I got asked “What’s a quintessential boy book?’ yesterday from someone. Quintessential, meaning he perfect example, the pure embodiment of something or someone. It’s almost like asking “Who invented jazz” because everyone has that point on the groove that they mark with a big letter A and it might not be where everyone else drops the needle.
But in attempting to untangle what I thought were the typical elements that made one book be a “boy” book as opposed to a “girl” book (and if we have “chick lit” for girls does that mean we have “dick lit” for boys?), and in searching for authors who I think cut close to the bone of what boys like to read, I finally had to conclude that it came down to one thing.
Every boy book is another attempt to rewrite The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry FInn. If I’m late to the party on this observation, please forgive me, and if you would be so kind as to cite some sources so that I may continue my education I’d be most grateful.
I went on (and oh how I can go on) that Harry Potter is another version of Twain’s adolescent trio (Tom, Huck and Becky = Harry, Ron and Hermione), and how boys prefer action to exposition, and how every book we tend to think of as being for boys pits its main character against a stream of events to which they must react. That great divide in movie dates is the boy movie versus the girl movie, the movie where things happen versus the movie where people talk. It isn’t that boys don’t like dialog, because they do, but what they don’t tend to like is dialog about emotions. Thinking, logic, reasoning, facts, analysis… these are topics for discussion.
You know where there are a lot of these quintessential boy books? In genre fiction. Mysteries and Sci-fi and Westerns, all about heroes (and they can be female) who have to reason and puzzle their way through their environment. This is what the boys do, they tear apart their world the same way they tear apart a toaster to see what’s inside, then put it all back together until it makes some sort of sense. But then why do we place these books in the ghetto of a thematic genre instead if with what is otherwise known as Fiction and Literature, as the chains tend to break things out? Is there really a difference in quality between these books?
Yes, but the difference is that the genre books are often better written than some of what gets shelved alongside what we consider classics. Seriously, is there a reason Dutch Leonard can’t be on the same shelf as Harper Lee? Is Philip Pullman somehow less of a literary artist than Mario Puzo that they must be kept segregated? I know this is getting away from the boy book idea, but the fact is that a lot of what would appeal to a boy is often at odds with what society (marketing? the publishing world in general?) considers “good”
So then that’s it, the essence of all YA for boys boils down to some variation of Tom Sawyer and Huch Finn. Boy on an adventure, figuring out their world, battling bad guys and hunting treasue, spelunking and prankstering, all in that unique first person voice full of character but ultimately not saying anything too deep.