Young Adult Fiction for Boys and the Male Protagonist Issue

Here is a question about young adult fiction for boys and the male protagonist in YA from Royce:

Is there any niche demand for stories for young adult male readers? Most of the agent profiles and marketplace news indicate demand for Distopian, Urban Fantasy, Steampunk, etc., and most of the published books seems to appeal to teen girls.

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Thinking of writing young adult fiction for boys? Here’s how the male protagonist factored into this market, and it may not be great.

Is There Really a Young Adult Fiction for Boys Market?

I don’t want to open a can of worms. So before I begin, let me say that there is The Way I Wish It Was, and The Way It Really Is, and What People Are Willing to Do to Bridge the Gap with the male protagonist issue in YA.

The Way I Wish It Was: Boys reading voraciously into their later teens, publishers publishing robust lists for these readers, teachers, booksellers, librarians, agents, and editors really excited about the market segment.

The Way It Really Is: There is not a robust market for YA contemporary realism, per se, compared to fantasy genres, and the market for a YA boy audience is dreadful because most boys in that age group have either stopped reading altogether in middle school or they’re up in adult fiction that they discovered around age 12 or 13.

Books marketed directly to teen boys don’t tend to do well and the YA section of the bookstore is so thoroughly steeped in paranormal romance and purple faces with female faces on them that I’d avoid it, too, if I was a self-respecting dude with money to burn from my first pizza delivery job. (More considerations of teen boy books here.)

How to Make the Male Protagonist Work in YA

While we all want to work hard to change that, that’s the reality right now, as I see it from many discussions I’ve had with friends and colleagues. Unless yours is a boy character who appeals first and foremost to girl readers (John Green’s work), you will have a tougher time, as girls are the overwhelming audience in this age group. Through to You by Emily Hainsworth, features Cam, a boy protagonist who goes across parallel universes in the hopes of getting his girlfriend back. He’s a dude, and he’s the narrator, but the premise is thoroughly romantic and so will attract a lot of girl readers.

Other recent examples of boy characters tend to strongly feature female protagonists as well. So this puts the lie to the idea of “young adult fiction for boys,” because the closest we’re getting is “young adult fiction for both … but mostly girls.” Here, I’m thinking of The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon and All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven.

If he was on a quest for, say, a cache of lost movies by a legendary horror movie director or a really awesome video game, I don’t think it would’ve sold because its market share with female YA readers would’ve evaporated. Though books like Ready Player One by Ernest Cline prove me wrong, but notice that it wasn’t published as YA.

What People Are Willing to Do to Bridge the Gap: Not terribly much in terms of actual action. There’s a lot of talking and blogging on the subject, though. But publishing is a business and, unless the YA boy-book-intended-primarily-for-boy-readers segment of the market starts taking off like, say, fallen angel romances, I don’t know how many editors will be able to put their houses’ money where their mouths are. (Or, if they do publish a good boy YA list, how often they will be able to add to it.)

There are great, great, great books that deserve boy reader attention. Feed by M.T. Anderson. The work of Steve Brezenoff, Barry Lyga, A.S. King, Ilsa J. Bick, Andrew Smith, and more. But either we’ve lost some faith in attracting these readers or the market really isn’t there. All I know is that a boy-targeted YA feels like a really tough sell.

If you’re writing a male protagonist, maybe your work can be slotted elsewhere. I can help you with market considerations as well as craft ideas as your developmental editor.

29 Replies to “Young Adult Fiction for Boys and the Male Protagonist Issue”

  1. Christina C. says:

    It’s so sad that teen boys don’t read much:( Maybe if the books covered in English class were different – more modern and more boy-centric they’d read more?

    But this is a very helpful post, as are all your posts, Mary. Thanks for this blog. You’ve really helped me and my writing a lot.

    And I LOVE your website banner! My mom (who isn’t a writer) likes it so much she goes to your site to admire it.

    Happy Halloween! (In my ideal world, you’d have enough time to create holiday-centered banners. As in ghosts and bats and witches for today!)

  2. One way to get around this is to have duel boy/female main characters. For example, in chapter one you tell the story from the boy’s POV, in chapter two you do it from the female’s, etc, etc. That way you appeal to both demographics (although I imagine the plot would still have to heavily appeal to girls).

  3. BTW, your statement about male teen readers either no longer reading or moving on to adult fiction is totally accurate. When I was in middle school I was reading Tom Clancy books (because my dad read them and I liked the adult themes and action, even though I didn’t necessarily grasp all of Clancy’s technical jargon). And most of my friends didn’t read at all. So while it’s sad the YA boy market is practically non-existant, that’s just the way things are unfortunately.

