Are boys stereotyped in YA (young adult) and MG (middle grade) books?
There’s been a rash of discussion on the blogosphere about stereotypes of boys in YA lit (The Sweet One, The Bad Boy, The Nerdy Guy) and the subsequent lack of boy readers of YA, as they avoid the aisle of pink-kissy-lip covers like a toxic spill. The amazing boylit writer (and YA herself) Hannah Moskowitz has a fascinating discussion of The Boy Problem on her blog (also: check her out, she’s awesome).
This got me thinking about boy characters in MG. Do we stereotype them as well? I don’t think they serve as cardboard cut-outs, the way boys often do in YAlit, simply because MGlit seems more designed to appeal to boys AND girls. In fact, if you expect to have high concept, broad appeal books in MG, you had better have both male and female lead characters that are strong in their own rights.
Harry Potter: Where would Harry be without Ron and Hermoine?
Artemis Fowl: Artemis is counterbalanced by a rocket-powered fairy girl (Holly)
The Red Pyramid (Riordan’s latest): Brother and sister dynamic duo, with alternating voices
Leviathan: Prince Alex arguably isn’t even the lead, because so much of the stage is stolen by derring-do Deryn
Lemony Snicket: Bookish brother Klaus is meek compared to inventor Violet and biter extraordinaire Sunny
There are certainly some books without major female leads (Percy Jackson comes to mind), but I would say on balance characters are more likely to be boy/girl teams than solo boy adventurers. These examples happen to be fantasy/science fiction, but they are drawn from the bestselling MG books, which I think speaks to their broader appeal. I don’t read a lot of real-life MG books (Frindle), but while those seem to have more girl lead characters, they also don’t tend to be the breakout (read: super popular) books.
In almost all of these examples, the girls run against type – they are inventors and pilots and sassy sister/fairy/friends. But what about the boys? Well, they are almost uniformly orphans, but that is more plot device than stereotype, I believe. Harry is average in intelligence and kinda nerdy in a pleasant sort of way, but has a special destiny. Artemis is an evil (sort of) genius that has a soft heart. Percy is dyslexic and gets in trouble a lot, but is also loyal and has a special destiny as well. Alex is argumentative and a bit snobbish, but noble and valiant.
Looking at all these great characters, I’m having a hard time seeing a stereotype. Having a “special destiny” is practically required for fantasy books, and being an orphan frees you up for adventure. They are uniformly brave, but I think most heroes need to be. Perhaps the common thread is that all these boys are outsiders, ostracized a bit from their peers and misunderstood by adults, but ultimately saving the day (with their girl sidekicks and often an adult mentor).
Is this bad? Are we missing a boy character type that needs to be brought out in MG fiction?
The one thing I haven’t seen yet is a breakout book with a girl as the strong lead character, even if she has a boy sidekick (ala Hunger Games in YAlit). But I think we’re heading in the right direction as girl characters get stronger roles (also Byrne Risk is my personal attempt at moving that trend forward).
What tropes do you see in MGlit, either in boy or girl characters?
p.s. The lovely Sheri Larsen has interviewed me over at The Graffiti Wall, where you can WIN a copy of Life, Liberty, and Pursuit! And be sure to check back with Sheri next month, where she’s hosting a Paranormal Writing contest, and I’ll be offering a critique as one of the fab prizes!