NPR recently released a list of Readers’ Top 100 YA Novels, and The Atlantic wasn’t the only one to notice how female authors dominated the field:
More than 75,000 votes were cast to cull the list of 235 finalists to the top 100. Also notable: Of those 235 titles, 147 (or 63 percent) were written by women—a parity that would seem like a minor miracle in some other genres. Female authors took the top three slots, and an approximately equal share of the top 100. As a comparison, you’d have to scroll all the way to number 20 on last summer’s Top 100 Science-Fiction and Fantasy list to find a woman’s name (Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley).
I can think of any number of reasons why women might dominate young adult fiction, everything from institutional explanations (children’s publishers are overwhelmingly staffed by women) to genre (teen romance) to psychology (more on that in a minute), but I’m not sure any of them feel like a totally satisfactory explanation.
Erica Cameron says
That's actually a really good theory. I can believe the psychology behind that though I've never really questioned it before. It definitely changes individual to individual, but I think as a whole the idea that middle school is more formative for boys and high school more formative for girls is relatively sound. As much as any generalization on humanity can be, anyway.
Your psychology explanation is very perceptive. I like it.
Ann Best says
In view of having raised three girls and then a boy, your theory works for me!
I am a teen services librarian and I have noticed that in youth, females overwhelmingly dominate library readership and participation in library-related events. For example, my teen summer reading club has 800 participants, and the participation breakdown is 70% / 30% females to males. So…perhaps it is just a matter of appealing to audience because more females are reading YA fiction than males.
Alex Villasante says
I don't have an answer, only observations. I was at the YA Fest this past weekend in Easton PA and among 30+ YA authors, writing in every conceivable genre, there were maybe 5 male authors. Two of them, Charles Benoit and Jonathan Maberry write in more traditionally male genres – noir and horror – and with male protagonists. Jennifer Hubbard writes (amazing) YA contemp with male protags.
I guess the (non) point I'm making is about the audience that came out to see these authors at the free event. They reflected the gender of the authors proportionally – overwhelmingly female. Perhaps that's something to do with it?
Philip Heckman says
Why are most nurses and most elementary school teachers female (and thus relatively underpaid)? Because the male-dominated society at large stupidly undervalues those professions. The more money, awards, and fame that accrue to YA titles, however, the more men will become interested. The Hunger Games and Harry Potter have got a lot of attention, which will begin to show up in more male YA writers in coming years. (So I’m a cynic.)
Michael G-G says
For a simplistic explanation of why there are more males in MG and women in YA: it all comes down to respective audiences' interest in romance versus exploding toilets.
D.G. Hudson says
Since I don't write MG or YA, I'll only speculate that for some women, that was their favorite time in their life. (team sports, mean girls, BFF, jockeying for position or for that captain of the team)
I think you're right about the psychology. Many adult women (not YAs) like to read YA, though I can't understand why. Nostalgia? (the same as some women can't understand why I love sci-fi and fantasy)
Interesting stats, but not surprising.
David Jón Fuller says
It's an interesting theory — I wonder if it explains in part the huge proportion of superhero comic book writers who are men?
I completely agree with your comment that what men like at 12 is pretty much what they like at 32. But do you think industry definitions are driving what is available to readers? Or are reader's interests driving the industry? What of the 13 to 16 year-old boys who are more interested in science than vampire lust?
Bobbie Shafer says
I'm wondering if perhaps the 12 year old child in us makes us write y/a or middle-grade. Whereas boys of that age were more sports minded and outdoorsy, girls stayed inside and read, imagined, and daydreamed. It's the child in me that loved y/a, middle-grade books and I was an avid reader from 6 on up.
I think women are naturally more in tune to kids because they tend to be the ones who raise them, and are therefore more aware of the nuances in their behavior, more interested in it, and therefpre have more to say on the subject whereas men tend to concentrate on more "grandiose" subjects.
Kathryn Rose says
"What guys like at age 12 is pretty much what they like at age 32."
I now understand my husband. Eureka!
Are they really all female authors?
Look at the romance genre, almost all of the authors of romance are women or have female pen names. If you are a man and you want to write for Harlequin, you need a female pen name.
If you're female and you write thrillers, then you might consider using a male pen name.
Didn't Rowling use her initials instead of her first name so that readers wouldn't know she was female?
So who is the target audience and what gender of the author's name sells more books to that audience?
So as the teen services librarian pointed out, %70 of teen readers are female, therefore I would expect 70% of the author's names, whether real names or pen names, to be female. So they are actually on the low side.
