“Women built this castle”: An in-depth look at sexism in YA.

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But before we talk about the current landscape of YA, let’s talk about the history of YA.

While there are classic novels that can retrospectively have the YA label applied to them, the first YA book is considered by some scholars to be Maureen Daly’s Seventeenth Summer. The novel, which focused on seventeen-year-old’s Angie Morrow’s budding attraction to Jack Duluth, published in 1942 as the idea of a teenager became to take hold socially.

But the book that most consider to be the first YA book is S.E. Hinton’s 1967 novel The Outsiders, about a group of teenage boys.

“It wasn’t entirely by choice that S. E. Hinton didn’t publish under her full name,” wrote Kelly Jensen on Book Riot in a fantastic piece entitled “A Censored History of Ladies in YA Fiction.” “She was urged by her publisher to use her initials in order to avoid being readily dismissed by male reviewers who would potentially be turned off by her real name, Susan Eloise. It didn’t matter that her book featured male main characters.”

While YA books – books featuring teenage protagonists, aimed for teenage audiences – were published on and off, books like the Nancy Drew series and the Hardy Boys series forced publishers to take advantage of their audience, and the division of literature took off in the 1970s with Judy Blume and dozens of other authors.

It continued to grow in the 1980s, with the Ann Martin’s Babysitter’s Club earning a huge fandom (which still lingers to this day, especially with its resurgence in graphic novel format with books illustrated by Raina Telgemeier) alongside Francesca Lia Block’s Weetzie Bat and Robin McKinley’s The Hero and the Crown, some of the first genre fiction for teens.

Names fans of YA will recognize now – L.J. Smith, Stephen Chbosky, Laurie Halse Anderson and Sarah Dessen – came to popularity in 1990s. The 1990s was also when J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series was first published, a series that started as kidlit and grew into a YA series.

And YA only got bigger from there. The bestselling Princess Diaries series by Meg Cabot was published in 2000 and adapted into a film starring Anne Hathaway; Twilight by Stephenie Meyer was published in 2005, causing a spark of unrivaled grow in the YA genre, with teens and adults alike becoming invested in the story; Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games was published in 2008, sparking even more of an interest in YA and adapted into a film series nearly as popular as the books.

Most of the names that built the YA industry belong to women, though men played their part – there’s no doubting that Chbosky’s The Perks of Being A Wallflower was game-changing – but the most successful books by men, during the formative years of defining young adult as an industry, often focused on female-driven stories, like Garth Nix’s 1995 fantasy Sabriel.

“Tamora Pierce wrote her first series in the eighties and it is still highly influential and beloved today,” wrote the team at YA Flash. “Laurie Halse Anderson’s beautiful and powerful novel Speak was published in 1999. How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff was published in 2004 and won a landslide of awards. Walter Dean Meyers, Carolyn Mackler, Angela Johnson, Madeline L’Engle, Judy Blume, Christopher Pike, Margo Lanagan, Lois Lowry, MT Anderson, Markus Zusak, and many more were already publishing amazing, influential, much-beloved YA books in the early 2000’s and before.”

But the name most often linked to YA now isn’t Stephenie Meyer or Suzanne Collins – two of the largest game-changers – or Laurie Halse Anderson or Sarah Dessen – who helped build YA into what it is today – but John Green, whose first YA novel Looking for Alaska released in 2005.

“This phenomenon of male writers being hailed as the ‘saviours’ of female-dominated genres can also be seen in the recent popularity of young adult author John Green, writer of The Fault in Our Stars. Young Adult fiction has been around since the 1980s, with females writing profusely in that genre for decades,” said Nudrat Kamal in her piece on sexism in literature for the Tribune, noting how many lady YA authors are “rankled” at the idea that it took a man writing YA to make YA a worthy career choice for a writer or a category of literature to consider seriously as a reader.

As Dianna Anderson wrote in her piece “Why criticizing Young Adult Fiction is sexist,” “Before John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars broke records, there was Maureen Johnson, Laurie Halse Anderson, J.K. Rowling, S.E. Hinton, Madeline L’Engle, and Suzanne Collins. Historically, women have populated the genres aimed at teenagers and children precisely because of a sexist publishing industry that deemed women unable to write adult literary fiction.”

“The problem though is that John Green’s name has become a tool of power and force in the YA world. When mainstream writers talk about YA, his name is held with affection and as an ideal to which others should aspire. Forget Stephenie Meyer and her vampires. That’s laughable, and it remains a means of degrading the entire category of fiction. John Green, though — he’s helped save and revive YA fiction from being a crumbling cesspool of . . . whatever a crumbling cesspool of an entire category of fiction can be,” wrote Kelly Jensen in her post “The reductive approach to YA, revisited” on Stacked.

Or, as Justina Ireland has said multiple times, across many platforms: “Women built this castle.”

Let’s talk about what sexism is and how it affects YA. Click through to page 3.

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About Author

Nicole Brinkley

Nicole is the editor of YA Interrobang. She has short hair and loves dragons. The rest changes without notice. Follow her on Twitter at @nebrinkley or Tumblr at nebrinkley. Like her work? Leave her a tip.

37 Comments

  1. Shalee Coleman on

    LOVE THIS.

    So tired of my interests being trashed due to my identity, when the moment I choose to pass on a cultural phenomenon because I am not really interested in reading yet another story about a shy white boy who gets the girl, I am somehow being discriminatory…

  2. “If you are only reading straight able-bodied cisgender white women, you are contributing to larger problems of ableism and homophobia and racism that still exist in YA and, as I’ve mentioned, are too prevalent and numerous and complicated for me to include in this piece without turning it into a full-length book instead of a novella-length article.”

    Can we please get an article about this, though? Soon?

