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Voice and Character in MG Boy Books

In the WriteOnCon chat, I caused a bit of a kerfuffle with fantastic writer Hannah Moskowitz (if you haven’t read BREAK, stop reading this, go buy that at your local indie, and go read it this instant). I said that, for MG boy books, in particular, sometimes the sense of action and adventure trumps voice. I still stand by that. I’ve been reading a lot of MG boy books recently. While they’re all well-written, I sometimes feel like the pacing and plot can hold more emphasis to readers and publishers than a really great, character-driven, literary voice. At least that’s what I see when I look at what’s on shelves these days.

Well, Hannah disagreed and said that voice and character are just as important in boy books as it is in girl books. We never disagreed over this point, I don’t think, but I didn’t want to hijack chat to make that clear. Of course boy books should put just as much emphasis on voice as they do on plot. But when I look at what’s out there, especially in MG, I don’t see it as much. And it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. Do boys read the kinds of books that publishers publish because those are the kinds of books they want or because those are the kinds of books that are getting published?

If you pick up, say, a MG book marketed to and published for girls, you will find pages dripping with interiority, character, inner monologue, inner tension, emotions, and, yes, of course, action and plot. If you pick up a MG with a boy protagonist, more likely than not, you will find lots of quick scenes, action, adventure, dialogue, and less of the kind of slow, interior stuff that tends to give more flesh and meaning to characters.

But that’s how things tend to be on shelves right now. That doesn’t mean that’s how it has to be. Hannah has written a great post about boy characters in YA, it’s called The Boy Problem. I think this also can apply to boy characters in MG. There are a lot of boy main characters in MG, and those boy readers are at a crucial point in their reading lives…they usually read through age 12 and then drop off the reading planet entirely or swing up to adult fiction to, as Hannah says, find stories that are relevant to them there.

There are, of course, writers with fantastic voice who target MG boys. Eoin Colfer, Rick Riordan, Daniel Handler/Lemony Snicket, M.T. Anderson, Jeff Kinney, Trenton Lee Stewart, Nancy Farmer, Carl Hiaasen, the authors featured in the GUYS READ: FUNNY BUSINESS anthology coming out this fall from Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins (edited by Jon Scieszka), and many more. They know how to tie characterization and voice together with action and plot in a way that’s really appealing to MG boy readers.

But other published MG books out there, and some of the submissions I see, don’t seem to put as much emphasis on voice as they should. So instead of saying, “That’s the way it happens to be right now and excuse me for just calling ‘em as I seem ‘em,” as I did in the chat, I’ve been inspired by Hannah Moskowitz to be one of the people who does something about this. For now, I’m talking about MG boy books in particular, not boy YA. Boy YA is a different can of worms, because the audience is different. Boy YA is a topic for another day. So, in terms of boy MG, are two things you can do right now to start solving The Boy Problem.

First: If you have book recommendations for published books with great MG boy voice and characterization, which manages to combine these with action and adventure, leave them in the comments. I’ve given you some starter authors, above.

Second: As writers, if you happen to already be writing MG boy books or are interested in writing them, read the books recommended in this post. Then work hard on your craft to reach and capture these very special readers. Write books with great characters, great voice, great scenes, and great action. Push yourself hard and don’t be satisfied with, “Oh, it’s a boy book, I can get away with some flat voice and character if I make enough stuff go bang.” Then, query me of course.

I’m officially putting it out there…I would love to see more MG boy books that put an emphasis on voice and character in addition to action and thrills.

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  1. Laura Pauling’s avatar

    I can see that. And, if it’s not all action and adventure then it’s a “girl” book disguised with a boy character. Switch the character out and it could be a boy or girl. Those are the kinds of books my son puts down in a heartbeat.

    My son actually read and liked Holes and Justin Case: School, Drool, and other things.

    I think we underestimate boys. Even the tough jocky ones have a sensitive side. Great thoughts.

  2. Cheryl’s avatar

    Alcatraz vs. The Evil Librarians by Brandon Sanderson has a great sarcastic voice….Hidden Talents by David Lubar is also very good.

  3. Brittany’s avatar

    Al Capone Does My Shirts and the sequel, Al Capone Shines My Shoes, by Gennifer Choldenko both have great voice, and they’re great upper MG boy books. They’re historical fiction, coming-of-age stories, and I absolutely love them. :)

    Maybe I will try to write a MG boy book. I write MG fantasy with female protagonists, which is most comfortable for me, but I’ll try a boy protagonist sometime. Or at least write a book that’s aimed at both boys and girls.

