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August 18, 2011

Uncovering YA Covers: Rose-Colored Glasses

Kate Hart
eta July 2016: When writing this post in 2011, I was woefully ignorant of discussions about gender, sex, trans issues, and ... lot of things, obviously. I have not deleted, because I think it's better to own up to mistakes rather than trying to cover them, but I wanted to note that I'm aware of this post's issues, and apologize for any harm or distress it may have caused readers and friends.

There's been a lot of conversation lately about boys and books. The "Boys Don't Read" blog launched a few weeks ago; a recent #yalitchat took a turn in that direction; and the HuffPo weighed in.

I fall on the side of Maureen Johnson's argument. In her words,
"Maybe this idea that there aren’t enough boy stories gives credit to absolutely no one, especially not the boys who will happily read stories by women, about women. Maybe the problem in getting boys to read has much less to do with 'boy stories' than a general shift in culture and technology."

So that said: These graphs appear to support Team Won't-Someone-Think-Of-The-Booooys?, and I'm very much Team Deal-With-The-Bigger-Societal-Implications. (You may have seen our farm team, Change-The-95%-Male-Literary-Canon.)  But I understand that covers can be the weight that tips the scale from "maybe" to "hell no," and they're a smaller issue to tackle than the gender binary. And when you get down to it, I think we're all Team Reading-Is-The-Shit-And-Everyone-Should-Do-More-Of-It.

So I pulled on my pie chart pants and did some counting.

To get these highly scientific results, I had people comb through the 400+ titles in last month's darkness chart, tallying up covers they found girly, boyish, or neutral. Then I averaged our results.*

What makes a cover "girly"? Well, pink, obviously. I mean, assuming it's after 1940 or so. Before that the color was "too strong" for girls; today it makes boys weak, apparently. (See? Societal constructs.)

But I get it. In the here and now, boys don't want to carry around pink books. That's fine. Only 7% of them were egregiously rose-colored anyway.

(Here's an idea: Adult dudes. Be secure in your manliness and carry books regardless of the covers.
See how that affects which books the boys around you are willing to read.)

Okay, so what about other things that might scream "I have two X chromosomes"?

Those poor boys, kissed against their will. We all know how much teenage boys hate kissing.

So pink is out. No flowers. No kissing. No girls, period, and that pun is totally intended. What can we put on book covers?

Animals, apparently. And fire. Fire is always good.


I want boys to read. I have two little boys myself. They are voracious readers, and it doesn't matter to my oldest that JK Rowling is a woman, or that Little House in the Big Woods is about a girl, or that there's a girl in the Magic Treehouse. He is genuinely confused by the GROSS (Get Rid of Slimy Girls) Club in Calvin and Hobbes.

I'm not naive: I expect this to get more complicated as he gets older. In fact, we just had a debate about whether or not he could buy a pink backpack, and I told him no. Why? Because I'm cheap, and I can't afford to replace it when he gets teased at school and wants a new one. He got a pink notebook and a shirt with pink stripes instead. We compromised.

And that's what needs to happen. Compromise. A blurring of boundaries, a give and take. In the short term, we want boys to read. Can we make more covers neutral? Of course, if we buy enough of them to convince publishers they'll sell. Can boys read more "girl" stuff? Of course, if we'll quit stigmatizing it. Can girls read "boy" stuff? Several centuries of history say yes.

But while pushing "super macho" covers and treating female protagonists like lepers may lead to short-term gains, it's a long term loss. It's not that we don't need boy books, it's that we need to redefine what "boy books" means. I'd like to see my boys grow up believing, if I may paraphrase this fabulous post, that the experiences of the girls around them "are as valid as, say, Holden Caulfield's." I want them to understand that a "real man" stands up to the status quo, and doesn't fear things that are pink.


ETA: Lo and behold, what is published two days later? This. And The Rejectionist pretty much breaks down my own reaction here.

*Thanks to Sarah Enni, her Dr. Husband, and my own husband for counting covers-- and apologies to Kaitlin Ward, who went through all 400+, only for me to promptly lose her email about it.


  1. This is really fascinating and a very worthwhile topic for debate. My (limited) experience of teenagers (my two daughters, their boyfriends and other friends)tells me that reading itself is considered less masculine than, say, blasting the heads off zombies on a play station 3. The type of book or it's cover seems to be irrelevant. /gross exaggeration. Personally it took me a long time into adulthood before I was comfortable enough in myself to read absolutely anything. I can happily enjoy a chick lit by Talli Roland as much as an action thriller by Alistair MacLean. Although I might just squirm at being found reading something erotic by ... errr, actually I've never read anything erotic. Now there's an idea. If they sold erotic novels with neutral names and neutral covers - we might just create a generation of teenage boy readers!!!

