There’s been lot of discussion lately in the blog and twitter spheres on the subject of boys and YA (young adult) literature. More specifically writers and others are asking why more boys aren’t reading YA. I’ve followed a number of these discussions with interest, but for the most part I’ve been fairly quiet on the subject. However, a recent discussion (Where Have All The Young Men Gone? : Guys In YA) on YA author Dawn Metcalf’s blog has finally motivated me to join the conversation.
Most of us are familiar with the expression, “Never judge a book by its cover”. In other words, don’t assume what something is like based only how it looks. This expression is usually offered as an admonition about people and prejudice, but here I want to consider its literal meaning with regards to actual books.
YA is a growing genre with many talented writers crafting and contributing new stories which in turn expand the genre’s scope and readership. (You can read more about it an article in this month’s Los Angeles Times.) Nevertheless, I’m always struck when I stroll through my local Borders bookstore by what I see on the book covers in the YA fiction section.
First, a quick word about marketing.
Authors know that publishers make the final decision about cover art for the books they publish, not the authors themselves. (There are exceptions of course, but not many.) Authors also understand book covers are as much about marketing as they are about distilling the essence of the story with a picture. Covers sell books. This may mean a publisher might choose to emphasize a more marketable aspect of a book for its cover, while the author may feel a different aspect is really at the core of the story. For the most part the authors I follow have been very happy with the final covers their books receive. That’s a good thing! But sometimes publishers miss the mark.
So what does this have to do with boys and YA?
I mentioned before I’m struck by what I see whenever I visit the YA section of the bookstore. What strikes me is how little I see most of these images appealing to teenage boys. As an adult I am happy to stop and pick up a few titles for a closer look. Partly this is out of simple curiosity and partly this is because I’ve connected with some of these authors writing in the YA genre through social networks. They’ve shared their views about their books and about their own writing process, in turn I feel more connected to them and so I’m interested in seeing their titles first first-hand. However, a teenage boy walking through a bookstore won’t have my agenda.
He’ll see a book on the shelf and that book will have a precious few seconds to try to grab his attention long enough for him to hopefully pick it up and find out more. If the cover art suggest the story is mostly a romance, he’s not likely to be interested. If the cover features a lone, racy, weapon-clad heroine, with little else to depict the “story”, the image will scream “girl book” and he’ll leave it on the shelf. Worse yet, if those covers make him feel at all embarrassed, like he’s wandered somewhere in the bookstore he shouldn’t be, he wouldn’t dare to pick one up, especially if he thought anyone was looking. And more than likely, he’d likely simply steer clear of the YA section altogether.
So what’s the answer?
If we want more boys to read within the YA genre then publishers need to reconsider boys when making cover art decisions and stop making so many YA titles look like something they wouldn’t be interested in.
I couldn’t help but wonder while writing this post if J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series was to be published for the first time in 2010 what the book covers would look like. I suspect they would end up looking more like the covers for the DVDs rather than the lovely artwork of Mary GrandPre which depicts more of the story without the racy intensity of the main characters.
So that’s my take. The opinion of one (to quote Kate Hart of YA Highway) “brave male soul in a world of women YA bloggers”. (This still makes me laugh every time I read it! Thanks Kate!)
Okay, it’s your turn. Please feel free to let me have it in the comments.