  4. Kathryn’s avatar

    I just looked at my MG bookshelf, and I have every one of those authors you list there, which makes me WAY excited to read the coming anthology. I only a couple more to add: The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick, Here Lies the Librarian by Richard Peck, Frindle by Andrew Clements and Al Capone Does My Shirts by Gennifer Choldenko. These are mostly historical fiction, but you’ve already listed my favorite contemporary and fantasy authors.

  5. Jared Larson’s avatar

    Mary,

    I now know who to query. I have a MG boy book I hope will be to your liking. It’s basically Beowulf in middle grade. I have to revise a bit more and then I’ll be kicking it out there.

    I read, Percy Jackson and How to Train Your Dragon before I wrote my MG boy book. Both have a great voice. Especially Percy.

    A voice driven book that stuck with me as a kid were the Soup books, by Robert Newton Peck. To this day I still have a clear memory of being totally immersed in the world of SOUP. Peck’s voice and narration is entirely entertaining for MG boys. It was for me anyway.

    Thanks for the great post Mary. And good job at WriteOnCon.

  6. Sydney Salter’s avatar

    Bull Rider by Suzanne Morgan Williams combines a great voice with exciting sports action. I also thought that one of the Newbery Honor books, The Mostly True Adventures of Homer P. Figg by Rodman Philbrick, did a great job of combining a humorous voice with lots of action (and history). Finally, Mamba Point by Kurtis Scaletta has a great voice, less action than a typical MG maybe, but the snake adds delicious elements of danger (and will make boys beg for their own reptiles!).

    Great post!

  7. Derrick’s avatar

    Question: can a “Boy Book” have a girl protag? Or would this be certain doom for a Boy Book?

  8. Bane’s avatar

    I posted a boy’s perspective a couple of weeks ago (http://alliteratiarchives.blogspot.com/2010/07/ya-boy-books-boys-perspective.html)…

    Boys are different than girls… and the “voice” boys want is definitely different than what girls want or enjoy, so the lack of voice you see, Mary, could, in part, be due to perspective.

    In terms of voice, Rick Riordan’s don’t particularly stand out to me, but boys love his books because they’re funny at times (which, I guess, could be interpreted as voice), action-oriented, etc. MT Anderson’s got voice, but his books appeal to a less commercial crowd, and, IMO, less to boys.

    Frequently, when boys advance into the thinking realm, we go toward the science-fiction/fantasy arenas b/c of the way we’re wired and women tend to go for more of the in-depth emotional, realistic characterization. This is, of course, a generalization, but to me this topic makes me think of the typical cliche about women trying to change men.

    Also, voice can be imparted through action. And, for boys, our character is often measured through our action or lack thereof. Sure, some internalization may be fine, but most of us don’t internalize nearly to the extent women seem to think we do.

    And when we grow up, we still like action, mystery, fantasy (Kellerman, Brown, etc)… The Voice you speak of is somewhat overrated for many boys. If you’re looking to pull in boys who don’t read by injecting this voice, I’m gonna be that naysayer in the crowd.

  9. Jeni’s avatar

    I would add two books by Jerry Spinelli to the list: WRINGER (which has the internalization one might find in a “girl book,” I think) and EGGS. Both are excellent.

  10. Fleur Bradley’s avatar

    I loved the voice in Jordan Sonnenblick’s Drums, Girls and Dangerous Pie, a book with a brisk pace. Funny but moving all at once.

    I do think it’s a book that will also appeal strongly to girls–your previous post on boy readers and YA covered this very well.

  11. hannah moskowitz’s avatar

    Thank you so much for writing this, Mary! My post on boys in YA was actually inspired by a post I read here a few weeks ago (and I forgot to mention that in the post…I remembered in the epic comments of doom, though!) so I’m so glad you’ve read it and followed up.

  12. Paul Greci’s avatar

    Great post, Mary! I write MG and YA with a Boy audience in mind. (I really enjoyed Hannah’s post a few weeks back, too)

    I taught in an alternative school for at-risk kids for 15 years and my students were mostly boys. They were definitely a unique sub-set of kids since most of them were both struggling and reluctant readers. The books they connected to ranged far and wide on the spectrum, from action to romance to sci. fi. to contemporary. I tried to play match maker between book and kid–one of the best parts of my job was when I kid who had never read a whole book would connect with one and eat it up. Suddenly, they had access to a whole new world–a world they used to dread.

    Thanks for list of MG writers.

