When I was in high school, some of my favorite books were the Mrs. Pollifax mysteries. If you’re unfamiliar, the 65-or-so-year-old Mrs. Pollifax was feeling put out to pasture, thought needlework was for the birds, and so she got herself a job as a courier for the CIA. None of the courier jobs stay simple, of course, but she disarms the bad guys with a mix of little old ladyness and karate. In between I read Cold War spy thrillers by Helen MacInnes. After the seventeenth one, I complained to my dad that “Anything could be in those briefcases. I can’t believe you’d really kill somebody over it!”* I switched to Rex Stout and Agatha Christie and shared books with my grandmother; I loved Archie Goodwin and thought Hercule Poirot was a twerp.
So this is my first problem when I read social commentary that says that boys don’t read. When the explanation for the phenomenon is that they don’t see enough of themselves, or enough of what interests them, in popular books for young people, I think, “Is that what they’re looking for?”
I once read an essay about those “Read to Succeed” posters you see at libraries. The essayist appreciates the sentiment but points out that the phrase was clearly written by adults, for adults—the kids in his neighborhood would have phrased it “Read to Get the Hell Out of Here.” When I was reading, by the love of all that’s Amelia Earhart** the last thing I was looking to hear was (more) about school. Scratch that—the second to last thing was school, the last thing was dating among schoolmates. I’m an outlier on a lot of things, but is everybody really just looking for books about people like us?
I do believe Mike Jung when he tells me that “boy readership falls off a cliff during YA years.” I’d like to know more. Does this include comic books?*** Nonfiction? Is it linked to academic performance or social class? My suspicion is that there’s more at work that just story lines and pink covers—there’s a larger social stigma about doing well at schoolie things. That is a real problem that affects boys’ futures; does not reading YA have similar impact?
However, my second problem is the “boys are disadvantaged” story line, which is well stated by Maureen Johnson. I’m raising two boys and I want them to succeed, and again, I believe the data. But the 15-year-old part of me who identified with Archie Goodwin not Lily Rowan (I mean, c’mon) is saying “Huh? How much more do you people need?”
Back to the pink covers for a minute. They’re seen as a marketing tool; I’d like to more narrowly define them as the pitch. The purpose of a pitch is to sell the work; you present this pitch to possible buyers. If you’re trying to be efficient, you try to predict who the buyers will be and pitch to the likely candidates. This “who to pitch to” question is different from the pitch itself–but making all female authors’ books or all books with girl protagonists
have pink and/or sparkly covers conflates the two. How about this for social change: spend your predictive powers on where you deliver the message. Use the cover to represent the book and let the audience surprise you. Dawn Metcalf and Chris Abouzeid think we need a Choose Your Own Cover app.
John Green on why English class is useful
Hannah Mosk sees the problem as cardboard boy characters.
My kids are too young for me to have firsthand experience, so tell me yours. Is the discussion just more publishing angst? Strategies? Reframing?
** I’m trying out non-god-based epithets.
*** Maybe I mean graphic novels—feel free to educate me on this point.Tweet