Statistically speaking the person reading a YA book is more like to be female than male.
It’s very easy to go all Daily Mail about this: BOYS DON’T READ! PUBLISHERS PANDER TO FEMALE AUDIENCE! HOUSE PRICES SOAR! THE END OF THE WORLD IS NIGH!
Alternatively, you can think of it like this: Boys and girls are allowed to like different things – people, regardless of gender assignation, are allowed to like different things and maybe the reason that more girls are reading YA than boys isn’t because boys aren’t made to feel welcome, but that girls feel that YA is safe territory.
Most other forms of entertainment are visual – TV series, films… the biggest bands still make music videos. These come replete with eye-candy, the respective industries well aware that people will watch almost anything if there’s a chance of crushing on the actors in it.
Books don’t work like that.
Instead of asking us to form a quick judgement based on what someone looks like, a book gives us the time and the freedom to judge characters for the way they behave, how they think or what they feel. Books rarely make you feel bad about the way you look/what you wear/the size of your clothing – matters that hit girls a little harder than they hit boys.
In YA, the girl on the page can look like whoever the reader wants – be it Scarlett Johansson, that girl who served you in Topshop or even you – girls in books aren’t required to be hot, they’re required to do stuff, to tell a story. They’re meant to be relatable. They’re meant to be you.
Admittedly, the relationship between books and films isn’t mutually exclusive. Some of the biggest YA hits have been turned into films, presenting nay-sayers with the passive target of Bella Swan or hard-hearted supergirl Katniss Everdeen (if that’s how you see her). But Twilight and The Hunger Games are American and while American YA is more than capable of delivering a nuanced girl (see Rainbow Rowell), UKYA as a whole feels a lot less compromised.
Hardly any of the YA I’ve read this year places a romantic relationship at the heart of the book. Solitaire by Alice Oseman features a main character too consumed by her own ennui to contemplate romance, or there’s Cass in Keren David’s Salvage whose primary concern is family. Even when finding a partner is front and centre of the story Lobsters-style, authors Tom Ellen and Lucy Ivison give us a context that includes friends. If you want to step outside the realm of contemporary, there’s Lucy Carlyle in Jonathan Stroud’s Lockwood & Co who is delightfully pragmatic, or you could take a step in the other direction towards A Kiss in the Dark by Cat Clarke, a book that might provoke the reader to question a binary definition of gender.
Our female characters are flawed yet focused, they aren’t intimidatingly perfect paradigms and female readers aren’t the only ones who benefit. Despite the stats, there are still plenty of boys reading YA who get to see girls the way that girls see themselves and that’s a great thing. (Sometimes they see the way girls see them and although I have some reservations about that, this is another measure on which the titles I’ve mentioned score well.)
Isn’t it kind of brilliant that YA is showing teen readers real people… even if those people happen to be fictional?
Non Pratt is the author of Trouble out now from Walker Books.