  13. Jackee’s avatar

    Thanks for going into more detail! I love all the authors you mentioned for the reasons you mentioned. It’s YA I know, but I’m excited to see boys wanting to read Hunger Games even though it has a girl MC. Kudos to Suzanne Collins for getting boys to read girl books with action and great voice. If I was a better writer, I think I would make it my personal mission to prove boys can read girl MC and continue on what Collins has started. :)

  14. KellieD’s avatar

    Can’t wait to read many of these! I actually have DRUMS, GIRLS, AND DANGEROUS PIE on my nightstand waiting for me. I’ll add BREAK to the list. Lisa Yee’s BOBBY v. GIRLS ACCIDENTALLY is great. Jack Gantos and Jerry Spinelli, too. I would argue that there’s a lot of voice in these, so some may argue that these aren’t necessarily very commercial MG.

  15. Mandy P.’s avatar

    I second Brandon Sanderson’s Alcatraz books. Sarcasm literally drips off the page and he makes fun of so many writer things that I find myself laughing at loud – and then my roommate thinks I’m insane. Which may actually be true.

    I’m not sure The Young Years of Merlin by TA Barron are considered MG, but they are “boy books” that I think have a good voice and that ran rampant in my middle school. (This was about the time the second or third book came out and we all lamented that we didn’t know what happened next. This was slightly–very slightly–pre Harry Potter. Harry Potter hit my middle school a month later and then most people forgot about poor old Merlin.)

    I agree with Bane that Rick Roirdan’s Olympian books never really struck me as having a very unique voice, and then I think he tried a little too hard with the Red Pyramid to fix it. But I disagree with Bane in the idea Mary is trying to force boy books to become girl books. I’m a huge SF/F fan and have always loved boy books way more than girl books (nothing to do with voice and everything to do with sappy romances – I despise sappy romances), and if you want a great example of a guy book with voice (though it’s not MG) it’s the Dresden Files by Jim Butcher. Harry Dresden has a voice, and it pops off the page. Sure there is a lot of action (hence “guy book”) but he also internalizes and has emotions. And guys seem to like those books so I presume they’re at least semi-realistic (I mean the voice part, not the paranormal wizard detective part).

  16. Thomas’s avatar

    The whole idea that we have to have boy books and girl books irritates me. My own debut novel, an 11+ supernatural thriller about boys and girls and dreamwalking and ghosts, is action-packed and filled with interiority and emotion (or so I like to think), and I would be very unhappy to see it marketed in either blue or pink.

    I’m reading Mortlock by Jonathan Mayhew at the moment, a gothic MG mystery with lashing of exquisite gore and danger but also a fiery heroine and a complex hero. It’s a fine example of a book with cross-gender appeal, and it’s doing very well. Its cover is green:)

  17. Mandy P.’s avatar

    Oh and I forgot to mention the Bartimeaus Trilogy by Jonathan Stroud. It’s a MG “boy book” with fantastic voice!

    Ok, that’s enough. I’m done….for now. :)

  18. Ben Woodard’s avatar

    I’m a new, unpublished writer wanting to write boy books. As part of my learning process, I’ve been reading the Newbery and Printz award books and book recommended by my local librarian. My favorite MGs for a boy (at least this old boy) are:
    Crispin and the Cross of Lead
    A Year Down Yonder/Long Way from Chicago
    Al Capone Does My Shirts
    The Graveyard Book
    Holes
    A Single Shard

    I remember as a boy reader skipping over descriptive parts to get to the action. Bane comments resonate with me. A voice for boys is different. And most of the editors are women—not necessarily bad, but they may not be completely in tune with boys. Good discussion.

  19. Shari M.’s avatar

    The Fablehaven series by Brandon Mull! Technically, the MC is probably the older sister, but the brother is a major character too. He is funny and interesting and grows tremendously throughout the series.

  20. Donna Gephart’s avatar

    Love this blog post! I actually had a librarian make the comment that she appreciated that my book — How to Survive Middle School — wasn’t all about action and adventure and still appealed to boys.
    Some of my favorite authors who delve deeper with boy characters are: Christopher Paul Curtis, Gary Schmidt and Rodman Philbrick.
    Great topic! Thanks!

  21. Kristin Gray’s avatar

    I second HOLES, AL CAPONE DOES MY SHIRTS, SHINES MY SHOES
    then released this month:

    SCUMBLE by Ingrid Law

  22. JR’s avatar

    Okay, Mary, two related questions.

