From ‘Little Men’ to ”The Hunger Games’: How To Make Young Adult Fiction Work For Young Boys

A number of people have passed along Sarah Mesle’s essay in the Los Angeles Review of Books which argues that our recent young adult novels have failed to serve boys particularly well. The essay’s occasioned a number of thoughtful responses, particularly Malinda Lo’s argument that Mesle’s peddling a rather suspicious idea of an essential and inherent masculinity that we ought to be seeking narrative support for. While I’m firmly in Lo’s camp in believing that the strength of young adult fiction is not that it can teach boys or girls a sole way to be men and women, but to offer multiple and affirming ways to shape those identities, I do think there’s something to be said for a question Mesle is asking about whether we’re serving boys well, whether in the way that she imagines, or the way Lo posits. Mesle writes:

The contemporary uncertainty towards young men snaps into focus when we compare recent texts to their literary ancestors — nineteenth-century novels for young readers. Hope Leslie, Jo’s Boys, Northwood, The Lamplighter: these novels heralded the end of boyhood as a happy ending, the beginning of a triumphant journey into a powerful manhood. But today’s YA boys approach their manhood with trepidation. And they should. The adult men who populate YA fictional worlds are often careless, corrupt, incompetent — sometimes even cruel — and only rarely kind.

I agree that boys and young men need good literary role models as much as girls and young women do, and that in our conversations about how to create great female characters, we don’t often have corresponding discussions about how to serve boys with the same intelligence and complexity. Some of that is because there already exist a great many excellent stories about deeply textured young men—having your needs met first has its benefits. But I also wonder if some of what’s at stake here is not that we aren’t creating great stories that foreground the transition from boyhood into manhood. It’s that some of those stories exist, but they’re told through young women’s eyes and from young women’s perspectives that we haven’t yet trained boys to embrace and share.

In much of the classic young adult literature I read as a child, I learned to see myself as boys and men would see me. In The Giver, Lois Lowry’s story of a dystopia, I saw Fiona, a gentle a girl who was blind to the fact that her care for the elderly involved learning to euthanize the oldest among them, and whose ignorance was a source of great pain for Jonas, the novel’s main character. In The Outsiders, Ponyboy’s realization that Cherry Valance’s status as a Soc doesn’t define her as a person guided my interactions with some of the more popular girls who became my friends in middle school and high school. As an ambitious girl on a largely female policy debate team, I hoped my teammates would see me like Petra Arkanian, the only girl good enough to fight alongside Ender Wiggin in Orson Scott Card’s alien invasion novel Ender’s Game. And as an irrepressible nerd, I both hoped and feared that I would end up like Harry Potter‘s Hermoine Granger.

It’s not a bad thing to learn about yourself from how others see you, as long as that’s not the only opportunity you’re given to examine yourself. In fact, it’s one I think more boys should have. So often, male perspectives in these situations are treated like they’re a default norm, while books with female main characters are assumed to be for girls rather than aimed at and available to everyone.

I’ve always thought that lots of boys of my acquaintance would have loved Tamora Pierce’s novels, which feature heroines who are knights, magicians, or medieval cops, and inevitably involve those characters’ extended meditations on the men who are their mentors, friends, and ultimately lovers. These may be stories about women, but they’re substantially about how different expressions of masculinity serve the men who embody them, and influence the women who come into contact with them. Prince Jonathan, who trains as a knight with Alanna, a noblewoman who disguises herself to pursue her dream, in Pierce’s Lioness novels, has exactly the kind of arc Mesle talks about looking for. He overcomes a callow intermittent period in his life, but when he comes to maturity, the results are literally earth-moving. That rise to manhood isn’t less powerful or celebratory because it’s communicated through Alanna’s eyes: it may be even more so, because Alanna is hurt by his resistance of his responsibilities and a realistic attitude towards sexuality, and is lifted up when he claims the throne as a protector of his people. Similarly, the Beka Cooper trilogy Pierce finished more recently traces both the downfall of a good man who is undone by his beliefs about what class mean for his manhood, and the rise to true nobility and responsibility of the men of a royal family. It’s possible for these very strong female characters to appreciate men and masculinity. And Pierce sets as a standard for a truly evolved masculinity something that’s absent from some of the classics Mesle calls out: an ability to appreciate women as friends, colleagues, and collaborators, to enjoy their minds as much as their bodies, and to understand that power is only legitimate when it’s exercised to meet the needs of all people, no matter their gender.

The same is true for the Hunger Games series, which I first read on the recommendation of and on loan from my younger brother. Katniss is the heroine, and the novels chronicle her dreadful rise to maturity when she becomes the tool of first the Capitol, then of a rebel movement. But much of the books is about how she sees two men, Gale Hawthorne and Peeta Mellark, and how their respective strength and anger and caring and tenderness serve them in a tremendously difficult time. I don’t disagree with Mesle that love triangles can come up short for men. She asks: “we’ve neglected to ask the corresponding question: what does it tell young men when Edward Cullen and Jacob Black are the role models available to them? Are these barely-contained monsters really the best we can imagine?” But in The Hunger Games, Gale and Peeta’s embraces of their differing masculinities—Gale is a hunter and later a military commander and weapons builder, while Peeta is a baker, the son of a privileged family who attempts to share what he has, who is tortured and brainwashed by the Capitol, but with great effort recovers his gentleness—are equally compelling to Katniss at different points in the novels. Both Gale’s anger and Peeta’s gentless and susceptibility have terrible consequences for Katniss. Neither man nor his version of masculinity is superior, and Katniss chooses between them based on her long-term needs, rather than on the grounds that one kind of manliness is correct.

In our stories for boys and for young men, as in all things, we need many kinds of stories. We need stories not just for and about the white, straight boys of the nineteenth century, but for the boys of color and non-straight boys of our own era. We need stories about boys who confront the reality that some adult men are “careless, corrupt, incompetent — sometimes even cruel — and only rarely kind”—not all boys grow up to be Young Mr. Lawrence, and to patronize schools full of lovable vagabonds like the ones in Little Men and Jo’s Boys. And if we want to truly help our boys grow up into good men, whatever kind of good men they may be, we should train them not only to look for stories about themselves, but to be curious about how others see them.