Ted Cross says
I don't see how Dune or LOTR are considered YA. I love many older YA books, like The Hobbit and A Wizard of Earthsea, but other than Harry Potter I feel that modern YA tends to talk down to kids, and I don't like that at all.
Interesting idea. Here's a couple of thoughts. When I was 11, I decided I wanted to be a writer. For all of sixth grade, I wrote a ton, and I read a ton all through elementary school. When I hit 12 and 7th grade, I didn't exactly stop reading, but I cut way back; I spent a lot more time out and doing things with my friends. As for what I read when I *did* read, it was almost-exclusively adult fiction, except for some of the staples like S.E. Hinton books and things assigned for school.
Maybe the boys who are reading are not reading YA books.
1. Your theory works for me.
2. A lot of women who would write "clean" romance write YA, because there is one line for "clean" (not inspirational) romance.I think more women write romance than men, so being boxed in could be part of it.
Andrew Leon says
I just did a post related to this topic, so I'm not going to go back through it all here; however, I will add that I think this is a bottom up change and that over the next couple of decades we'll see women dominating more than just the YA field.
Woman tend to gravitate towards support groups within their endeavors. I think that in and of itself helps women in the YA genre. The YA market in Romance Writers of America is one of the fastest growing sub-chapters within RWA. Now I'm not trying to be an endorsement ad for RWA but the information writers are able to attain as a member is substansial as is the opportunity to pitch agents and editors who are seeking YA. The vast majority of members within RWA happen to be women. The YA market is such a no holds bar genre right now that authors are able to go places within fiction that they are unable to go in adult fiction. Also too, the romance genre in general tends to be stronger sales wise than other genres like horror, thriller and mainstream fiction. Even during economic downturns, the romance industry is still going strong. I believe that contributes to the strong sales by female authors in the YA genre. Just two weeks ago I was at the RWA National Conference, agents and editors were salivating over finding the next Stephenie Meyer or Suzanne Collins. As different as those two series are the thing they do have in common is a love triangle. I'm not saying that men can't write romance, take Nicholas Sparks for instance, but the vast majority of YA that have ended up on that list and were written by women, have romantic elements if not full blown romantic invovlement between the protagonists. Now when you get down to the psychology behind it, teenage girls fantasize about romance, the happily ever after, and such. When you look at The Hunger Games popularity among teenagers, as brutal as it it, Ms. Collins still weaves a love triangle in between Katniss, Peeta and Gale. And Ms. Collins makes you want Katniss to get a HEA even more because of how bad her life had been. Most YA that I have found that has been geared towards boys rarely has a romantic element to it. Boys by the time they hit 12 are usually playing more video games than reading as part of the cultural psychology of young boys. Whereas teenage girls tend to want to be included in anything their girlfriends are doing so when one of them says you have to read this book, then everyone within that circle of girls is reading it.
Maggie Mae Gallagher
What guys like at age 12 is pretty much what they like at age 32.
Nathan, I'm the same age as you and I feel this is a backwards causality. Actually, before the explosion of YA, I too pretty much read the same types of books between ages 12-25. (I am female)
HOWEVER, more teens are reading YA now than I did because there is more YA to read. The genre wasn't as big back then.
And yes, most of it is paranormal romance that wouldn't appeal to guys. However, Hunger Games definitely had cross-over appeal.
I don't know why more women write YA, but I don't think it's because teen years are more or less formative for females than men. It may simply be that so many women are mothers and we see what our teens are going through. Or it may be that Twilight inspired so many women writers. Also, a lot of writers are following the trend: they may have previously chosen to write adult romance or women's fiction, but are now writing YA because that's what's selling.
Carey Torgesen says
I would have to say it is the same reason most teachers are women. There is something about nurturing children, making them understand that we have all been there, and something in them that wants to help and teach. When it comes to kids and teens, women dominate the jobs that have to do directly. Counselors, social services, libraries (school), teaching, administration in schools, etc. So I think writing for kids is just a natural extension.
That and high school is about crushing on that hot guy or being nervous about asking that girl to the prom. It's the purest of love, without complication of career and age pressure. And girls love reading and writing about love. And every woman has that perfect high school love story in their head. So there is that too!
But that is my guess…by the way. I am a teacher, so this is where I'm coming from. 🙂
And yes. I write romance-ish stories for both YA and adult.:)
Mr. D says
Carey has a point. I, too, am a teacher. At a Middle School in San Jose. And even though I am not the only male teacehr there, we are in the minority. Of the 12 principals I've had over the last 25 years, nine were women and three were men.
