Getting Real with Middle Grade Boys

“Are you ever going to write books for boys?”
Never fails. Whenever I speak at schools, I get this question from boys in the audience–their assumption being that because I write ABOUT girls, I’m writing FOR girls.

Here’s how I answer:
First of all, anybody can read ANY book about ANY character. You don’t have to read only about characters who look like you. I bet the girls in the audience already know this. How many girls here have read a book (other than Harry Potter) with a male protagonist?
(*All the girls put up their hands.*)
Okay, how many of the boys here today have read a book with a female protagonist (other than The Hunger Games)?
(*No boys put up their hands. Or maybe one or two renegades.*)
Why are so many middle grade boys unwilling to read about girls, when middle grade girls willingly read about boys? It’s a question I think about often. Is it because girls are more mature, more tolerant, more people-oriented–or just resigned to living in a world that still very much caters to boy tastes? I wish I knew the answer, because there’s something wrong about the lack of equal time here. It’s hard to develop empathy if you never get into the heads of people different from you–and of course by “different” I’m thinking of race, ethnicity, culture as well as gender. And what better way for boys to understand girls than by reading a story told from a girl’s point of view?
Here’s the second part of my response:
Actually, I HAVE written books with boy protagonists. But when I showed the manuscripts to my then- editor, a prominent veteran in publishing, she told me: “You write realistic fiction. The problem is, middle grade boys don’t read realistic fiction. They do less pleasure-reading than girls overall, and when they choose a book for themselves, it’s usually sci fi, fantasy, adventure or nonfiction. Also, they don’t want to read books by women authors, which is why J. K. Rowling used initials instead of the name Joanna.”
I ask the boys in the audience if this is true. They always assure me they read books by women authors “all the time”–although (with exception of Suzanne Collins) they can’t think of any names offhand. And then they admit they typically do avoid realistic fiction, with the exception of Wimpy Kid. I glance at their teachers, who nod in agreement.
So here’s another question I ponder: why are girls more enthusiastic readers of realistic MG fiction than boys? Is it possible to overcome the anything-but-realism bias of so many boys–and even hook them on the genre?
With the help of book-loving friends–including teachers, librarians and other authors– I’ve compiled a list of some realistic MG fiction titles with potentially strong boy-appeal. Not surprisingly, they feature boy protagonists. Please suggest more titles in the comments below. Extra points for books written by women authors. Triple-extra-points for books with girl protagonists!

Angus, Sam–Soldier Dog
Clements, Andrew–Troublemaker
Curtis, Christopher Paul–The Watsons Go to Birmingham, 1963
Federle, Tim–Better Nate Than Ever
Gemeinhart, Dan–The Honest Truth
George, Jean Craighead*–My Side of the Mountain
Gephart, Donna*–How to Survive Middle School; Death by Toilet Paper
Greenwald, Tommy–Charlie Joe Jackson series
Hiaasen, Carl–Hoot; Flush, etc.
Hobbs, Will–Crossing the Wire; Downriver; Far North, etc.
Jung, Mike–Geeks, Girls and Secret Identities
Korman, Gordon–Sixth Grade Nickname Game; Swindle series; MacDonald Hall series; Schooled, etc.
Lupica, Mike–Game Changers series; The Underdog; Million-Dollar Throw, etc.
Morpurgo, Michael–War Horse; An Elephant in the Garden, etc.
Palacio, R.J.*–Wonder
Paulson, Gary–Hatchet; Road Trip
Rylander, Chris–The Fourth Stall
Sachar, Louis–Holes
Sonnenblick, Jordan–Drums, Girls, and Dangerous Pie
Smith, Roland– Cryptid Hunters, etc.
Tarshis, Lauren*–I Survived series
Trueit, Trudy Strain*– Secrets of a Lab Rat series
Vail, Rachel* and Cordell, Matthew–Justin Case series
Vernick, Audrey*–Screaming at the Ump
Williams, Suzanne Morgan*–Bull Rider
*Women authors! Hey, waddaya know!
Barbara Dee is the author of The Almost Perfect Guide to Imperfect Boys, Trauma Queen, This Is Me From Now On, Solving Zoe, and Just Another Day in my Insanely Real Life. Her next book, Truth or Dare, will be published by Aladdin/Simon & Schuster in Fall 2016.

Barbara Dee
  1. I’ll add Mike Lupica’s recent sports novel, THE ONLY GAME, and Jeff Baron’s SEAN ROSEN books.

  2. Here are a couple by female authors: Al Capone Does My Shirts by Gennifer Choldenko and the Barftastic Life of Louie Burger by Jenny Meyerhoff. Flipped by Wendelin Van Draanen has both male and female protagonists, and it’s gone over well with middle-grade boys in a couple of book clubs I’ve attended. Same for Flying the Dragon by Natalie Dias Lorenzi.