelle Carmody
    Game as Ned, Tim Pegler
    Deadly, Unna? and Nukkin Ya, Phillip Gwynne

    Oh lordy, I could go on. But that will do. Hope you're able to check some or all of them out!

  7. Great article! And I love the term YA Tourist!

  8. Thirteen Reasons Why - Jay Asher
    The Vast Fields of Ordinary - Nick Burd
    Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You - Peter Cameron
    Looking for Alaska - John Green
    Paper Towns - John Green
    Hoot - Cal Hiaasen
    My Most Excellent Year - Steve Kluger
    Boy Meets Boy - David Levithan
    Love is the Higher Law - David Levithan (alternating male & female POV)
    Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist - David Levithan & Rachel Cohn (alternating male & female POV)
    The Giver - Lois Lowry
    Hero - Perry Moore
    Bridge to Terabithia - Katherine Paterson
    Flipped - Wendelin Van Draanen (alternating male & female POV)
    Peeps - Scott Westerfeld
    So Yesterday - Scott Westerfeld

  9. Personal Effects by EM Kokie
    Stupid Fast and Nothing Special by Geoff Herbach
    The pull of gravity by Gae Polisner
    Monument 14 by Emmy Laybourne


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Item Reviewed: The YA Boy Problem (Again) Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Kristin Halbrook