And interestinly, when I divulged to one of my fellow teachers recently, (a woman, btw) that my debut novel was going to be published this summer, she assumed it was a MG or YA book. She was nearly shocked when I told her that it was NOT for kids. KILLER OF KILLERS is not even remotely for kids.
Kendall Hoover says
I have no idea why this would be, but I think it's incredibly interesting. I wonder, though, if there are more women writing YA or only more women getting PUBLISHED in YA.I think the answer to that would help determine whether author-factors or publisher-factors are more culpable.
It's a good question. There's a part of me that thinks there's some truth to the Victorian notion that women retain childlike qualities throughout their life in a way men generally do not. As the primary caregivers to children, it makes evolutionary sense for women to be able to relate to children.
Also, as more men become stay-at-home dads and dads are expected to do more and more childcare, you see more this "man boy" cultural stereotype. For example, the new NBC show "Guys with Kids." Also, the existence of Paul Rudd, Adam Sandler, Seth Rogen, et al. Maybe evolution at work.
All that said, I feel I gravitate toward young protagonists because it's an interesting time in one's personal development. Things are raw and new and surprising and you're not set in how to cope with the world. You're making things up as you go along. Improvisation is fascinating to me, and what are your teen years other than one, giant improv comedy/tragedy sketch?
As a female writer, I didn't set out to write YA, it happened more because for the stories I write, the age group is a better set of actors. While they may be limited by parents, they also have a greater freedom of imagination, etc.
Mentally, if I think about some fantastical creature coming up to someone and saying "hey you, time to save the world" the cynical adult will just walk off and pretend they didn't see it, while a teenager is more inclined to at least pay attention and go along with it.
How many 30 year olds would just follow along with some fairy declaring them the hero of the world? 😛 Not to say it can't be done (in one of my adult stories, even, I do have adults dealing with it, but also in a more "grounded" space of angels/demons versus more out there creatures).
I don't think it has anything to do with the "nurturing" side of women – I frankly dislike children. I don't write YA for them, the stories end up being YA because it is what is best for the story and characters 😛
Long aside past, as for why there are more female than male – good question. I think part of it is that YA does tend to be more "romantic", not necessarily romance, but the fantasy of going off to a far off world, etc is a romantic notion that appeals to both male and female readers but that men may not feel the urge to write about. Though I'd be curious to know – how many YA readers are male vs female, it may just be the authors writing to the audience, similar to romance novels.
When I was in the YA target audience, I had already skipped into "adult books". Or rather I had moved into genrely speaking into Science Fiction and Fantasy novels. My sister on the other hand did the pure YA thing.
She transitioned out of YA and into mainstream fiction sooner than I did. She had an easier time of it, and mostly looks back on those books as being silly.
While I took a lot longer and found it harder to transition out of genre fiction, when I did, I moved more towards literary fiction — except in rare instances mainstream fiction bores me.
I seriously doubt my sister would ever pick up a "Sweet Valley High" book again. Or for that matter, anything similar. She is more Erin Morgenstern, Sara Gruen, Jennifer Close these days.
While I am more William Gaddis, Cormac McCarthy, Junot Diaz, Margaret Attwood. I will though, cheat and read something by Brendan Sanderson, John Scalzi, or Alastair Reynolds.
Growing up, given my Robert Jordan, Piers Anthony habit, I don't think I ever experienced anyone telling me anything other than "Grow up, those books are garbage." Which I think caused me to gravitate more towards serious books.
While I think my sister went through a more natural "Oh, those books are fine for a girl, she will grow out of them." comments about her reading.
I think you've got a good theory Nathan, and not one I'd heard before. I was at the SCBWI conference in LA last week, and chatted with a lot of YA authors, all of the women. Most of us seem to agree that middle school is a time we'd rather forget! (Though some women do gravitate to MG.) Middle grade shapes gals too, but first loves, learning how to keep your friends while turning more attention to the opposite sex, and then there's the separation from one's parents – the angst, the trauma, the drama – all great fodder.
For me, there was never a question of what age I'd write for. When I began to write, the voice that came out was a YA voice (and it continues to be). That's the younger part of myself I most relate to still. Maybe that's the way it is for a lot of other women.
Thanks for sharing this idea – it is intriguing.
Oh Nathan, Nathan. Seriously?? Women tend to write more YA because they believe YA are worthy of their time and attention. Men write fiction and it's 'literary fiction'. Women write fiction and it's 'chick lit, women's lit' etc. But in fairness let's not forget R.L. Stine and other men who also write because they think kids deserve good writing.
