Is boy friendly YA the kiss of death?
There I was, working on a query letter for Urban Mythos. This particular query required that I sensibly compare my novel to others on the shelves. I'm generally no good at this particular task, because while I devour YA fiction, there's just so darn much, and I rarely find something quite like what I've written. Not being completely foolish, I don't compare my books to other books, but I instead focus on the target audience and what they're reading/buying today.
In other words, when I pop over to the local Borders, what's on the shelf to interest those special someones who, upon noticing Urban Mythos decide to carry it to the register instead (or as well)?
And herein lies the problem. This novel is a YA urban fantasy. The protagonist is a teenage boy ... sort of. Okay, he's a former griffin, but nowadays he's a teenage boy. I've been told based on the query and first 250 words that this is -- *GASP* -- a boy friendly YA. I'll explain the gasping in a bit.
Armed with this information I reach into my memory banks (and my "read" shelf on goodreads) to see if I've read a YA novel with a boy protagonist, preferably an urban fantasy. The most recent boy friendly YA novels I've enjoyed of late are James Dashner's, The Maze Runner and Lockdown: Escape from Furnace, by Alexander Gordon Smith. Hmm. These aren't exactly urban fantasy. Okay, there's The Dead and the Gone, by Susan Beth Pfeffer (the 2nd book in the Last Survivors series, which features a boy protag). But that's not urban fantasy, it's post-apocalyptic. Digging some more, I find quite a bit of Rick Riordan, with the Percy Jackson series and the Kane Chronicles. Technically, that's Middle Grade. In fact, the more I dig for boy-friendly, the more I find a load of Middle Grade novels.
Time to do some research, right? Off to Borders and Amazon venture I. And I am disappointed to find a dearth of boy friendly YA. Ugh. It's Google time. The results weren't pretty. They basically say that boys don't read YA. Younger boys read Middle Grade, but then something happens when they enter high school and they supposedly don't read YA. We are told that the market essentially backs up this theory. And because boys don't read YA, publishers focus primarily on girl-friendly YA.
This made me sad, and just a little worried, especially because once I entered high school seven hundred years ago, I stopped reading for pleasure, and only resumed in college. This may have had something to do my slow reading pace, my busy schedule, and the assigned reading from my high school classes which preoccupied me. But I did like my books. In fact, it was Daniel Pinkwater's Alan Mendelsohn, The Boy From Mars that really got me hooked in middle school.
My son is a sophomore in high school. He also loves to read, but doesn't do so at a rapid pace. His schedule is nuts between athletics, marching band, friends, and tons and tons of homework. The only reading time he has is for the books his Lit teacher assigns. This all occurred once he hit high school. He found more time to read in middle school, but he did read more middle grade. Even now, when he does get a chance to read for pleasure, I'll more likely find him curled up with Percy Jackson or Harry Potter than with the Mortal Instruments series.
In my research, I stumbled upon many excellent resources, but two in particular interest me. Hannah Moskowitz, author of Break and the upcoming Invincible Summer, wrote an excellent blog post entitled, The Boy Problem. She writes boy-friendly YA and believes the debate is about boys who loved to read until they became teenagers.. She pins a good deal of the blame on writers for basically stripping down boy characters. They've become stereotypes or shallow. In the end, Hannah says, they're not real enough. She also begs agents and publishers to stop saying they're seeking "boy friendly" unless they mean it. She asks boys to shut up and read YA. Did she ever get a lot of feedback on this post! There was a huge amount of debate, and all healthy.
The other interesting post I found was from Mary Kole of Andrea Brown Literary Agency, entitled Boy Protagonists in YA. She makes a few interesting points. First, when anyone says they're looking for boy friendly fiction, they generally mean Middle Grade. She's also heard from publishers who make it very clear they have very very VERY few slots open for boy friendly YA in any given year. One publisher had, in fact, just one slot. But the news isn't all bad. Just because you have a boy protagonist and your novel is boy friendly doesn't mean it can't also be girl friendly and sell to what the primary market is for YA. If your male protagonist appeals to teenage girls in one fashion or another, you've got a leg up. A bit of romance certainly helps.
Before I close, I wanted to highlight some additional research I've done that emphasizes the market we "boy-friendly" YA writers face. I took a gander at the New York Times Best Seller lists in Childrens' fiction as of September 9th. This will include both Middle Grade and YA. Here's the rundown of the top seven.
1. The Clockwork Angel, by Cassandra Clare - YA, girl protagonist
2. The Red Pyramid, by Rick Riordan - Middle Grade (MG), boy and girl protagonists
3. Dork Diaries 2, by Rachel Renee Russo - MG, girl protag
4. Halo, by Alexandra Adornetto - YA, girl
5. Linger, by Maggie Stierfvater - YA, girl + boy protag, girl friendly
6. Unraveled, by Gena Showalter - YA, boy protag, romance=girl friendly
7. Paranormalcy, by Kiersten White (go, Kiersten!) - YA, girl protag
I also took a gander at the top "series" books, and of the top ten there are six YA novels, all of which feature a girl protagonist and are decidedly girl friendly: Hunger Games, Twilight Saga, Pretty Little Liars, Private, House of Night, and Mortal Instruments. The remaining four are all Middle Grade: Percy Jackson, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Artemis Fowl, and The 39 Clues.
This paints a picture, doesn't it?
Despite all that, if you are a writer, keep the following in mind. I've read and personally received this advice countless times, by the way. Write the story you want to write. Don't write for the market because it will have changed (possibly more than once) before your novel reaches the shelves. And even if the market isn't in your favor, if the story is that good, it will sell. I really believe the market changes because of the books being written and published. Was there a market thirteen years ago for ten-year-old kids reading about an orphan going to a strange English school to learn how to perform magic? Harry Potter's done well since. Dracula was published in 1897. Who could have predicted that 108 years later, a YA vampire novel would turn into a phenomenon.
Write the story you want to write. If it's that good, a market will find it.