  4. Stuff like this drives me mad. And it’s just not true that boys aren’t reading.

    The real problem is the risk-averse publishers.

    Take a book like READY PLAYER ONE. A young guy–seventeen–goes on a quest in a video game inspired world, to find a fortune. It was a ridiculously addictive read. Fun, exciting, decently written. There was a little romance, a lot of adventure, and a whole slew of 80’s callbacks. And it’s doing pretty well.

    If this book had been marketed as YA, it would be tanking right now, because the YA publishers don’t have any idea what to do with boy books. They’ve created such an inhospitable market for boys in the bookstores, that the fact that boys aren’t interested in reading YA is a problem that the publishers themselves created.

    They can’t just sit around and hope that boys will one day see the light and start reading YA. Publishers have to be bold. They have to shell out some cash and lure boys away from the stale sci-fi/fantasy shelves, from the graphic novels that actually take risks. They can’t just throw a boy book out there with no marketing dollars behind it, watch it fail, and then claim that boys aren’t reading.

    If publishers want there to be a market for boy books, they need to create it. Boys are out there. They’re reading. They’re begging for good stuff to read. It’s really up to the publishers now. One of the most innovative writers in YA right now is Andrew Smith. His books aren’t written to appeal to girls. They’re just written to be appealing.

    And boys are reading them.

  5. It’s too bad. I have three boys in the 13-17 age range, and it is hard to find books that are just right for them.

    The adult books sometimes have content that I find my older teens are not quite ready for. And I don’t just mean language or sex. I mean adult issues like regret, divorce, making ends meet, etc. Those are things that my high-school kids find boring, they can’t relate to adult stuff like that. So unless they want fantasy, they don’t have many choices of good books to read.

    My thirteen-year-old, however, is still satisfied with the middle-grade adventure stuff.

  6. Okay as a mother of 3 boys and one girl and as a young adult writer I want to chime in here. Pt 1 – boys will read if you interest them. I worked for many years in a library and it’s hard honing in on what interest each boy. Most want male POV and the market is much more girl POV. Pt 2 – selection – if more publishers took gambles on new authors willing to try something new then more boys (aged 12-15) might get hooked on reading. I wrote my first nitty gritty YA book, Off Leash and just now my 13 year-old son is reading it. His one comment beside saying he couldn’t believe I wrote it was how real the kid sounded. Real – get it. The majority of boys like to read about boys because they can picture themselves in that situation.

  7. How to get around this? Does this mean we have to have a romantic element in our boy YA?

  8. When I think of YA fiction geared to boys, I think of the Alex Rider series, but that’s all I can think of. It’s too bad there isn’t more of a market for this sort of thing in the 13-17 age group. For boys like my younger brother who was never a strong reader, YA would be a good bridge into older fiction. Instead, with nothing that really appealed to him and reading already a struggle, my brother sort of gave up and fell into that “just stopped reading group.” I would much rather the boys start reading higher-level books, but I think the gap should at least be attempted to be filled for those who just aren’t ready to graduate to the older stuff.

  9. If I’m understanding you correctly, there isn’t really a “niche demand” for boy-focused contemporary YA. But there seems to be a desire in publishing circles to see that type of readership sprout and blossom??

    The question is what comes first – the books or the readers? Depends on who you are in the equation, I gather. Publishers want the readers first (that whole risk vs reward thing), parents and educators want the books to be available and authors are somewhere in the middle.

    Is it worth their (author’s) time to invest in creating high quality work that will appeal to guys? Sure, but it may be less of a risk to make sure that work also appeals to girls… and the publishers that make it happen. And how much does marketing come into play?

    Great post, Mary.

  10. Beautifully said, Mary. I’m right there in the The-Way-I-Wish-it-Were camp with you, having a 15-year-old son who is a huge reader and rapidly running out of Terry Pratchett books he hasn’t read. He will go into bookstores with me, and I would love for there to be a section in the YA department that really appeals to him, but–yeah, all that pink & glitter & vampires just doesn’t do it for him. He probably reads a bit more YA than some boys, just because I constantly bring it home for myself & offer those I think he might like. Three recent successes were Gary D. Schmidt’s OKAY FOR NOW, Kenneth Oppel’s THIS DARK ENDEAVOR, and Jonathan Maberry’s ROT & RUIN.

  11. The genius of JK Rowling and her agent was to pitch a series that begins in Middle Grade, hook readers on Harry’s quest, and then carry it through to upper YA over the course of seven books.

    Why aren’t more writers/agents/publishers following that model?

