This week, the Los Angeles Review of Books published an essay on the dearth of role models in modern YA literature showing a healthy path from boyhood to manhood. The author points to 19th century literature, such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin, as providing the kind of role models for this path that we currently lack.
As I look forward to embarking on a parenting journey with a young boy very soon (I am nine months pregnant with a boy), I took this critique seriously. I would hate to think that as a writer I am ignoring the emotional development of half the population. But then I thought, hold the mustard!
(I admit, I am not a 19th century literature scholar. Take everything I say below with, like, an ocean’s worth of salt…)
First of all, in the 19th Century, it was easy to write a book about how a boy becomes a man because there were very strict social and legal rules about such things. Men owned the land, found a suitable wife and then provided for her; they made important decisions about their families because the women had no right to do so. Girls became moms: they got married and had few rights after that. Did Pa Ingalls ask Ma about moving to the Prairie? That scene certainly didn’t make it into the books.
I would also challenge the notion that 19th Century “boy books” were even meant to provide boys with some sort of road map toward becoming a man. Treasure Island, for example, is not about a boy becoming a man, but rather about a boy going on a harrowing adventure with some pirates. There are some pretty sketchy men in the story, none of whom I would think of as particularly good role models. Same goes for Tom Sawyer. But again, I think this is because there wasn’t much debate about what it meant to be a man in the 19th Century.
This, however, did not mean that all boys were psyched about society’s roles for them. What of poor Werther in The Sorrows of Young Werther? (Okay, this is late 18th Century literature, but it influenced 19th Century Romanticism…) His tale touched off a rash of suicides by wealthy, despondent young people! Perhaps having rigid roles cut out for you is not so great…
Today (thank goodness!) is not the 19th Century. We no longer have such rigid social and legal roles to which men have to conform—but this also leaves a vacuum for boys: there is no clear concept of what it means to be a man today. The problem is not a lack of strong male characters in modern YA literature, but that our notions of what it means to be a man are in flux. Given that such gender-based roles are changing, today’s literary boys and men merely reflect this confusion and the need to forge such a path to adulthood for themselves nearly whole cloth. Saundra Mitchell did a great blog post on what this might look like from a parent’s (and imaginer of male character’s) point of view.
But never fear, Boys! I would say that this confusion applies to both men and women. What it means to be a woman or mother or girl are all changing. Women can vote, go to graduate school, run Fortune 500 companies, run for President!—all new roles compared with what 19th Century women were offered. Mothers can pursue careers while still trying to parent their children, must find ways to build a loving home and make a decent dinner and balance life with a partner, all at the same time. Girls no longer have to feel stupid for asking questions or wanting to take AP Physics—they can join the football team! They can found production companies that put on plays with local teens, all benefitting charity! But this also means it’s hard to know if it’s okay to ask a boy out on a date, or if you can kiss him first, or will you be ridiculed for not wanting to kiss right away, or whether if you earn more money than your husband, he’s going to feel emasculated and how that might hurt your relationship.
I have mostly written from a boy’s point of view (Shep may be a dog, but he is also a boy; and Marco and Ryan—clearly boys!) and my books, as I see them, concern characters (some dogs) making choices about who they want to be as a person/dog. These boys make mistakes. They make the wrong choices and have to live and learn from those consequences. They then try to make different, better choices. Or not. They grow and learn and change and try to forge an identity for themselves that they can live with. They don’t have a lot of guidance in this process. But I don’t see this as failing my boy readers. I see this as trying to reflect what they are going through and showing them how some choices might play out. I hope they learn from and reflect on Shep’s or Zeus’s or Ryan’s or Marco’s choices, both good and bad. And maybe, that reading about the struggles of other boys (some boydogs) helps them in their struggle to create an identity for themselves that they can feel proud of.
And to comment on the whole nine-months-pregnant thing, the end of my regular blogging is nigh. Which is kind of sad, but kind of necessary, so I hope you understand if there’s a bit of a hiatus after the kidlet is born, like a month or more. Thank you for reading!
What I’m reading: Remarkable by Lizzie K. Foley (Yay!)
What I’m watching: Skyfall (I feel like I missed what everyone loved about this one)
What I’m listening to: “Doom and Gloom” by The Rolling Stones (I’m a little shocked that these guys are still making music, and that it is kind of awesome)