I’m back from a near two-week retreat (okay, so I was a graduate assistant at VCFA, but that was kinda like a retreat, right?) and over and over (and over) I kept running into the same barrier about the definition of “boy books.” For some reason I’ve become some sort of go-to guy for these things (could be my lecture on the topic back in January?) and lately I’m sensing a bit of backlash about the notion that there are plenty of books out there for boys; the argument being that boys just don’t read what’s out there.
So I’ve found myself repeating a pair of postulates designed to create a sort of cognitive dissonance, forcing people to rethink what they believe as truth:
- the gender of the main character does not define a boy book and
- easily half of the books out there aimed at boy readers fail because they do not know what boys want from fictive narratives
Previously I have outlined the elements of a book that boys are drawn to and nowhere does gender play a role in the decision. Perhaps the unspoken element is that we as a society have fixed ideas of how genders are portrayed and as a result character behaviors are defined by actions and vice versa, but that’s a much larger issue. The bottom line is that if a boy does not like a particular book it will rarely be because the protagonist is female, and if they do make that claim it is because they cannot articulate otherwise what is missing (for them) from the book.
Similarly what boys want from books are stories that evolve, not characters that grow. Yes, yes, the main character has to have an arc that defines them and the story, but the action within that arc must expand exponentially outside of the character. Character growth is revealed over time, but the action of the story that boys crave is like a series of explosions that detonate one after the other until the building of the story collapses on itself in a way that satisfies long after the dust has settled. Aristotle is only half the picture, and it’s too bad his treatise on comedy didn’t survive the ages because then we’d at least have some choice in the matter.
There is one exception and that has to do with the cover. Put a girl on the cover (alone) or use the color pink and it’s like boy kryptonite. We can talk all we want about how books shouldn’t be judged by their covers but the reality is that they are, and as long as that’s the case those two elements alone will prejudice a boy against a book before they even give the content a chance. The cover should serve as a promise to a boy that the book is worth their time.
Until we can get on the same page about what constitutes a boy book and what boys look for in their books I think we will continue to see a division between what gets published and what gets read. I honestly believe the boy market in books hasn’t been adequately tapped ~ not in fiction at least ~ and we might seriously benefit from reexamining the structure of narrative from the ground up and decide if, perhaps, there isn’t a different way we should be looking at all this.
In the end, it’s not about the boy, it’s about the book.