  12. Great post, if a little depressing. I remember when I was 14, 15, 16 I’d more or less stopped reading ‘childrens books’ (this was quite a long time ago!) in favour of science fiction, thrillers or classics. I wonder where a series like the Bartimaeus fits in?

  13. Bartimaeus is wonderful! Amazon lists it as 10 and up, which makes it Middle Grade.

  14. Can I ask/point something out… It seems that some boys have some kind of apathy to anything related to romance, drama or any topic that seems a little girly. Why? Perhaps we should be encouraging young boys to read about that, instead of helping them find a certain type of book. Same goes for girls.

    A boy I know recently finished reading the Shiver series and he loved it. So much that he recommended it to my daughter. Insisted she read the series. When I asked him how he found it, he told me he was browsing at Walmart and decided to give the book a chance. Yes, it has romance, yes it has a girl, but none of that takes away the fact that it was a great book for him.

    Does that made sense?

  15. My son has, for years, single-handedly kept our local Barnes and Noble in the black. Seriously! But, he’s now almost fifteen and in highschool, and something’s changed. It’s not my reading habits, and our household still shops for books regularly, hangs out at the library, and wonders where we’re going to stack yet another pile of books. But now he’ll only read a ‘YA book’ if a girl presses it into his hands and bats her eyes. Otherwise, he sticks with mysteries, scifi, and historicals that are written to adult men. He never felt any pressure to shift in this direction and I think it took us both by surprise, but that’s what he wants. Oh, plus Shakespeare. He really likes the bard. Also, he will occasionally dip down and read books like Bartimaeus and Pendragon, which he considers older middle grade. Go figure.

    I suspect he’s typical of the reading teen boy, and I don’t think it’s lack of material available. It’s just where his reading interest has gone. Sorry about that!

  16. I have a 22-year old son who was an avid reader until he could no longer find books with sophisticated enough themes and conflicts to satisfy his hunger to figure out how to navigate the years ahead of his own age. It’s a kind of forewarned is forearmed concept. They want to read up. But YA is often juvenile, frozen in MG.

    The publishing business is heavily weighted towards female employees – readers, assistants, editors – most of them are women. With more men in publishing we’d see more books for boys trying to become men, because the inner landscape of a teenage boy’s mind is not so alien to them.

    Even those women (like me) who grew up with brothers and gave life to sons have little real idea of the workings of the male teen mind, their drives and needs. In adult fiction more books are written by men.

    I suspect that boys who gravitate to the adult fiction section are doing so to find books written by men and finding in them the guidance that they need. The shift comes at a time when they usually prefer male teachers, too. It becomes harder and harder for them to accept women as authority figures. There’s a natural urge for guidance from an older male. Thus the interest in adult fiction. Very few women (can you think of one?) can write a convincing enough male character to fulfill that need.

    But the need IS there.

  17. I’ve talked about this a lot. But I think a bigger, underlying issue here is that girls will read stories from a male POV and boys won’t read stories from a female POV.

    I think we also need to ask ourselves why that is. I like that YA is the one place where “male” isn’t the default. Obviously it’s a lot harder to work on societal ideals than marketing niches. But I really think more parents should encourage their young boys to read according to their interests instead of according to their imaginary gender roles.

  18. I remember a librarian acquantance complaining about the lack of books for middle grade boys. She said boys come in asking for books about this or that, and she didn’t have a lot to suggest. Perhaps if we start younger, there will be a shift in the male YA market.

  19. I know that teenage males make up a small percentage of YA readers. In case anyone is looking for more YA books that might attract male teen readers, here are some YA books that my male-teenage students (ages 16 to 18) are reading this semester.

    Trapped by Michael Northrop
    Pinned by Alfred Martino
    Wrestling Sturbridge by Rich Wallace
    Deadline by Chris Crutcher
    Gym Candy by Carl Deuker
    Cut by Patricia McCormick
    Raiders Night by Robert Lipstye
    Gentlemen by Michael Northrop

  20. As the mother of three book-loving boys, this is a continually frustrating situation for me. Already my 11YO is haunting the adult shelves. Why? Because he’s read the limited number of MG books available to him, and there aren’t really many boy YA books. I will say that none of the males in my house have ever shown any interest in realistic, contemporary books. They don’t want to read about internal issues. They want action and a guy doing cool, heroic stuff. I don’t mean superheroes–I just mean a character who finds himself in danger and yet is strong enough to do something about it. Change the world. I think they want to stick themselves in the head of an alpha male and fight monsters–in whatever form they take–and just escape into that world for a bit. So very literary books where kids pretend to play fantasy games (without any real magic), and where everyone just dies in the end…er, not for them. They also don’t want books whose main focus is romance (although they don’t seem to mind when it’s a factor). They’ll read and reread the handful of kid books that fit this, and then they give up and read up into adult.

