June 19, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Opinion: Do We Honor Girls’ Stories? The Double Standard of YA Lit

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.

17 and GoneIt’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

about a girlIt’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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  1. This is the Andrew Smith quote that Kelly Jensen, the author of this article, has been criticizing him for since March of this year. Because she brings it up again here, it’s only fair to show people the truth.

    VICE Media: On the flip side, it sometimes seems like there isn’t much of a way into your books for female readers. Where are all the women in your work?

    Andrew Smith: I was raised in a family with four boys, and I absolutely did not know anything about girls at all. I have a daughter now; she’s 17. When she was born, that was the first girl I ever had in my life. I consider myself completely ignorant to all things woman and female. I’m trying to be better though.

    A lot of The Alex Crow is really about the failure of male societies. In all of the story threads, there are examples of male-dominated societies that make critical errors, whether it’s the army that Ariel falls in with at the beginning, or the refugee camp, or Camp Merrie-Seymour for boys, or the doomed arctic expedition, they’re all examples of male societies that think that they’re doing some kind of noble mission, and they’re failing miserably.

  2. Also, most of the female authors Jensen mentions in this article are contributors to her upcoming anthology book. Are there any who aren’t?

    That’s a conflict of interest that School Library Journal’s editors should have chosen to mention in the interest of full disclosure, if they were aware of this.

    I agree with the cause of this article and support the celebration and elevation of women in publishing, be they author or reader, young or old.

    But the issue is only muddled when unethical bloggers use personal attacks and self-promotion to “advance” the issue.

    Surely there are remarkable women writers who are NOT contributing to her book who are worth mentioning and elevating, too? I suspect School Library Journal wasn’t aware of her past ax-grinding against Smith and self-interested stake in these authors.

    YA bookosphere, let’s move away from this kind of toxicity. The cause is a good one but there are better ways to push it forward than through this kind of deception and opportunism.

    • If you want to move away from toxicity, then don’t show up on posts like this and claim to be sharing the “truth.” Simple. Kelly talked about women’s stories and girls’ voices that get ignored, and thatis what counts.

    • YA Truth:

      1) Your adoption of gamergate-esque “unethical blogger” language demonstrates you are tone deaf. By co-opting the language of an inherently misogynistic movement and leaning on conspiracies and non-existent conflicts of interest, you critiqued a person instead of an idea. Poor form. Unacceptable behaviour.

      2) You do not agree with the cause of the article. You chose to critique the author. In the words above, she did not critique Smith and Wallach. She afforded them the deference you are denying her. She wrote, “their words were being talked about as problematic.” She did not criticize their character, she offered that they said things people found problematic. A segment of the YA community defended them. The YA community rallied to keep YA kind. When the three women she mentions chose to speak up about other problematic themes. There was no kindness rally by the YA community. They experienced harassment with the intent to silence them. There IS a double standard, and you are exhibiting it by switching the conversation from one critical of ideas to one critical of the writer’s character. You are attempting to harass a woman into silence.

      3) This is not toxicity. Toxicity is the outcome of your action to silence someone who is shining a light on a problematic collective behavior of the YA community.

      Reconsider your criticism, and the sexism evident in your claim.

    • Katherine Locke says:

      I am one of the female authors named and I am not in Kelly Jensen’s anthology. I was also off the internet multiple times this year due to harassment, largely stemming from my criticism of a Nazi Romance book.

      Sit down and remember this isn’t a personal attack on you. It’s an opinion piece that says the entire system is built this way and we *all* must be part of examining our role in that, as well as being part of the change.

    • I debated not leaving a response to you, “YA Truther,” but I decided I would. This is because I want any girl or woman out there who fears she’ll experience such a response to her own work to see that standing up matters, even if it doesn’t change the minds of those who choose to punch down, rather than up.

      First, this article isn’t about Andrew Smith in any capacity. His example is used to prove a point. Indeed, I think the sexist attitude displayed in his Vice comment is a pretty great example of what I’m saying here, so thanks for contributing it. The fact you used that example to try to undercut my point about the devaluation of female voices and girls’ stories, along with the explanation of how the book is about the failure of male-led societies (which, I should add, I get, but I also point out that it fails to render a single female character in that book as anything valuable or even moderately developed–yes, I’ve read it and thought a lot about it), only goes to further elevate my point.

      Further, the gaslighting tactics here — the ones where you try to make SLJ and myself feel bad about the examples I used to talk through my points — are an excellent example of derailing the conversation. Perhaps it’s worth noting that the reason many of the female authors cited in this article are writing for my anthology is that they are feminists. They GET it, and it shows through their focus on female-driven stories. Of course I’d ask them to contribute to an anthology of feminist essays for teen girls. This “point” in being a “truther” here is nothing more than a show of your contempt for me personally, as well as my unwillingness to waver on the points I highlight in this article.

      For being a “YA Truther,” it’s unfortunate you don’t even use a real name. Meanwhile, I unabashedly own my byline, and I’m going to continue to talk about this issue because this is an issue that needs to be addressed in the industry. It’s time white men who are privileged, who continually get praised for being “so smart” and “so empathetic” writing women or “complex” stories are no longer elevated beyond the women, men of color, and others from marginalized groups who have been stepped on, spit on, and expected from without even a fraction of the same defense or recognition.

      I know for sure if my name were Ken Jensen and I wrote this same article, you wouldn’t waste your breath in the comments to undermine my, my thoughts, nor try to convince others that I’m not worth listening to.

      I am not, nor will I be, the only person who continues to shout about this. It just so happens this time around, SLJ asked me to do so for their readership, and so I did.