Nathan Bransford says
Ummmmm….. You know I'm a man who writes children's books right?
Jan Priddy, Oregon says
I admit I haven't read all the books on the two lists, so maybe it isn't fair for me to comment, but I will anyway: the lists are weird.
I have no idea why some books are on the lists at all, why some are on both lists, why some rank higher than others—why isn't China Miéville higher, for example—or what idiot ever decided that The Lord of the Flies was a YA book to begin with.
One reason for the disparity: marketing. A YA author commented that she (SHE) didn't set out to write YA, that's how she was classified. There is some sexism at work here. If a book is about a child and especially if it has a woman author, I suspect it's more likely to be classified as YA, regardless of the content.
Here's another: Rowling used her initials and a central male protagonist to sell her books. Girls will cross gender lines, but boys rarely do. That's why ALL the books I read as a child had male protagonists. This only began to change for me as I got older and could find books of the sort I wanted to read with girls in them.
But mostly, these are stupid lists. Many of my personal favorites are on both, but not all, not in the order I would place them, and sometimes on the wrong lists.
I agree with Michael G.G. Boys, even in high school, tend to enjoy the typically MG book themes (slapstick humor and adventure), whereas girls, even in elementary and middle school, tend to enjoy the older YA book themes (relationships, loss). My theory is that more girls are reading books targeted to older audiences and more boys are reading books targeting younger audiences, and the authors are responding to this trend.
david elzey says
From another perspective, my MFA creative writing for children and young adults program was 95% female. the question us got kept getting was "how do we get more men involved?"
therein lies another long conversation, but the fact that the NPR list came in with *as many* male authors as it did is perhaps better than it was in the past when men were predominantly the ones getting published.
Mary Horner says
I like your theory about formative creative years, but don't know the psychology behind it. I have, however, read many YA novels, and never really thought about breaking down the numbers by gender. I do know that one hundred percent were written by people, so, food for thought!
I find it interesting that females dominate the YA field, but what I find even more interesting is that they don't dominate anything else. In fact, they not only don't dominate, they are not fairly represented.
From the article, this caught my attention:
"The results are dismaying: after reviewing catalogs from 13 large and small publishing houses (and eliminating genre titles unlikely to be reviewed), she found that only one came close to gender parity, while the majority had 25 percent or fewer titles written by women".
25% or fewer? It's really hard for me to believe this is representative of the author gender breakdown. In other words, that only 25% of writers are women.
In some ways, the question that the Atlantic posed is telling. Where are the articles asking why MG is dominated by male writers? Why literary fiction is dominated by male writers? In fact, why every single other genre is dominated by male writers?
I think it will be very interesting to see if independent publishing opens the door for these statistics to change, since women will have full access.
I'm not giving you a hard time, Nathan, though, for posing this question. I think it's really interesting that women have broken through to dominate YA, and the debate here in the comments about the reasons for that are interesting. I just think the underlying issue behind the question is also very interesting.
MaryAnn Pope says
I agree with Mira. So woman slightly dominate YA and probably romance genre too, but men grossly dominate the rest of the genres by 75%? Is that true?
I calculated the percentage of woman authors on the 100 top scifi that this blog post linked to, and only 15%of the authors were woman. So men dominated that genre by 85%.
I agree with Mira that a more interesting question is why are men still dominating literature in general.
Ye Gods, the stereotyping of women in the comment thread is depressing. Because of course we're all naturally more nurturing and interested in children than men! That's why we should, like, stay home and take care of the kids when they're small. Or why we're just more naturally suited to be teachers or nurses and stuff. It's the natural way of things, you guys! It's biology!
@Selene – As an explanation it also doesn't make sense, because they why do men dominate Middle Grade?
Thanks, Mary Anne. I also had to look at those stats twice. 25 percent seems so low! Interesting about the science fiction list.
I also wanted to add why I suspect women were allowed to breakthrough YA. I think it was because J. K. Rowling, and then Stephanie Meyer, were so successful. Alot of money made there, so it probably got associated with the gender of the writer with the genre.
Just a theory.
Jon VanZile says
I hope this doesn't get me in trouble, but I think it's because of the large crossover between contemporary YA and romance. Paranormal romances are huge in the YA category and many of the YA books I read feature a pretty traditional romance at the center of the book. So it makes sense to me that a lot of the YA readers later graduate to contemporary romance, which dominates trade fiction in terms of number of titles published and (I think) overall share of the market. With boys, on the other hand, they begin to drift away from reading around middle school in general, so they read these MG novels, and then sadly many of them are done reading for a long time or they graduate to nonfiction and magazines.
