The following situation is a familiar one for me. I'm at a book signing, and the inevitable happens: an enthusiastic, well-meaning audience member approaches, holding my book, and asks, "I have a 12-year old son--do you think he'd like this?"
I always turn a bit bashful, because I don't know how to respond. I don't know this 12-year old boy. Is he interested in action adventure? Does he like romance? Does he want something sweet and funny? Maybe he prefers novels set in present-day, or in a creepy little town? What's his personality? What are his hobbies? Who is this boy?
I have trouble answering the question because it's a variation on a much more general question: "Is this a Boy Book?" And when people ask this, I can't help but think, "What in the world is a Boy Book?" Similarly, I'm frequently asked how to create stories that can be embraced by the "elusive boy audience." It's a question that stumps me--and comes up as frequently at signings--as the Boy Book question. My problem with this Boy Book label is how overly general and perhaps hollow it is. How do we decide what makes a Boy (or Girl) book? Does it refer to a book with a boy protagonist? If so, then this could encompass everything from Unwind to The Demon's Lexicon to Where She Went, three wildly different stories. Perhaps it refers to a novel's abundance of nitroglycerine or lack of romance? This also seems misleading, since boys I know enjoy everything from The Hunger Games to The Mortal Instruments series to Anna and the French Kiss. Perhaps it means a YA book that boys can identify with thematically? This further confuses, since I assume boys can identify with everything from saving the universe to becoming a boy wizard to feeling insecure about a crush.
And perhaps the biggest problem with labeling books by gender is all the readers we alienate: by labeling something "for boys," we imply it is not for girls, and Girl books are not meant for boys. Rather than the market striving to organize books into recognizable genres, we're instead marketing the gender distinction first, and then pitching that distinction to our intended audience. We determine whether a book is for boys or girls long before the reader gets a chance to decide: we package them with soldiers and ballet slippers on their covers, war machines and glittering gowns. Perhaps it was the packaging for Legend that determined its fate with boy readers far more than Legend itself; I was fortunate enough to have a team that supported a gender-neutral cover. (Of course, this is an issue that extends beyond the book industry. A walk through Toys R'Us will prove it.)
I'm not trying to say that boys and girls are the same. Boys and girls are different, and there are certainly books that intentionally skew one way or the other. Labels, too, can be incredibly useful--and in the world of marketing and promotion, a necessity. After all, the point of advertisement is to boil down a product, a concept, an idea, to a single spark with an obvious meaning.
But labels are only useful if they give the potential buyer something relevant to work with. Boys are different from girls, but boys are also different from other boys, just as girls are different from other girls. Calling a book "for boys" or "for girls" is well-meaning, but to me, not terribly helpful.
So how do we discover the right books for the right readers? Well, there are labels that work, established genres: categories like science fiction, fantasy, mystery, romance, thriller, horror, and so on. What is science fiction? The fiction of what could be, but isn't. What is fantasy? The fiction of what couldn't be. All of these genres are imperfect and ever-shifting, but the ideas they conjure about the content are immediate. The label has meaning. Telling me that a book is an urban fantasy gives me an instant sense of what the book is like. These are labels that can cater to all readers, whether boy or girl, and can help a parent discover a book based on their children's interests instead of their gender. So if the book signing question instead becomes: "My twelve-year old son really loves science fiction and thrillers. Would he like your book?", I can now perk up and answer, "yes" with confidence.
As a writer, I try to appeal to the "elusive boy audience" the same way I try to appeal to everyone: I do the very best I can to create interesting characters, addictive plots, tons of conflict, believable settings, unexpected plot twists, intriguing beginnings, and satisfying endings. I don't think I always succeed, but this is the list in my head at all times.
I think that's what boy readers want. I hope that's what all readers want.
Marie Lu is the author of Prodigy: A Legend Novel.