We’ve all read claim after claim about how women “dominate” young adult fiction. But rarely do we reward and celebrate girls’ stories written by women in the same capacity that we do boys’ narratives, or men who write girls’ stories.
Take for one example this year’s slate of National Book Award (NBA) long list titles for young adults. It is rife with male authors and male-driven stories. While there are books on this list that feature female-driven narratives—Laura Ruby’s Bone Gap and Noelle Stevenson’s Nimona—both of those are enclosed within a larger story that involves a male voice (or voices). Walk on Earth a Stranger by Rae Carson, another YA title on the long list, features a girl who cross-dresses.
It’s not that these books don’t deserve to be there or that they aren’t feminist. Indeed, I don’t want to suggest the committee didn’t put in a lot of time, effort, and discussion to make the best choices possible. But it is impossible not to look at the choices, the absences common among all of them, and wonder what we’re collectively saying about girls’ voices.
This year’s NBA winner, Neal Shusterman’s Challenger Deep, is an outstanding, powerful story of mental illness. It’s a literary gem, and the accolades it will continue earning are not unmerited.
The problem is the discussion around books like this one.
Many hailed Challenger Deep as a unique book that goes into spaces other mental health–themed YA haven’t before. Those grandiose claims, though, are not entirely true. It’s not that Shusterman’s novel isn’t masterful; it’s that other books, like Nova Ren Suma’s 17 & Gone (Dutton, 2013) take similar literary risks and challenges, but fail to be held up in the same way. 17 & Gone is, if anything, a forgotten book now, just two years after its release—an “under the radar” read, despite the critical accolades given to it when it first published.
“Ideal crush objects”
Culturally, we reward men who perform “pink collar” type work. Male elementary school teachers, male nurses, and even male librarians elicit excitement since they’re working in roles traditionally performed by women. The same can be said about the YA writing world (and the broader kid lit world, as evidenced by an October 2015 article in New York magazine about male children’s book authors as the “ideal crush object”). Men who write for youth are seen as special, as honorable, even if we don’t come out and say it explicitly. They’re doing something unexpected.
The same thing happens in online book spaces. When YA authors Andrew Smith and Tommy Wallach took turns leaving Twitter earlier this year because it became an uncomfortable space for them when their words were being talked about as problematic, readers rallied. “Keep YA Kind” took hold on social media in March this year, with readers changing their pictures to hold up books by Smith and encourage the community to be kind, rather than criticize.
Support like this, though, didn’t extend when Anne Ursu, Justina Ireland, Katherine Locke, or other female writers were pushed off social media for being harassed because they chose to speak up and out against problematic work. Women are expected to be kind, generous, and nice, so when they choose instead not to be, they “deserve” what they get.
It shouldn’t be either/or. No one should be above criticism on these platforms, just as no one should be bullied on them. But in the YA world, we protect one gender more than others.
Stories like Suma’s The Walls Around Us (Algonquin), Elana K. Arnold’s Infandous (Lerner), Sarah McCarry’s About a Girl (St. Martin’s), Courtney Summers’s All The Rage (St. Martin’s), and Melanie Crowder’s Audacity (Philomel) picked up a pile of starred reviews and positive recognition this year in trade reviews and in online discussions. But with awards time and “best of” time upon us, chances are we won’t see these titles appear again and again as ones we need to remember as the best of the best.
Strong female protagonists
It’s hard not to think it’s because they’re female-driven, female-centric stories. They do not bend to a male gaze, and they are unabashedly about being girls in today’s male-friendly world. These are girls’ voices that we don’t hear—ones of love and victimhood, of friendship and social change—and they’re voices we won’t hear lauded as unique, powerful, memorable, or life-changing. We may label them as “strong,” but it’s hard not to wonder why we label some female voices “strong” and not others?
Perhaps we also need to wonder why we don’t use the label “strong male voice.”
Strong voice should refer only to the realism, the consistency, and the creation of the character. A strong voice means you forget about the creator at all and believe wholeheartedly in the character, whether they’re fighting their government or falling head-over-heels in love for the first time.
When women write and create with empathy, it’s taken for granted. It’s expected of them because those are the social norms pressed upon them. When men do these same things, though, it’s seen as special.
When women take risks in their writing, when they choose to write female-driven narratives with take-no-bull girls who may not care at all whether you like them or not, they’re not seen as brave. They’re not seen as doing something new or inventive or award-worthy. They are instead dinged because they portray girls who aren’t “likable.” Because the stories are not always “nice.” Because those girls aren’t “realistic.”
But when men write girls—any kind of girls—they’re seen as special. As empathetic. As doing new, creative, amazing things.
As pushing the YA world forward.
YA fiction is built on the backs of female writers and female-driven stories. We wouldn’t have the rich tapestry of stories we do without authors like Laurie Halse Anderson, Sharon Draper, Sarah Dessen, Malinda Lo, Meg Cabot, Stephenie Meyer, Angela Johnson, and other knockouts who choose to tell girls’ stories. Who don’t shy away from writing about the ups and downs of being female in a world where it’s better to be anything but.
A certain, powerful light
Take a few minutes to reflect on those books we hold in a certain, powerful light. Think about not just what they have in common with one another, but think about the things that they don’t share with one another— or with other stories.
Then press those books into the hands of readers of any gender and tell them that those stories matter.
Because when we’re conforming to gender norms in the YA community, we hurt not just girls. We hurt boys, as well as individuals who are genderqueer or non-conforming, suggesting that the best, most unique, most memorable stories are of a certain persuasion.
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