Mister Furkles says
I think Jan Priddy, Eva and Michael G. G. have addressed the real question: who is reading what? Who writes what is determined by who reads it. The publishing industry classifies books but the names of the classes do not necessarily reflect who is reading these books.
The significant differences in MG and YA seem to be age of the MC, vocabulary, sentence complexity and voice. Usually, girls read more and at a more advanced level. Hence, more girls would read YA and more boys would read MC. As the boys reading MC mature, they move on to adult books if they are still interested in novels. I also suspect there is a lull for teen boys where they are not reading much but the teen girls are reading more. After that, young men and women both move into adult books.
First of all 25% fewer women than men does not at all mean %25 of writers are women. If you have a hundred male writers, 25% fewer female writers is 75 women writers. If there are 50 male writers, 25% fewer would be 38 women. Not good at all, but no the the reactionary gender apocalypse that is implied in the comments.
Secondly I'm glad the Atlantic mentioned the Jodi Picault issue. She complained that women writers weren't being reviewed in the New York Times. Well what isn't mentioned is that VIDAweb.org did a survey of women reviewers, and while a lot of publications (the Atlantic included) were dismal regarding the number of women reviewers they hired. Jodi Picaults nemisis, the NYtimes rather well 48 women reviewers to 52 male reviewers.
That said if you are truly interested in gender equity, then YA's 63 percent of writers being women is not in any way healthy. The only healthy statistic is 50 percent.
Anon, you are quoting incorrect statistics. It was not 25 percent fewer women than men. It was 75 percent fewer women authors than male authors.
And it was measured over the entire publication listof 13 publishing houses.
The world does pretty much treat everyone unfairly, including most men. But it can treat some people even more unfairly than others.
I also want to mention this is not really about who reads or writes what type of genre. It's about who is chosen for publication in that genre.
I believe women dominate the YA field because more women are responsible for the care, feeding, and upbringing of the YAs. Women know what their (YAs)interests are and can better apply that information to writing publishable books.
Interesting post! I agree with many of the comments here, especially by Bobby Shafer (daydreaming girls as future writers) and Beth (YA often offers clean-er romance). I also wonder if its just this period of development–girls spend a lot time talking to their friends about boys, dates (or wishing they had friends to talk about these issues) etc, and reading these books might feel like they have friends. Many successful YA writers tap into girlhood/teenage angst (think Judy Blume!) I read a lot of YA myself, and it taps into my younger self. But I write mysteries, also dominated by women (at least the "softer" types).
MaryAnn Pope says
Anon @ 10:55, you are right about the statistics. I should've read more closer. So it's about 43 % women writers which is much more reasonable.
But the low percentage of women writers represented in the top 100 Science fiction/fantasy list is still staggering.
MaryAnn, you have to go to the original article for the statistics. I'll quote it again:
"Ruth Franklin at The New Republic did her own analysis of the literary glass ceiling. The results are dismaying: after reviewing catalogs from 13 large and small publishing houses (and eliminating genre titles unlikely to be reviewed), she found that only one came close to gender parity, while the majority had 25 percent or fewer titles written by women."
Of the 13 house reviewed, for 12 of them, 75% were male authors.
Unless there is something I'm missing, Anon's statistics are not correct.
I think it may just be hard to believe it! 🙂
Philip Heckman, Munk, and Diana bring up some valid points.
I'd say the bottom line is where the interest lies for the writer.
Nathan points out that SciFi is lower on the list for female writers. Is this just a lack of general interest in gismos and technology? I want to write about a theme park of dinosaurs! Rawr!
YA tends to have more of a leaning toward young love and first relationships. You look at something like Twilight — it's not really about vampires (if you can even really call them vampires–She changes canon). It's about young love.
Maybe females just like to write about young love more than males? And we would rather write about dinosaurs riding the Tilt-O-Whirl.
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If it's a temporary or contemporary trend – perhaps the influence and inspiration of Madelaine L'Engle?
Also, developmentally, adolescence is the time when social intelligence is developing. Is it too much to suggest that in general women might have a leg up in that arena and that's what YA is really about?
Some intrepid male author may pioneer a form in which young men can read about all those things that they largely lack in contemporary society – the initiations into manhood specifically as opposed to mere, and delayed, maturity.
Unless that's already been done – and the secret is that adult fantasy/sci-fi is actually all adolescent fare. 🙂