It happens all the time at my library. A parent walks up to me and says, “My son has to read a book for school. He’s in 7th grade. He doesn’t really like reading. Can you recommend something?”
Not everyone comes right out and asks me for a “boy book,” but often the expectation is there. And more often than I’d like to, I wind up handing out the usual suspects: the Percy Jackson books, the Maze Runner series. Michael Vey and Escape from Furnace and Alex Rider. While these are all great books that teens love, they’re not the only ones I want to give to male readers.
There are tons of books with female protagonists, with girls on the covers, that boys would probably enjoy if their parents and teachers and librarians and friends gave them permission to. But why should they challenge their own expectations about a book if we don’t?
Recently, children’s and teen author Kate Messner said, “When we TELL boys that they shouldn't like to read about girls, they often listen, and that's a problem for a number of reasons. We're placing artificial limits on what kids should read and keeping them from books they might love. And we're also sending a message to boys that girls' stories don't matter. That translates to girls' and women's voices not mattering, too.”
This school year, I’m challenging myself to move beyond “girl books” and “boy books” when I make recommendations to people visiting the library, and I challenge readers and teachers to consider it too.
One of my colleagues told me that when she’s recommending books, she says, “This book is about a kid who…” instead of saying it’s about a girl or a boy. Here are a few recommendations to start you moving beyond “girl books” and “boy books” - they’re about kids who do everything from Tae Kwan Do to flying planes to walking between worlds:
For Younger Readers (Ages 9-13)
What it’s about: When twelve-year-old Phoebe Plumm and her father are abducted by his employer, The Foundry, a corporation holding a monopoly on metal production and technology, and taken to a savage world of living metal that is rising up against its oppressors, Phoebe and her irksome servant Micah fight back.
Who it’s for: Readers looking for a steampunk Percy Jackson
What it’s about: Set in a near-future where massive tornados and storms are rampant, Jaden is excited to spend the summer studying meteorology with her scientist father in his allegedly storm-proof community. But Jaden soon realizes that something sinister is afoot in the sleepy town.
Who it’s for: Readers interested in adventure stories and the science of storms
What it’s about: As her mother prepares to be a contestant on the 1980s television game show, "The $20,000 Pyramid," a twelve-year-old New York City girl tries to make sense of a series of mysterious notes received from an anonymous source that seems to defy the laws of time and space.
Who it’s for: Readers who wish they had a time machine
What it’s about: Sixteen-year-old Valerie, whose boyfriend Nick committed a school shooting at the end of their junior year, struggles to cope with integrating herself back into high school life, unsure herself whether she was a hero or a villain.
Who it’s for: Readers interested in current events like bullying, guns, and school violence
What it’s about: Set over the course of one school year in 1986, this is the story of two star-crossed misfits--smart enough to know that first love almost never lasts, but brave and desperate enough to try.
Who it’s for: Mixtape makers and comics readers
What it’s about: Imogen, a black belt in Tae Kwan Do, blames herself when she fails to stop a hold-up at a local diner that ends with the gunman being killed by the police.
Who it’s for: Martial arts fans, people interested in psychology, especially PTSD
What it’s about: When a pilot and a spy crash land in Nazi-occupied France, the pilot is killed, the spy is captured. She knows the Nazis will kill her no matter what information she gives up, so she tells them an incredible story that is more than the sum of its parts.
Why you should read it: Because there’s a twist in this book the size of the White Cliffs of Dover and it must be seen to be believed.
What it’s about: Because of something that happened three years before, Deanna is known as the school slut. Most people avoid her, her own father can barely look at her, but there’s a lot more to Deanna.
Why you should read it: It’s less than 200 pages long, and I promise, you’ll be hooked by the third sentence.
Science Fiction, Fantasy, Paranormal, and Dystopian Fiction:
What it’s about: Left for dead and stranded on a remote space station where humans are despised, Tula Bane carves out a place for herself as a black market trader. However, just when Tula believes that everyone has forgotten about her, she learns there are big things afoot in the galaxy and her new home is at the center of everything.
Who it’s for: Star Wars fans (especially if Han Solo is your favorite)
What it’s about: Merricat, Constance, and Julian have lived alone since other family members died of arsenic poisoning. Up until now, Merricat's magic had protected them, but now that magic has failed and Cousin Charles arrives with his eye on the Blackwood fortune.
Who it’s for: Fans of Tim Burton, Neil Gaiman, Edward Gorey, and all things macabre
What it’s about: Filled with hedge priests, assassin nuns, treacherous nobles, and political intrigue, this story about an assassin sent into the high court at Brittany to fulfill her violent destiny is perfect for fans of Game of Thrones.
Why you should read it: ASSASSIN NUNS, PEOPLE.
What it’s about: When Cinder, a cyborg mechanic with a mysterious past, becomes entangled with Prince Kai, ruler of New Beijing, she finds herself at the center of an intergalactic struggle to save humankind from a deadly plague and ruthless lunar beings.
Why you should read it: In addition to being a fast-paced, action-packed book, the way Meyer weaves the Cinderella fairy tale into a cyborg science fiction novel is pretty nifty.
What it’s about: A dystopian action book inspired by the real-life aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
In 2056, a hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast has been walled off from the rest of the country, a pandemic rages, and fearless 17-year-old Fen is determined to smuggle her best friend’s newborn baby over the wall before she becomes infected with Delta Fever.
Who it’s for: dystopian fiction fans fascinated by environmental science, epidemiology, and natural disasters
This is just the smallest handful of suggestions. If you’re interested in moving beyond “girl books” and “boy books” and need help finding more, get in touch with a librarian at your local library or call or visit Teen’Scape.
For more reading on this subject, check out these articles:
“When Boys Can’t Like ‘Girl Books;”: School Library Journal, March 5, 2015
Coverflips: The Not-So-Subtle Message of YA Cover Art: YALSA: The Hub, May 13, 2013
“Fart Jokes and Feelings: Beyond Gendered Readers’ Advisory”: American Libraries, June 29, 2015