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YA by the numbers

Boys&GirlsPursuant to our discussion of who YA is for, I asked Horn Book intern Jill to take a look at the most recent issue of the Horn Book Guide and see what she saw. The spring 2014 issue of the Guide contains reviews of virtually every trade hardcover book published for young people during the last half of 2013. By reading the reviews of all 346 novels for grades seven and up, Jill found that:

201 had a female protagonist

85 had a male protagonist

25 had both and/or alternating narrators

35 had an ensemble cast or no protagonist

These numbers don’t tell us who is reading what, of course, but it’s useful to know just how much the girls outnumber the boys–more than two to one.


Roger Sutton About Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.



  1. Last year while at a writers’ retreat, I was told by a children’s book editor that chicklit is over. Adult women, she said, were reading YA novels now. I have absolutely no idea how accurate that statement is. However, if we’re thinking about who YA is really for these days and we look at how female protagonists outnumber male in your sample, I have to wonder if adult women readers aren’t a factor in publishing decisions.

    Of course, are YA authors and editors primarily female, which might also impact those numbers? As in people write and acquire books with characters like themselves?

  2. I wonder how the breakdown works for each genre within YA. My first thought on reading this is that I bet MG is very different, but then, MG these days has quite a bit of a) adventure and b) semigraphica.

  3. (I’m hoping there’s at least a little bit of non- gender binary mixed in there as well.) As others have said, I would be curious to see how those numbers correspond to authorship. I’d also be curious to compare this with the statistics regarding award winners (case in point, this year’s Boston Globe Horn Book Awards.) Having that data about readership to look at also seems necessary to this conversation.

    But beyond the data, I think it’s impossible to talk about YA and gender without addressing a larger conversation that’s happening within the YA community about prejudice and power. This goes for the diversity discussion, and for the anger and frustration many are expressing about the sexism of the industry (and surrounding culture.) It’s fine to look at the gender break down of book characters, or of the audience for those books. Does this illuminate the dynamic many are trying to challenge, wherein a book about a female character written by a man (a certain Mr. Green) is received and discussed in a quite different way than books about girls written by women? I don’t think so. Especially if the conclusion drawn from the data reinforces a dismissal of women’s writing implicit in that descrepancy (YA has suffered in quality because it’s catering to the interests of women, who would typically be consumers of equally low-quality chick lit.) As I said in commenting on Marc Aronson’s SLJ column about the gender make up of librarianship: predominance does not equate to dominance. This is a moment when many women writers in the field are feeling more than fed up– they’re feeling discouraged, dismissed, and I’ve heard many suggest they don’t know why they bother anymore. I’m not sure of the role of provocation in that context, or if the most meaningful conversation is one about the abundance of female characters. Or if this conversation serves boy readers, either.

  4. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    Sarah, it’s certainly true that males are rewarded and awarded disproportionately to our numbers in the industry, but it’s also true that it is women who largely enforce this disparity. Why might this be? (That’s neither a rhetorical nor a flamethrowing question.)

    My purpose in running the numbers on YA fiction was to gather some baseline facts, and we’re going to go back and look at authorship and subgenre, too, for the same clutch of books.

  5. I think you are leaving something significant out of this discussion.

    Not all YA books are published as YA. The best “YA” novel I have read this year is Anthony Doerr’s All The Light We Cannot See, published for adults. The second best is the adult novel I Shall be Near to You by Erin McCabe. Both have male and female protagonists equally important to the story. (And most readers would probably be quite comfortable labeling The Goldfinch as YA, with its male main character.)

    (For that matter, not all so-called YA books are YA. Most glaring recent example: Midwinterblood. And personally, I think Grasshopper Jungle could/should have been published as adult, or “new adult”.)

    I certainly do appreciate the Alex Awards and the Adult Books4Teens blog, which bring a lot of these so-called “adult” novels with teen protagonists to our attention.

    But it was in the AdultBooks4Teens blog last summer (I think) where I read an interview with Julianna Baggott that described how she decided to publish PURE as an adult rather than a YA novel, and it seemed that she and her publisher were making a business rather than a literary decision.

    So why is it significant that those novels that publishers have chosen to publish as YA have an apparently disproportionate number of female protagonists? I would propose that this may not reflect a literary concern.

    Of course, I have yet to read a clear definition of what a “YA” book is, anyway. (There was an extended discussion on this point on SLJ’s Printz blog last summer, relative to just which books should be considered for the Printz, and what it boiled down to was that the only “practical” approach was to judge only those books published as YA.)

    If one is going to label YA literature, perhaps perjoratively, as too female-centric, it would be best if one had a wider perspective as to just what constitutes YA lit.

  6. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    Well, Mary, that is the question. If by YA we mean any book a teen might read, then we have a category that is nicely inclusive but meaninglessly broad. If we mean a book that is specifically marketed to teens–that it comes with an age-level– then we are leaving out a lot of what teens read.

    What’s interesting to me now is that YA seems to be less of an age category than a genre descriptor–novels for people of any age who like novels about teenagers. Personally, I think it’s a case of publishers still trying to milk the teat of the same demographic bulge that made Harry Potter such a success fifteen years ago. (Thus “New Adult,” although I don’t think that’s a category that’s gained as much traction as publishers hoped.)

  7. Actually, I was referring more precisely to books with teen characters in a contemporary setting not published as YA (such as The Goldfinch) and also to books in which the main characters, if categorised in modern terms, would be identified as “teenagers”, but in a historical sense are young adults with what we today would consider adult responsibilities (Doerr and McCabe). Historical fiction (and fantasy, often based on or inspired by specific historical events) has a preponderance of such characters, since, for instance, a 16-year-old at a time when life expectancy is 35 or 40 is more mature than a 16-year-old who expects to live until 80.

    As I recall, the Baggott interview indicated that she and her publisher saw the YA vs adult designation as a matter of awards vs. sales (or the other way around). How would The Goldfinch have fared as “children’s literature”? (I see, in a quick tour of the internet, that it has been criticized as such.)

    Maybe the reason I am reluctant to limit YA literature to a publisher’s designation is that I am old enough to remember when there was no such genre. As a teenager, I had no choice but to read adult books, with plenty of youngish characters, from Dickens and Ludlum to Bradbury and Daphne DuMaurier – and I loved them.

  8. I’ve been hearing a lot lately about the decision as to whether to publish a book as YA vs. adult being made after it is written. A marketing decision.

    However, as writers, aren’t we supposed to know what we’re doing while we’re doing it? Shouldn’t we know that with a particular project we have chosen to work with a YA character in a YA situation with a YA theme? This is the reason the “Oh, it’s a marketing decision” argument bothers me. It suggests that writers don’t really know what they’re doing and have to be told after they’re done.

    Don’t mystery writers know they’re writing a mystery? Don’t scifi writers, fantasy writers, etc. know what they’re doing while they’re doing it? Is the decision about what they wrote made after they’ve finished the job?

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