Yes they're back! 2013 sees the return of my discussion posts feature. This time I'm going to look at Gender and YA. Now this is a HUGE topic that I really can't get into, so I'm going to focus on something I'm pulling from personal experience; whether we automatically view some books as more feminine, and some as being more appealing to boys.
This post is inspired by my recent stint as a bookseller in Waterstones over the Christmas period. I was lucky enough to get to work in the Children's section and of course over the weeks leading up to Christmas spent a lot of time helping baffled adults pick books for the children/teens in their lives, often kids they knew very little about. The first question I would ask was "Are you looking for a boy or a girl?" and I'd immediately berate myself like "But it shouldn't matter!" But does it? Are some books inherently designed with girls in mind and some with boys? I think this is obvious in a lot of cases in the younger sections, but what about YA?
I had a few moments that really made me think about gender and YA whilst at Waterstones. The first two are nice, so you can hear those first. The 3rd actually really upset me, so you're getting that last. First one was when I was on a till, I served a boy (I'm gonna say 12-14) who was buying City of Fallen Angels and Clockwork Angel by Cassie Clare. I asked if the books were for him and he said yes and I admit I was a little surprised. But then I thought "That's so cool!" I told him that I liked Clockwork Angel (and CP) best and hoped he enjoyed it and I recommended he try Sarah Rees Brennan and Holly Black if he liked Cassie Clare. The second was a girl and her mum looking for books for her brother. Her mum didn't speak much English so I was speaking to the girl who told me she wanted Darkness Falls (the sequel to Mia James' By Midnight) and then one other book for him but she didn't know what. I asked her what else he'd enjoyed reading and she said Twilight and one about fallen angels but she couldn't remember the name. Again, I was a little surprised. In the end she chose City of Bones by Cassandra Clare. On both of these occasions the books chosen were ones that I would think of as being aimed more at girls, in terms of character/appeal/themes. (Though on further reflection, I think Cassie Clare does a good job of making her books more gender-neutral than I originally thought.)
The final incident, the one that upset me, was a woman who asked me if we had a 'young boy' (her phrase) who worked here who could recommend a book for a teenage boy. I told her I would happily recommend something for her and she said (in a tone of ABSOLUTE scepticism.) "Can you though? Can you REALLY?" Like, because I'm A GIRL I can't recommend books for boys. I was fuming. I went and fetched a guy who worked there who read a lot of YA and told him and he was like OMG but he went to talk to her. In the end he asked (because she didn't seem satisfied with any of his choices) if I could recommend anything. She'd said the boy was quite techy, so I recommended Insignia by SJ Kincaid and surprise, surprise, she chose that book. Like I said earlier, this incident really shook me. I'm sure it was just a thoughtless comment on her part but it did make me feel discriminated against because of my gender. I think it's sad that someone would think that my general knowledge of books wasn't enough, that only a boy could recommend books for a boy.
Working at Waterstones really made me think about how automatic it is that I think in terms of what's good for boys, what's good for girls. I made a conscious effort to focus on interests and previous books enjoyed (but when the adult knows little about the person they're buying for, this makes that very hard). In the end, I rationalised that I was going for the safe options. If someone asked you to help pick a scarf for someone and they knew very little about the person, you'd probably go for a fairly safe, neutral colour rather than recommending the acid green one with orange stripes and sky blue tassels. So it made sense for me to go for those books that tend to appeal more to boys for boys and the same for girls. But still, it made me feel like the gender of the person was a major factor in my decision and I didn't like that about myself. Where had this automatic response come from?
A lot of people say "oh, boys don't like reading books about girls" but I wouldn't want to say whether this is true or not. I feel this is a conclusion people have come to possibly without ever ASKING boys if that is the case. (Sadly, I don't know many teen boys that read-or at all-so I can't really ask them). Funnily enough I did get a lot of people in saying the boy they were buying for had enjoyed The Hunger Games (with a girl’s POV) but then opted to go for a dystopian book with a male MC rather than Divergent (which again, has a girl narrator). But again, this was people buying books for boys not boys choosing books for themselves, so does this show anything beyond them not thinking a boy would like a book with a girl narrator?
I think covers play an interesting role in this. Traditionally, publishers tend to go for covers that reflect the content and the theme/genre of the book. This doesn't just apply to YA. Crime covers often look a certain way, as do fantasy books, romance books, etc. It shows the reader what type of book it is, without them having to find out for themselves. (Although, when this is in a book shop that is often divided by genre...how necessary IS this?) I think this has a huge impact on the books people choose. A lot of covers DO look kinda girly; girls in nice, swirly dresses, swirly fonts, with pinks, purples, baby blues, glittery stuff etc. And some covers do look less so; blacks, dark blue, red, strong bold fonts. There are some books where the cover does look very gender neutral (Wonder by RJ Palacio, Maggot Moon by Sally Gardner, The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness) and I definitely view this as a good thing. They can be marketed in a neutral fashion; aimed at everyone not just one particular gender. But this wouldn’t work for every book. (I would have pictures of these covers but Blogger is playing up and won’t let me format them properly.) (Also interestingly, all three books mentioned focus on a male character.)
You could argue that books are marketed at the people who buy them. The reason paranormal romance is marketed at girls is because girls buy them. Publishers etc are just going off the data that they have, and yes this is probably true. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t make an attempt to minimalise a gender gap and encourage both boys and girls to read more diversely.
What do you guys think? Are some books aimed at specific genders? And where does this come from? Authors? Publishers? Booksellers? Society as a whole? Or is it based on buying habits (and what is the causality here; are certain books marketed at girls cause girls buy them, or do girls buy certain books cause they’re marketed at them?) Can you think of any YA books that you would consider to be fairly gender neutral/have gender neutral covers? Should we be making more of an attempt to neutralise books or is it okay to continue aiming them at particular genders? Weigh in in the comments!