Age of Ignorance (a.k.a. Banning Books for Boys, a.k.a. Teenage Boys Don't Read, a.k.a. Reading is Fundamental, Accept for Teenage Boys)

For those of you that haven’t been paying attention, I’ve written my first novel. Darius Logan and Super Justice Force is a Young Adult action/adventure novel that I wrote specifically for myself when I was thirteen years old. That’s to say, when I first started writing the book, I set out to write something that would have captured my imagination and entertained me when I was a young teenager. By the time I was thirteen, my interests had been divided between movies, comic books, video games, roller derby and girls. But I still liked to read, although I had matured past the adventures of the Three Investigators, and it was right around then that I made the leap from books written for kids, to slightly more mature material like Fahrenheit 451, a book that had a profound impact on me during my formative years.

Back when I was a teenager, I don’t recall there being the massive proliferation of books that there is now for young people. Yeah, we had S.E. Hinton books, and The Pigman, but the Young Adult markets as it exists today, with Harry Potter’s adventures and the Twilight series, didn’t exist when I was a kid. Back then, you hit a certain age, and you sort of had to fend for yourself if you liked reading. (And of course, I know that the concept of a kid enjoying reading might be strange to some, but it’s real.) Much of that has changed now, thanks to the massive YA market that dominates the publishing world, but there is still a sizeable audience that has not only been left to fend for themselves by the publishing world, I now believe that they have been all but abandoned. That audience is teenage boys.

As I worked on Darius Logan and Super Justice Force, I spent more time reading YA literature then any adult who is not a parent or teacher should ever do. I spent hours in book stores and libraries, talked to parents, read quite a few novels, and along the way I noticed something odd. Everywhere I looked, I saw books for girls of all ages. But when it came to books for boys, I had trouble finding anything geared toward readers over the age of 13 or 14 (the closest exception would be the Harry Potter books, which are just at the age cut-off). Keep in mind that I was writing for readers over the age of 13, and so I was actively seeking out books for more mature teens, that were clearly written for boys. This meant I was looking for books where the hero was a boy. And again, what I found was that the moment you crossed over into books geared for the 13-plus age range, almost all the heroes became girls, the books were marketed either primarily or exclusively to girls, and there was nothing for my inner 13 year old to grab on to.

The reason I’m explaining all of this is to create a context, and to make it clear that I knew I was fighting an uphill battle. For boys who like to read, they can enjoy the Alex Rider adventures, the chronicles of Percy Jackson, the exploits of Young James Bond, and quite a few other series that will keep them entertained until they are about 13—if they’re lucky. After that, boys either need to read books outside of their age group to find male heroes, accept the fact that all of their heroes are going to be girls, or give up reading. The third option seems to be the most popular.

The last two weeks, the rejections have started rolling in for my first novel—which in and of itself has not been easy to deal with. The most recent rejection said that my ideas were better than my writing. I agree 100%. My ideas are awesome. I’d love my ideas even if someone else wrote them. As a writer, my skills are okay—good but not great. I’m not denying this. And the rejection of my novel on the grounds of my writing skills is something that I can live with—not easily, but I can live with it. But that doesn’t seem to be the main reason the book is being rejected (at least if I’m to believe the feedback that’s been given). The main reason the book has been passed on is because “there is no market for books written for boys over the age of thirteen.”

Apparently, once boys turn 13, they abandon books to play video games. The result is there is no market for books geared toward older teenage boys. Of course, the fact there is no market, means there are no books, which means that even if a 15 year old boy wanted to read, he couldn’t, because there is no market, so therefore there are no books. Does any of this make sense?

Basically, somewhere along the line, it was decided that boys don’t read after a certain age, so there are few if any books written with them in mind. I have no doubt that by the age of 13 many boys develop interests in things more exciting than books, and that there may never be a market of male teen readers as big as the market for female teen readers. But is that enough of a reason to simply say “there is no market for books written for boys over the age of thirteen,” and then leave our sons and younger brothers and nephews with nothing? Because that is what the publishing world seems to have done.