    1) Since boy books tend to have less internalizing, does it make sense to go with third person instead of first person? It seems to me that first person just screams emote, and third person lend itself better to action. Thoughts?

    2) What length is best for a boy MG book? I’ve seen a number that are around 40K, but does one have a better shot at YA crossover success (Riordan, Horowitz, Rowling) if the books are closer to 60K?

    Thanks again. Great Post.

  23. Susan Kaye Quinn’s avatar

    Dark Life, by Kat Falls – brand new, and I think it has great voice.

  24. Tracy Edward Wymer’s avatar

    These may be deemed as quieter books, but at the same time they are award winners and penned by some of the most respected authors in children’s literature. I consider them full of voice and character.

    Lizzie Bright and The Buckminster Boy, Gary Schmidt
    The Wednesday Wars, Gary Schmidt
    Trouble, Gary Schmidt
    Loser, Eggs, Maniac Magee & Smiles to Go, Jerry Spinelli (basically anything by Spinelli is character and voice over plot)
    A Single Shard, Linda Sue Park (literary)
    The Giver, Lois Lowry (great example of plot, character, and voice tied together in a neat bow)
    Bud, Not Buddy, Christopher Paul Curtis
    Joey Pigza books, Jack Gantos
    Shiloh, Phyllis Reynolds Naylor
    Sounder, William H. Armstrong
    Schooled, Gordon Korman
    Pop, Gordon Korman

  25. sally apokedak’s avatar

    My favorite, recent boy books with wonderful voice (but not a lot of internal monologue, I don’t think–boys don’t like that stuff, do they?) are the Wilderking books by Jonathan Rogers. These are definitely voice and character driven, with lots of great action thrown in, and set in a wonderful muddy, mucky, boy-friendly swamp.

    I also love The Bartimaeus Trilogy, by Jonathan Stroud. Great, great books. Although, they seemed much more appropriate for YA than MG readers to me.

  26. Rose’s avatar

    Another vote for Brandon Sanderson!

    I have two middle grade sons who are voracious readers, and I can tell you that they and all their friends would much rather read a book where things happen than a book with pretty writing and nothing going on. They prefer books with an entertaining voice–Gordon Korman, Brandon Sanderson, Rick Riordan (notice a pattern of humor and positivity and action?), etc. But what they just can’t take is a book that puts Pretty Writing over Story. I don’t think voice and plot are either-or sorts of things–you can definitely have both. But if you’re trying to appeal to the actual boys who will read the books (as opposed to 40-something-year-old female librarians), you cannot sacrifice the story.

  27. Kathleen Murphy’s avatar

    My middle-grade boy loves Brandon Mull, James Dashner, and Gary Paulsen. But he also enjoys coming-of-age stories written by women with female protaganists, such as Up a Road Slowly by Irene Hunt . I think young people today are less focused than adults on categorizing people (by gender, race, religion, etc.). Maybe a few years from now, this conversation will seem Archie Bunker-ish.

  28. Steph’s avatar

    Maybe I’m not getting this conversation, but MG boys are different from MG girls. I’ve had both and taught both and the drama that is inherent in MG girls just isn’t there at with boys. I’m not saying boys don’t have a sensitive side–they do. But all of the endless internalizing and analyzing that girls do from a very early age, boys don’t.

    I’m also not saying that there shouldn’t be depth to character in MG boy books…but if those books are targeted at boys of that age, action and adventure and heroism is what is going to appeal to them, not a lot of thinking and internal monologue.

  29. Heather Bouwman’s avatar

    I second the suggestions for Suzanne Morgan Williams, BULLRIDER; and for many of Gary Schmidt’s books (WEDNESDAY WARS is my favorite–a fantastic voice!). And I’ll add a recent favorite of mine, very introspective and magical: Guus Kuijer’s THE BOOK OF EVERYTHING, available in translation from Arthur Levine Books.

    (I’m talking here about books with boy MC’s–like Thomas, above, I want to resist calling books “boy books” and “girl books” even though I know they’re often marketed this way. It seems like a self-fulfilling prophecy….)

  30. Bane’s avatar

    Mandy, I don’t think Mary’s necessarily trying to convert boy books to girl books, just that she might be misconstruing what male voice is or just over emphasizing the required voice boys need (don’t get me wrong, we like character with pizazz/attitude/etc., but the plot arc tends to be more crucial to us than the emotional arc, though, yeah, if you can meld both worlds without going sappy, that’s gravy for us).

