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YALLFest: Boys Writing Girls

I attended the second annual YALLFest in Charleston, South Carolina, where over 47 YA authors and publishing professionals converged and spoke on multiple panels about literary friendships, their chosen genres, the publishing industry, and readers. The event was hosted by Blue Bicycle Books, with signing tables and panel sites all within a block of each other on one street.

All of the panels I attended were funny and informative, but I would like to focus on one called YA Boy Band: Boys Writing Girls (& Boys). Gender issues in YA literature seem to find mention in a blog or article every other week, including this LA Review of Books article about separate YA fiction for boys and for girls, and I was intensely curious what a bunch of guys could possibly say about gender issues that the entire industry has not been echoing for decades.

It started, as many good discussions must, with a boy band. David Levithan brought up the paradox of One Direction’s hit single “What Makes You Beautiful.” In the song, a boy is telling a girl that what makes her beautiful is that she doesn’t know she’s beautiful. However, by telling her she’s beautiful, the singer has taken away the quality that supposedly makes her beautiful. The circular logic warmed everyone’s brains for the serious observations to follow.

Moderator John Corey Whaley got the ball rolling with a general question about the categories of “books for girls” and “books for boys” and what they even mean. Levithan called the male and female categories of books a “self-fulfilling prophecy” and “remarkable bullshit.” He asserted that books can be windows as well as mirrors, and that readers can appreciate walking in someone else’s shoes as much as  seeing themselves in a story.

Kwame Alexander was able to speak to the self-fulfilling prophecy: he shared an anecdote about a book festival where his children’s books included a book with farm animals on the cover and a book with a girl on the cover. Parents would buy his books based on their child’s gender — supposedly, sons would find animals more interesting than anything featuring a girl, and girls were supposed to like female protagonists by default. Alexander urged audiences: “We need to get out of our comfort zones.”

Brendan Reichs spoke about his writing process for female characters: he doesn’t have one. He said he writes characters based on their traits and personalities, and not based on gender. As a result, fans tell him his female characters are unique among YA protagonists. He acknowledged that having his mom as co-writer led to a high editorial standard. He found the claim funny that the Virals series has a specific appeal to girls when the group of heroes includes three boys.

David Macinnis Gill uses the remembered voices of his former high school students to write his teen characters. He also double checks his characters’ language by his daughters, who readily tell him when he is using dated language. He emphasized the realities of marketing and customer influence, saying that an author can aim to write a quality story intended for everyone, then hand the book to a publisher who designs a cover for a specific demographic. Gill said that the most effective way for readers to get the books they want onto shelves is to go to (independent) bookstores and demand the stories and authors they would like to see. There was an audience response from a librarian who lamented that she struggled to get boys interested in a steampunk anthology because the pink cover featured a woman with a parasol, even though the stories inside were the sorts of stories those boys normally enjoyed.

Reichs could relate to book covers reflecting targeted appeal, as his name was not on the hardcover copies of the Virals series he wrote with his mother Kathy, and those books had a girl on the cover. But when Brendan’s name was added to the paperback editions, the covers became more abstract and symbolic, with no girl on the covers. The comparison was made to The Hunger Games, whose large mockingjay icon on the cover is credited as helping to pull in a broad audience that a cover girl may not have gotten.

There was a question from the audience about authors who use their initials to cover up gender, J.K. Rowling being a famous example. The idea is the same as with the cover to The Hunger Games: gender-neutral marketing aimed to prevent boys from being repelled by females. A young woman in the audience observed that girls are expected to accept white male protagonists by default, with anything different from that requiring special attention.

Teens got a lot more credit from the authors than publishers and cover designers seem to give. Gill spoke up for his teen readers, saying that their reviews and responses to his books tend to pick up on details and references, while “adults miss the point.” Reichs used to be surprised by the teens he met on the road: “Teens today are smarter than I was when I was a teen. Don’t dumb anything down, because they are smarter than you.”

While other panels I attended at YALLFest were funnier or more dedicated to exploring genres, I greatly appreciated the anecdotes and respect for teen readers shared by the dude panel.

(Special Note: I don’t want to pay short shrift to Eliot Schrefer, who participated in the panel and made intelligent comments, but I took too many notes about what other people said while he was talking and his contributions have been tragically omitted here.)

— Thomas Maluck, Librarian at Richland County (SC) Public Library, currently reading Tighter by Adele Griffin

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