    It would be interesting to find out what percentage of the adult genre market (SFF, mystery) is actually made up of teen boy readers.

    I do think too, though, that for older teens, they are just so busy with school, sports, extracurricular stuff, jobs, etc. that there isn’t a lot of time for books of their own choosing. Which is sad.

  21. JK Willis says:

    Thanks, Mary. I stumbled across this at lunchtime (which ended a while back). I immediately had to read your other related/suggested articles about Contemporary YA and boy protagonists. When the time is right, I’ll be querying you.

    I don’t see many articles and blog posts addressing this specific topic. I also rarely see a topic addressed this well and accurately. I agree with your summation. I think you are right on.

  22. Joseph Miller says:

    As one of the boys who jumped from children’s books to adult books as a teenager… I can’t tell you why other than to say that at the time I felt like the adult fantasy and sci-fi books were better written… Now years later I’ve of the opposite opinion. I think most MG and YA is better written. What I suspect is happening is that teenage boys feel like they should be treated as grown-ups and so they seek out adult books.

    As for how to convince them to choose YA? Perhaps by giving the boys their own section in the book store/library. I know this might not sound PC, but there are definite differences between the reading tastes of boys and girls and I think one of the problems is we as librarians, teachers, authors, and parents don’t do enough to encourage guys to read by giving them their own “man-cave” experience with books. We also tend to devalue what boys do read, such as game manuals, non-fiction, comics, etc. If you’re constantly told what you like to read doesn’t count, then you stop reading.

  23. I have a 16 year old son who used to be an avid reader. Then something called required reading happened, and reading became a chore. He was forced to spend what little free time he had being told what to read and so the last thing he wanted to do with his downtime was have his nose in yet another book. Sad, but true. In talking with his friends, this seems to be the same reason they have stopped reading as well. It’s so unfortunate. However, my son was just home sick for the last couple of days, and I was elated to discover that instead of playing video games or being glued to Facebook, he instead seized the opportunity to read the Hunger Games trilogy cover to cover. Time well spent, and he agreed.

  24. Video games don’t help much. I’m currently writing in the male-centered realm of YA and only getting some nibbles…no bites from agents. I will admit that some have seemed excited about my work and then, for some reason, maybe this reason, said it just wasn’t right for them or not “the right timing.” So it becomes a cycle. Boys aren’t reading it, so they won’t publish it, so there’s nothing to get them reading, on and on and on… I also teach, and boys love Gatsby, so there’s hope there. When I really think about it, though, even the novels I’m writing right now with male characters being all maley would probably be enjoyed more by girls. What to do…

  25. I write for that transitional audience, and my series is boy-centric. My primary protagonist is a young man and my story is action-oriented fantasy in the vein of a HP or Percy Jackson; romance is definitely on the periphery. I figured, in writing the book, that it would appeal to both boys and girls that love a good adventure story.
    I know that my sales have not been as strong as the authors that I know who write paranormal romance or YA from the girl’s perspective. But I made my choice conscientiously. I wanted to write for those boys that lose interest in reading because there is not enough out there that reflects them and their perspectives.
    I think these things are cyclical. When I was growing up, I was reading things like Susan Coopers The Dark is Rising and girl-centric adventure stories were harder to find. Paranormal romance is big because of the success of Twilight; just as the success of HP paved the way for other similar series. It will swing back in the other direction, I think, precisely because of these conversations.

  26. Boys begin ready adult novels skipping young adult novels simply because there aren’t that many novels for them in that genre. I know this is the reason I started ready adult novels in my teens. There no longer was really a variety of novels for my age group compared to when I was younger. I had to look for novels targeting an older age group to finally find novels that were at least partly focused on my point of view as a young male.

    Young adult publishers are only doing this to themselves. The reason boys don’t read or skip to adult novels is the lack of content for us compared to when we were in middle school. If publishers started publishing material focusing on boys the audience would start reading again or read more appropriate novels again.

  27. I am a teenage guy and I read books. I also am trying to critique writing for teens so if any authors need a teenage “angle”, I can give you my best feedback on whether your writing works for teenagers. See my website http://www.blakesideas.com if you want to know more about how I can help your writing.

    I am 17 and my favorite books this summer were the Dan Brown series because I’d learned about the Illuminati in my history class and it was interesting to see it written about.

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