What Do Boys Want?

There’s been a good deal of talk of late about what teenage boys want in their books, sparked by this opinion piece by David Handler (aka Lemony Snicket) in the New York Times.

Handler contends that boys want dirty books. He also contends that the “gatekeepers” of young adult literature won’t let them have them. It can be argued—and it has been in various online forums, including  The Horn Book  magazine—that this simply isn’t true. Has Handler actually read any young adult books, or is he making a giant assumption? And what about girls? Isn’t it sexist to suggest that boys and not girls want sex in their books? And what about those who come to literature to escape the sex that’s all too present in their lives already?

The bottom line is, what one boy wants isn’t necessarily what another boy wants. Suggesting that all boys think about is sex is stereotyping. Just as it is stereotyping to say that boys don’t want quiet books. Or that boys don’t want to read about girls. Or that boys want books about trucks and trains, not fairies and princesses.

The fact is, the greatest gate of all is the one that divides us into type—by gender, class, and race. And yes, publishers, reviewers, teachers, parents all are keepers of that gate. And the key to the lock is the all mighty dollar. It is perhaps only in public libraries where the gate is thrown wide and readers get to decide for themselves what they want.

But in order for libraries to have those books, writers have to write them, publishers have to publish them, and reviewers have to praise them. (And, of course, municipalities have to fund them!) It is incumbent on all of us to remember those readers who go against type, and to do what we can to make sure there are books out there for them, too.

Fortunately, there are “gatekeepers” out there who understand this and are publishing amazing books for diverse audiences–including boys who don’t fit the “mold–and making sure they are available in bookstores and libraries. My most recent favorite of these? Sparkle Boy by Lesléa Newman, which I came across recently in the bookstore at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art. Pick up a copy at your independent book store, or request it at your library. It’s by creating demand that we create change.

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