Everyone knows that Nancy Drew is for girls and The Hardy Boys are for boys. The word “boys” is even in the title! Books about girls, or even by girls, are not for boys. Right?
I was researching potential agents the other day, and one of them (I forget who) said that she was particularly interested in representing “boy books.” She didn’t say what that meant, exactly, but I think we can make certain assumptions. Books for boys will have almost certainly have a male protagonist and focus more on action and adventure than romance.
The Percy Jackson books by Rick Riordan are a great example. They’re funny–even fart-jokingly crass at times–and full of sword fights. Percy also has a goofy best friend and a super smart, gorgeous girl sidekick. Kind of like Harry Potter. Actually, exactly like Harry Potter. I’m not saying that Riordan ripped off Rowling, but his books do follow an incredibly successful formula. While girls will–and do–read books with male protagonists, they’re more likely to read something with at least one female supporting character. Romantic subplots seem to sneak into these boy books, but the girls aren’t just there to look pretty. Annabeth Chase, the daughter of Athena from the Percy Jackson universe, and Hermione Granger are formidable heroines in their own right. But I can pretty much guarantee that their series would not have been as wildly successful if they’d been the protagonists instead of Percy and Harry. Simply put, girls will read boy books, but boys won’t read girl books.
When the movie Tangled was still in production a few years ago–a movie which I unabashedly love–it was originally called Rapunzel. After all, it’s based on the classic fairy tale by the same name. However, the film did not test well with male audiences, and in order to increase crossover appeal, they changed the name to something less princessy. Jo Rowling was encouraged to use initials rather than her name so as not to scare away boys. In this interview with Oprah, she says, “My British publisher, when the first book came out, thought that this was a book that would appeal to boys, but they didn’t want the boys to know that a woman had written it.” Rowling has no middle name; her middle initial is made up.
It makes a certain kind of economic sense. Books (and, potentially, film franchises) that appeal to both boys and girls have a larger potential market than books that appeal only to one gender. Of course, this idea is founded on the idea that boys can only like a certain category of things–football, perhaps, or war. Princesses, girl detectives, and love stories are another country, and to cross into enemy territory is to be considered a sissy.
In this lovely, thoughtful piece from Shannon Hale, author of The Princess Academy and The Goose Girl, she challenges the idea that boys don’t read her books. She says that she’s met young male fans at book signings, but that these are inevitably home schooled. In her experience, the pressure to conform to some idea of boyhood–a nebulous concept that is really nothing more than not-girlhood–is reinforced by the administration and the parents. Boys are often excluded from her school visits, since administrators assume that only girls would be interested in meeting with the author of The Princess Academy. The anecdote at the end of her post breaks my heart. A family of a mom, several daughters, and one ten-year-old boy come through the line at a book signing. After Hale finishes signing a book for each of the daughters, she turns to the boy and asks if he’d like his book signed, too.
The mom said, “Yeah, Isaac, do you want her to put your name in a girl book?” and the sisters all giggled.
As you can imagine, Isaac said no.
I’ve been kicking around the idea of a middle-grade series about a little girl who goes to live in a strange town populated by mad scientists and circus sideshows. Her name was going to be Lily McCork, and she was going to have a friend named Brian Spoon. However, to make the series more appealing to publishers, I’m probably going to have to swap the genders of the characters. I don’t think it will compromise the integrity of the book or even change the story that much, but the sad reality is that a book about a little girl will always be a girl book, no matter how many explosions it has in it.