  2. I LOVE all of the charts you fun! But you're right, this is an important issue and not one that can just be solved by publishing a whole slew of books with boy protagonists. I do agree that I think a LOT of covers cater to a female audience, even if the book itself is neutral. I guess that's one advantage of ebooks--no guy has to wander around feeling weird for reading a book with pink flowers all over the cover. I'd be surprised to see how/if these statistics change at all as ebook sales continue to grow.

  3. This really is an interesting overview, thanks for putting together such a great post.

    The only caveat I might add is something I've seen in a lot of adolescent/ya/college-age boys, and particularly about my own brother, is that he LOVES a good story, but it's very, very hard for him to sit still and read a book. He's an artist, and any time he's doing something that takes up his hands is difficult for him.

    His solution is audiobooks—he was lucky enough to have my older sister, who's obsessed with audiobooks and so he had Harry Potter and Eragon and things like that available to him through that media without going out of his way to find it—which I do think is an issue. I think it's audiobooks in particular that made him (or let him, rather) fall back in love with reading when he got older, so maybe parents with reluctant-reader boys could give audiobooks a try. They can be more expensive, but then that's what libraries are for, right?

  4. I am a supporter of nongender-specific books - the story and the cover. I took up the challenge to write in a man's perspective and I find it way easier than I thought. We are all human, we think basically the same, we just get screwed up when it comes to relationships(which don't need to be in the book believe it or not)I think it comes down the the authors themselves to gear their books for both genders and stear the boys back to reading. Thanks for this awesome post!


    Such a great and thought-provoking post. <3

  6. I LOVE THIS. Also, I couldn't find the email either. (I looked this morning.) Perhaps the internet stole it. <3

  7. absolutely fantastic, Kate. and more power to Thomas and his awesome pink shirt!

  8. I need time to digest this brilliance.

  9. I agree with Lisa. My son is a reluctant (though highly proficient) reader who willingly listens to audio books.

    I don't understand the narrowing of the definition of manhood in our Western culture. There was a time when a man was expected to be able to be skilled with words as well as weapons, to play an instrument as well as a sport. Why are these things so looked down upon? Fashion, music and dance are for gay men; language, philosophy and science are for nerds; the only thing real men care about is sports. What happened to our culture?

    This is a fantastic post. I may springboard off of it into one of my own. Thanks! :)

  10. May I suggest a YA novel that I hope is appealing to boys and girls for all the reasons you mention above - Flash Burnout by LK Madigan. Anyone read it? The author recently died of cancer - tragic, she was young - and published this gift of a book.

    And Kate - you managed a blog post in the midst of WriteOnCon - very impressive! :)

  11. My brother (15) actually loves reading but he's too lazy to pick out books for himself, so he challenged me to pick out 30 books for him to read in a month. While I was looking for books for him at the library, I was amazed at how many books DIDN'T look girly. (It may be because usually I am looking for girly books... heheh.)

  12. I LOVE your charts! Thanks for doing this!

  13. This is great, but as a children's librarian, I have to say I noticed a disturbing trend re the covers. Some of my favorite books by Holly Black had neutral (dark) covers, one with a glass sword, another with a crown of thorns (Valiant and Ironside) and were replaced by girls' faces. I really hate that trend anyway, but to see it done to such edgy Ya fiction made me sick. Also, Shannon Hale's reprints of Enna Burning and those are replaced by girl faces or torsos. Arg!
    Also, about the writing... Just because the book is written by a woman, doesn't mean a boy won't like it. BUT if it's written by a woman, from the viewpoint of a girl, who falls in love with the tall handsome hero, yeah, sme boys may cringe. My son is 8 and he liked some YA fiction his siter's were reading but would often stop before finishing because the plot would include some romantic element that made him shudder. It's an age thing, for sure, but notice how most fantasy novels by males don't lay on the romantic element so heavily. Women are traditionally the romance novel readers, and girls usually appreciate romance in the novel, too. But there's a difference between a girlfriend or love element (SLAM, for example) and the heart-pounding swooning of Twilight. The covers don't have as much to do with the readability for boys as how the romantic element is presented.


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