Defining the Boy Book via Andy Sherrod

I volunteered for the Writers’ League of Texas last Saturday at the Texas Book Festival. I had a great time and met lots of interesting writers at all stages of personal development. One of the many WLT board members who also manned the booth that day was romance writer Evelyn Palfrey. She asked me what I was working on, and I told her a YA adventure novel. It was a conversational opening I had participated in dozens of times by that point in the afternoon. But then she surprised me by asking if I was writing my book for boys or girls.

I am writing a boy book. What’s a boy book? How is it different from a girl book? These are great questions that usually generate interesting discussions among YA and middle grade (MG) writers. Ms. Palfrey’s question last Saturday certainly did just that, even if I was the only one present who wrote for a teen audience. We ended up talking a little about Andy Sherrod, mostly because I dropped his name into the mix.

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If you’re not familiar with Mr. Sherrod, he’s one of theVermont College of Fine Arts mafia, and he’s been studying and writing and talking about the issue of young, male aliteracy since graduate school.(Aliteracy is the state of being able to read but being uninterested in doing so.) I met him a couple of years back when he gave a highly informative presentation defining the term boy book. I had to drive an hour and half to Bryan (the seminar was sponsored by the Brazos Valley SCBWI), but I’m glad I did.

The FAQ section of Andy’s site opens with the four major factors he uses to define the “gender” of a YA or MG story. I pulled the following from there. It has been edited for layout purposes:

  1. In a novel the gender of the protagonist makes a difference…to a degree.  Boys like to read about boys but there ARE good boy books with engaging female protagonists.

  2. Boy readers want a protagonist that acts more or less alone in a secondary territory (away from familiar places like home and school) engaged in a physical pursuit, a journey on foot, so to speak, rather than a journey of the heart.

  3. This involves the proper handling of emotions, particularly sadness or grief.  Some authors handle this in a way that keeps boys’ attention and some don’t.

  4. Boys love facts but there is a difference between fact books and factual books.  Fact books don’t necessarily lead to active literacy, factual books do and can encompass all genres from non-fiction to fiction to science fiction.

In his presentation, Andy also touches on some of the positive male archetypes successful boy book authors deploy. Some examples include The Pilgrim, who is a wanderer/searcher filled with hope, whileThe Patriarch is a masculine form of caring responsibility/emblem of nobility and self-sacrifice. Sherrod defines ten of these archetypes in his lecture.

He also shares his belief that writers have a responsibility to engage with young male readers. He stands against the prevailing school of thought which says young American male aliteracy is inevitable. To quote Andy Sherrod,

“Boys will be interested in books … when books interest the boys.”

I read as a boy. I know boys who read. When they’re related to me by blood or close friendship, I often impose on their parents to let me use them as beta readers. There are and always have been boys who read. Lots of boys read plenty of things. Just not fiction.

Andy Sherrod’s right: if we want to get teen males to read fiction, we have to make fiction appeal to teen males.

I’m out of space here, but look for more on boy books in future posts.