Let me take a moment to be clear about one thing—this is not about my book being rejected. Darius Logan and Super Justice Force will find a publisher, and even if it doesn’t, I’ll publish it myself. I am, after all, the kid who got bad grades, and was told by teachers that I’d never amount to anything, and then went on to be more than most people expected me to be. I like to prove people wrong. And at the end of the day, the publishing industry is fundamentally wrong. By and large publishers have abandoned teenage boys, saying that they don’t read, so they won’t publish books for them, which creates a ridiculous catch-22—no market means no books to read which means no market which means no books to read which means no market, on and on into a vicious cycle that culminates with males who are great at video games, but marginalized and not fully developed intellectually. And these boys who don’t read—because there is no market, and therefore no books—grow up to be men who don’t read, creating another market that doesn’t exist.

All of this reminds me of how for years I kept hearing, “films with black movies stars don’t do well in  foreign  markets.” This mantra has been stated over and over again for decades, until it has become an accepted reality that films with black stars don’t do well in foreign markets. Of course, the fact that Will Smith is one of the biggest global box office stars on the planet knocks that train of thought right off the tracks. Similar things can be said for long-held notions like “girls don’t like sports,” “a black man will never be president,” and “rap music is a fad that won’t last.”

Somewhere along the way, it was decided that boys don’t read. And rather than working to change that, the publishing world took that notion and ran with it. They accepted the fact that boys are lazy, stupid creatures that would rather play video games than read a book, and have created a scenario that allows that to happen. Sure, teen boys could read something like Hunger Games or Twilight, but most won’t. There is almost nothing in Twilight that will appeal boys (believe me, I tried to read it), and while Hunger Games is a solidly entertaining book, most boys are looking for heroes they can relate to in some fashion, and it’s hard to find that in a girl. I know some people don’t want to believe that, but if I was 14, the last thing I’d want to read about is Katniss Everdeen and how she is torn between her love of two boys, Gale and Peeta. Sure, the parts where she’s fighting to stay alive are really cool, but show me a boy who is caught up in who Katniss chooses to give her heart to, and I’ll show you a boy that will be wrestling with how to come out of the closet once he gets to college.

When all is said and done, what we’re really talking about is the fact that an entire segment of the population has been written off. And again, this has nothing to do with my book not finding a publisher. This is about saying that while it’s okay to develop video games for boys and spend millions of dollars to ensure their hand/eye coordination is functioning at peak levels, we as a society don’t really care if they read or not. There are parents out there, right now, with sons who are 10 and 11 and 12 years old, who are reading the Percy Jackson books, and developing an interest in reading (and thereby expanding their minds). And in a year or two, after those boys have read all the Percy Jackson books, and all the Alex Rider books, and all the books that acknowledge that boys like to read, these parents and their sons will make an upsetting discovery: there’s nothing left for their sons to read, unless they want to read about whiny girls in love with brooding vampires.

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2 Responses to “Age of Ignorance (a.k.a. Banning Books for Boys, a.k.a. Teenage Boys Don't Read, a.k.a. Reading is Fundamental, Accept for Teenage Boys)”

  1. flash_gordian_knot Says:

    I completely agree with you about the lack of YA books targeted towards boys, and I think that you’re on a noble endevour to get boys into reading without subjecting them to junior romance novels. There are a few authors/series that stick in my mind as helping me with the transition from things like RL Stine’s Goosebumps to “adult” fiction. Authors like Gary Paulsen (the Hatchet series, Woodsong) and Jack Gantos (Jacks Black Book) published books that I could identify with as a blossoming middle schooler. My father eventually encouraged me to get into Heinlein around age 14, and from there I was able to progress from things like “Have Spacesuit, Will Travel” and “Starship Troopers” to the more mature “Stranger in a Strange Land.” By this time, I was in high school and was consistently expected to be able to handle “adult” fiction.

  2. flash_gordian_knot Says:

    Also, if you search “The Giver” by Lois Lowry on Facebook or some other “social media” sight, you’ll probably find that it’s a favorite book of a lot of people, because it was a great YA book that a lot of people cling to and remember. Good luck and keep trying, and if you want a good movie/book to read while awaiting acceptance, check out Larry Brown’s Big Bad Love, (I’d recommend short stories first, then movie).

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