      That, my friend, is the only “YA Truthing” we need right now.

      The only toxicity I see is your attitude, your eagerness to hold on to the problems, and your desire to discredit my voice, my thoughts, and me as a human being.

    • You are missing the point of everything Kelly has said. You are toxic.

  3. I’m with Just Stop.
    Saying you support the message, but villifying and trying to “out” the messenger says the opposite. You’re not in favor of what Kelly is talking about if your purpose in commenting is to discredit her. You’re trying to distract from the conversation, and from the message.
    So what if the authors she mentions are contributing to a book she’s editing? Did you consider that maybe there is a reason those authors are contributing to the book? Maybe it’s not opportunism and self promotion, but a shared aspiration?
    If you really “support the celebration and elevation of women in publishing,” why not actually show some support?

  4. I believe Kelly’s observations about the mass public defense of authors who are men vs. the lack of such public defense for authors who are women is completely accurate, and I believe her points about the disproportionate level of respect, deference, and lionization given to men who write about girls and women is equally accurate. The repellent problem of systemic sexism is one that I haven’t always been aware of and in truth will probably never understand to the highest possible degree, because I don’t have to contend with it.

    Fortunately for me, there are supremely intelligent, informed, articulate, and uncompromising people who I can learn from. That group of people includes the scintillating continuum of women who’ve created so much of our children’s literature canon; it also includes the countless voices who’ve been denied entry into our field, or denied the fullness of opportunity and deference that they deserve because of their gender. The authors Kelly lists here are people who have shown me and continue to show me catastrophic, unsuspected truths about what it means to be a women in our business, our society, and our world. They’ve taught and continue to teach me about all the ways in which we can, should, but simply do not honor stories about girls.

    It pains me to think of all the ways in which I’ve heedlessly contributed to that dynamic of erasure and dismissal. It is not a good feeling to know I’ve been so oblivious to such an all-encompassing miasma of systemic inequity. In this arena, as in others, my personal experience of individual growth is a miserably uncomfortable thing. It’s a discomfort with limits, though, because the damnably pervasive inequities Kelly delineates here are ones I don’t have to contend with. So I’ll continue to absorb that discomfort and continue listening to the voices of those who communicate painful, real world truths that I could block out with very little effort, because I’d really like to stop being part of the problem and start being part of the solution.

  5. I’m really interested in Kelly’s perspective and viewpoint and I’m sure there’s truth in it. After all look around you? Who do we see running countries, companies, hospitals, you name it? Men.
    I was reminded of the recent Tin House essay ‘On Pandering’ by Claire Vaye Watkins that I’m sure many of you have seen-it’s excellent.
    I can’t discuss the literary merits of the books mentioned as Shustermann’s is the only one I’ve read. I hadn’t heard of Neal Shustermann at all until he won the NBA (I’m in the UK) but I was utterly blown away by Challenger Deep. As an aspiring writer and a medical practitioner (not a psychiatrist) the way Shustermann frames this difficult issue, i.e. psychosis while maintaining Caden (the protagonist’s) point of view and his humanity…the descriptions of the psych ward, the drug side effects…even his depiction of the way language is affected by a schizoid illness (the ‘word salad’). The use of fantasy/reality and the ‘slip’ between were amazingly well done and I’ve been recommending it to all the docs (and YA readers!) I know. I think his personal knowledge of this devastating illness really shines through.
    Thanks for the recommendations, i look forward to checking them out. And more YA that focuses on mental health issues is sorely needed, for girls and boys.

  6. I think “YA Truth” has been sufficiently schooled, but I can’t help noting that this essay is clearly marked as an OPINION piece. No one–least of all Kelly–is pretending objectivity here.

    So can we let that go and steer the conversation back to the topic at hand? Namely, the fact that women authors are doing most of the work in YA but in general getting a disproportionate portion of the attention and accolades and that, further, there seems to exist a different set of standards and supports for male YA authors. I think, in general, when we see something “new” or ” brave” in YA, we ought to be looking closely at how that work is in conversation with other YA that has come before. This is a great way to excavate works (by men as well as women) that may have remained under the radar. In other words, when we ask folks to take note of a seemingly singular book, we might also pause and consider whether that might also be a moment to lend visibility to a lesser-known book.

  7. As they say in sociology, we have this pervasive idea that “men are people; women are women.” (There’s also a racial version of that, a version for sexual orientation, etc, but that’s for another conversation.) Kelly is absolutely right that we ghettoize, demote, and hold double standards, while ignoring that YA is a tradition and product that was built by women – women working in “feminine” or “pink collar” fields. As is true in many other fields, we don’t legitimize things beloved or produced by women until men approve of them – look at Bronies, look at hetero white hipster men wearing pink shirts or “this is what a feminist looks like” shirts, look at the men writing on Everyday Feminism and other similar websites, look at how GQ magazine is viewed as serious versus Cosmopolitan as frivolous and vapid…. Allies in women’s spaces are good to have to a point, but the fact that we don’t take seriously these spaces UNTIL a man enters them is deeply offensive and problematic. And yes, it ruins boys and genderqueer people as much as it hurts girls.

  8. Jordan Brown says:

    Thank you, as always, Kelly, for continuing to champion the voices of women, and for continuing the deal directly with the very forces working to silence them. The response you’re getting, here and elsewhere, is as tragic as it is typical. But there are so many more of us who are listening, and learning, and these responses are object lessons in why that’s so important. Thank you, again.

  9. Great post. Keep speaking out. Voices need to be heard. As Audre Lorde said, “Your silence will not protect you” and of course, “there are so many silences to be broken.”