  31. Cara’s avatar

    I had to read HOUSE OF THE SCORPION by Nancy Farmer for a Children’s Lit class and loved it. And I don’t even like Science Fiction!

    One of my favorite books is RASCAL by Sterling North. When I was a librarian, the boys loved MY SIDE OF THE MOUNTAIN by Jean Craighead George. These books are old, but are classics for good reasons.

  32. rosalind’s avatar

    I have a few more to throw into the ring.

    Per my nine year old son, these are the books with characters that grabbed him and wouldn’t let him go:

    Eric Berlin- Puzzling World of Winston Breen and the Potato Chip Mystery
    Mac Barnett’s new Brixton Brothers series
    Wendelin Van Draanen- Sammy Keyes mystery series- Sammy is a girl, but a tom-boy who is brimming with voice and my son loves this series! He’s read at least 8 of them.
    Carl Hiaason- (already mentioned) Hoot, Scat and Flush

    Great Post, Mary!

  33. Middle Grade Ninja’s avatar

    Mamba Point by Kurtis Scaletta has a great voice and is an engaging boy book that also has action. Here’s the review I wrote for it:

    http://middlegradeninja.blogspot.com/2010/07/book-of-week-mamba-point-by-kurtis.html

    I’m also reading A Crack In the Sky by Mark Peter Hughes and loving it. It’s an action story with a great voice and a really interesting MC. That one comes out next week.

    All the other examples that come to mind are classics, such as HOLES.

  34. Rob Kent’s avatar

    Oh crap. I forgot How to Survive Middle School and that is also great! Here is another review:

    http://middlegradeninja.blogspot.com/2010/08/book-of-week-how-to-survive-middle.html

  35. M. G. King’s avatar

    We do pigeon-hole boys. My boys LOVED the Little House series, when they were 7 & 5, (I read them aloud at bedtime) in spite of long passages of description and a girl protagonist. They loved the nonfiction aspects (bear hunting, digging wells, building log cabins, for instance.) I was shocked when my oldest, now 9, and a rough and tumble boy by anyone’s measure, voluntarily picked up Little House On the Prairie and reread the whole thing on his own.

    Having said that, most of the books they like move quickly. And it is rare that they get interested in anything that isn’t funny. But they will put down a book just as fast if they don’t connect with the character. The voices have to be distinct and resonate. In real life boys tend to express their emotions through action, rather than through moody introspection. (Maybe that comes later with hormones . . . ) So I think Mary Kole is right, the plot and voice have to be tightly connected.

  36. Liesl’s avatar

    I think it’s pretty safe to say that not many boys will read Princess Diaries, Princess Academy, or Ella Enchanted but I think we underestimate boys’ willingness to read a book with a girl protagonist. I recommend books to boys all the time and they will readily read and enjoy Coraline by Neil Gaiman, Savvy by Ingrid Law, and When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead, all full of voice and depth.

    Anything by Roald Dahl is great for everyone, and I also love Indian in the Cupboard by Lynn Reid Banks.

  37. Sherrie Petersen’s avatar

    My son loved the Fudge books by Judy Blume because they were so funny. The Alex Rider series I guess is closer to YA, but he started reading those in fourth grade and still likes them because there’s so much action.

  38. Sheila JG’s avatar

    Funny, I’m struggling with this right now. Here are some of my favorites I didn’t see listed already:

    Alabama Moon by Watt Key
    Tangerine by Edward Bloor
    Hatchet by Gary Paulsen
    Cosmic by Frank Cottrell Boyce

  39. tommy greenwald’s avatar

    hi mary – i’m new to your website and enjoy it very much… and this piece is near and dear to my heart. hopefully my debut novel, CHARLIE JOE JACKSON’S GUIDE TO NOT READING (roaring brook/macmillan, spring ’11), will help fill the voice void to some degree – without sacrificing story of course! but as we all know, the true judges will be the kids who (hopefully) read it… best, tg

  40. Matt Musson’s avatar

    Boys are looking for books that provide them with a what-if experience. They want to envision themselves as the main character. They want books where the main characters have adventures and have friends. Humour and danger are also great tools for holding a reluctant reader’s interest.

  41. T. M.’s avatar

    Great advice, Matt. Thanks. That just about sums up the research I’ve done on this topic in the past few days.

  42. Ryan Gebhart’s avatar

    I’ve heard really good things about Wonder by R.J. Palacio and The False Prince by Jennifer Nielsen, both of which I plan on picking up on my next trip to B&N.

    And yes, Hannah is too hot to trot.

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