Who is Reading YA Books?

I found some interesting reading on Reddit today in a thread from early 2019 that I thought was worth looking at. It’s very challenging to find actual data on the sex of Young Adult readerships since the publishers don’t seem inclined to share what they have and individual writers can only work with their reader surveys and collective wisdom.

The collective wisdom says boys stop reading at 14 and jump to fiction for adults if they continue to read at all. It’s definitely true that publishers have been following this logic, because at least when it comes to speculative (Scifi/Fantasy) they know what side of the bread to butter…

There is little hard data to base this supposition on, so I will throw in a survey of 2019 YA speculative fiction releases, put together by bloggers using Goodreads categories and upcoming releases.

They work hard to keep it updated, and it’s quite comprehensive, though most of the bloggers are US based. This list is unlikely to grow substantially, as young adult publishers tend to line up their publishing schedules more than a year in advance. The results of this list are below.

There are 207 non-contemporary/speculative teen novels coming in 2019 (fantasy, horror, sci-fi, historical, etc) with identifiable genders of protagonists taken from the information available. 27 books were not included in the survey, as their blurbs were vague on who the POV character was, or had no content yet.

Of the 207 books:

18 have a male protagonist only (8.7%)

172 have a female protagonist only (83.1%)

1 non-binary protagonist only (0.5%)

16 have protagonists of both genders (7.7%)

Male protagonists only written by men: 7 (3.4%) NB: interestingly, 4 of these are gay male protagonists. A straight male protagonist written by a man is (1.4%).

Male protagonists only written by women: 11 (5.3%)

Female protagonists only written by men: 6 (2.9%)

Female protagonists only written by women: 166 (80.2%)

Non-binary protagonists only written by Non-binary authors: 1 (0.5%)

Multiple protagonists including both genders written by women: 13 (6.3%)

Multiple protagonists including both genders written by men: 2 (1%)

Multiple protagonists including both genders written by male and female co-authors: 1 (0.5%)

Including co-authors, the gender breakdown is as follows:

16 male authors (7.4%)

198 female authors (92.1%)

1 non-binary author (0.5%)

If we include the books where gender of the protagonist was unidentifiable, the numbers are roughly the same:

18 male authors (7.6%)

217 female authors (91.9%)

1 non-binary author (0.4%)

We must also keep in mind here that there is evidence that picture books and younger middlegrade skew heavily towards male characters, and that’s something that we should definitely work on correcting. It’s unfair that young girls don’t see themselves represented in the books they see on the shelves. It’s arguable the same point could be made for teenage boys.


Interesting stuff, especially considering how YA writers, who in this sample are 92% female and writing stories where 83% of the protagonists are female (90% if you include dual protagonists of both genders) are usually the first to herald the cry for “diversity.” Yet they’re writing some of the most un-diverse fiction in terms of gender outside of romance novels (which are likely around 99% female lead).

Not that I can blame them. Publishers go where the money is, and if the ones paying the money are young women who want to see themselves in the books they read and relate better to female characters, then that’s what they’ll publish. So, they actively avoid male protagonists unless the book is really good and has crossover appeal (or is for a gay male audience).

Writer Steven Kelliher had this to say in the thread…

I don’t typically post about this topic because the downvotes are unreal, but I know several authors in the YA traditional published community, and the statistics of male protagonists accepted by YA publishers are INSANELY low relative to the content that is submitted.

Now, many assume that stories with male protagonists simply are not pitched to YA publishers. This could not be further from the truth. Many, many male and female authors submit manuscripts with male protagonists, and they are rejected because the publishers feel that they will not sell to the targeted demographic for YA fantasy.

YA fantasy should be much more inclusive than it is. You can argue the same thing about Epic Fantasy in terms of male protags and male authors, so it’s fair to say the reverse is true in the YA genre. I think it’s something of a self-fulfilling prophecy, where YA publishers largely publish books by female authors (and many, many female pen names) and featuring female protagonists because that’s what sells … but it’s also because that’s largely all they publish.

So, is there a market for male YA fiction? I think so, but most of the audience is online and that’s where it will need to be published. It’s “niche” material that will work best as ebooks and online serials, and not so well as traditionally published work due to the smaller audience.

Middle Grade vs. Young Adult Fiction

On a recent Writing Excuses podcast, author EJ Patten discussed Middle Grade fiction writing, and put forth a fascinating comparison between Middle Grade (fiction for grade 4-6 students) and Young Adult (fiction for grades 7+ students).

