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.