He said that Middle Grade fiction is all about supporting or maintaining the establishment. The characters in these stories are trying to learn to become part of the world, both by learning its ways and finding a way to support the status quo in some way.

So, for example, in Harry Potter (the first book is Middle Grade, the rest quickly become YA), is about Harry learning his way around Hogwarts Magic School and the Wizarding World (learning the rules), and trying to find the Philosophers Stone to prevent Valdemort from returning and disrupting this world. (Maintaining the status quo.)

It makes sense when you think about it, young people that age are trying to figure out their place in society, so they respond to characters who are also trying to figure out their place in a society. Finding your place means becoming a part of that order, and taking a responsible role in maintaining that order.

Young Adult, fiction, on the other hands, EJ says is all about new beginnings. It’s about tearing apart the status quo and starting fresh in some way. The characters are trying to break out of their traditional world and start something new- disrupting or changing society in some way. (Pretty much the complete opposite of Middle Grade.)

So a YA novel like Hunger Games is about Katniss Everdeen living in her highly stratified and oppressive society and then tearing it apart. Even the Paranormal Romance novels that dominate YA are still about the young heroine breaking out of her traditional world (by hanging out with vampires/werewolves/etc) and starting something new (romance). In fact, one of the big differences between Middle Grade and YA is that Middle Grade has little to no Romance, while YA often has it as a major element of the story.

Of course, these are general patterns that these types of fiction tend to follow, and not the word of God on the subject, but they do make a lot of sense. I’d always wondered what the difference between the two was (beyond the age range) and this look into the psychology of writing them is fascinating.

Oh, one other thing the podcast (which I recommend giving a listen to) brought up was that for some reason around Grade Six, boys just stop reading Middle Grade/YA fiction and will tend to jump right to Adult (General Audience) works. They said this is why the YA market is mostly a girls market, because the boys literally aren’t interested in reading YA fiction for the most part.

This last point is something I would argue with a little bit. I would argue that the boys are indeed “reading” YA voraciously, but not in the form of prose. They’re consuming it in the form of comic books (mostly manga, these days) and anime, which still follow the patterns laid out above. You could even make a case that they’re also taking it in through video games, which tend to have the same stories of carving something new out of the world, but are more interactive.


What Children Fear

I had an interesting conversation with my friend MadUnkieG yesterday that I thought I’d share.

We were talking about young adult books and how they age- for example, he said the Corey Doctorow’s Little Brother is already out of date because since it was written and published (2 years ago) there have been so many changes in social networking and how we think about security and computers. I conceded he may in fact be right about Science Fiction, but  I countered, however, that Fantasy books fare better than science fiction by dint of being timeless and not set in our world.

That’s when he said something really interesting, he said that Fantasy books age just as badly, but do so in a different way. He claimed that Fantasy books oriented toward youths are usually about children and young people facing their fears and dealing with those fears. They act as a sort of safe exposure to things the young people must deal with as they get older, and most things in young people’s novels are metaphors (intentional or not) for the children’s own lives.

Now this I could see and agree with, but it’s what followed that I found really interesting. He said that the reason young people’s fiction goes out of date is because while some fears are universal and perpetual (fear of the dark, fear of being abandoned, fear of fitting in, etc) there are fears that change as society changes. He said that while former generations (Baby Boomers to Gen-X) were most afraid of monsters that were out to hurt them, that’s not what the current generation is most afraid of- the current generation is in fact afraid of being overwhelmed by the world around them.

In other words, young people today find the world around them even more complex and intimidating than the previous generations did, and it scares the hell out of them. They’re inundated by information and messages, and don’t know how to handle it all and find their place in the world as previous generations did. This is something that older youth novels don’t tend to reflect, because they’re usually about simplification (Fantasy worlds tend to be idealized simple places where good and evil are clear.) not about dealing with hard complex realities.

He felt that there were few Fantasy novels that addressed that, since most were written in the older mode, but that Terry Prachett’s young adult works tended to be some of the best in this area. (Which given how detailed and layered the Discworld setting is, is not a surprising thing to consider at all!)

I am still pondering the implications of what he said (how books become dated, and what children fear today) and I’m not sure how one would incorporate those into writing a young adult book. There’s not much you can do about a book becoming dated, it will naturally happen with the passage of time, but you can try to stick to universal concepts as a way of minimizing the drift. As for what modern young people fear, that’s about knowing what’s in the heads of your audience and working with it- a good idea in any time.