  3. This feels SO timely. Just this weekend, I listened to a white, male YA author who has been roundly praised by the industry, talking about his upcoming novel that clearly owes a huge debt to a recent novel by a woman. Will he be asked to acknowledge that debt? We’ll see. (I did point out one specific similarity, and he swiftly explained it away, so…)

  4. A superb article – excellent points throughout. At the same time as I was reading this, I was taking part in a Twitter discussion about women writers and the work of Octavia Butler. Now, everyone has gaps in their reading history and Octavia Butler is one of my gaps, I just haven’t read her work yet. But it occurred to me that while there’s plenty of male writers from her same generation that I also haven’t read, I’ve been more broadly exposed to those male writers being mentioned in articles, reviews, etc over the years, while Butler, despite being a giant in the field, has been less prominently featured in the sci fi and gaming mags I grew up with. Beyond the problems in the publishing field directly, there is the hinterland of the magazines and blogs that surround out, and the problem of a lack of recognition for the work of women often extends to there. Thank you for the article – lots of things to think about. And as for Bergstrom coming in and shooting down a whole genre? First time I heard of that convinced me I would never bother picking up a book of his.

  5. The deliberate sexism in YA mirrors the bigger crisis with the suppression and erasure of people of colors voices in literature. I’d also love to see an article on “contributing to the larger problems of ableism and homophobia and racism that still exist in YA.” More than that, I’d like to see tangible steps towards a solution.

  6. This is such a great read. I’m getting ready for teaching a class about editing YA books and this is PERFECT for the discussion! I’ll print this and hand it out to the class. Thanks and congrats, Nicole!

  7. One in four women has been the victim of rape or attempted rape.

    This mother of all factoids is based on a fallacious feminist study commissioned by Ms. magazine. The researcher, Mary Koss, hand-picked by hard-line feminist Gloria Steinem, acknowledges that 73 percent of the young women she counted as rape victims were not aware they had been raped. Forty-three percent of them were dating their “attacker” again.

    I am all for the cause of feminism. Please let us use real facts instead of quoting hyperbole. It is the only way we can make real change.

    • Dude, this is the only thing you have to say about this article? Seizing on a chance to tout false rape reports? Really? Slow your roll and read the article again and maybe don’t use alarming phrases like “hard-line” and “hand-picked” and “fallacious” with feminist when you’re trying to convince us you’re all for it. Please, take several seats.

  8. Wonderful comprehensive (with the noted limitations) piece. It never ceases to amaze me how ubiquitous the phenomena of belittling YA is. It seems to pop up somewhere at least once a month. And too often female (and often marginalized) voices bear the brunt.

  9. Great article. Thank you for taking the time to put this all together. I’ve been guilty of pushing books on my 11 year old son, but you’ve opened my eyes. Why can’t he read books about girls? They won’t diminish his masculinity. If anything, they’ll make him more compassionate and empathetic.

    • My 14 yr old son loves Tamora Pierce books, Diana Wynne Jones books, Patricia C. wrede books, lots of older fantasy. He also loves Lois McMaster Bujold books and I have Elizabeth Moon queued up for him next, when he comes up for air out of the Vorkosigan Saga (Bujold.)

      He cares if the book is a good *story*. The rest is window dressing. I recommend Howl’s Moving Castle as a nice gateway. Or Alanna. Enjoy!

  10. Amazing article! Thank you for your thorough research and thought-provoking words. And thank you for ending with concrete things that people can do to change the situation, to bring about some justice in this field. I would also add that readers should learn about and support the work of small presses, which are often the ones at the forefront publishing women authors of color, women authors with disabilities, and LGBTQIA authors. And check out the roundtables of We Need Diverse Books, which explore #ownvoices perspectives. I hosted one for authors with disabilities, and six out of seven are women with the one man a genuine ally.

  11. Seriously? A post about sexism in YA fiction and the publishing industry brings on a rant about supermarket distribution centre gender breakdowns? And how feminists are frauds and wage gaps don’t exist?

    As a previous poster suggested, please also take several seats.

  12. There is no way to edit my previous post but the commenter I was responding to has been modded out.

  13. This is a wonderful, much-needed article. I’d also add, as someone who has worked for a long time with YA authors and loves YA, that we need to make sure the debate encourages writers from diverse backgrounds rather than making them feel publishing is a white monolith of heterosexual ladies and they have no chance of success. There is a real hunger within publishing for good writing from many different voices and perspectives, at long last, but editors cannot publish books they never see, or that weren’t written in the first place. White men tend not to get discouraged by rejection; they get angry. They self-publish. They self-promote. They demand and expect respect. Maybe we all need to think more like white men.

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  17. *slow clap* I absolutely loved this article. There were so many good points made here. When I have more free time, I need to read the hyperlinked articles that were mentioned.

  18. Wow, interesting article that has given me lots to think about. In my own personal experience (I’m a white, 20-something female living in a mostly-conservative, mostly-white area, and I’ve taught middle school for three years), the issues talked about on page 5 of this article were super-relevant to me. Very few of my friends, family, or acquaintances knows or cares who is on the bestseller list this week or what some author they’ve never heard of said on Twitter. But there is a very clear assumption that books about girls are for girls, while books about boys are for everyone. In my teacher education classes in college, this was presented as a fact, not something that we should or could change. I remember reading Shannon Hale’s “Princess Academy” when I was younger and thinking, “My younger brother would love this,” but I hesitated to recommend it to him because I knew my mom (who is an elementary school teacher) wouldn’t like my brother reading a “girl book” – she’d think it was weird. I can’t remember a time when I saw one of my male middle school students reading a book with a female protagonist besides “The Hunger Games” or “Divergent” – books with those nice, gender-neutral covers. And as an English teacher, we had so little class time to teach any literature that there was no discussion among the teachers about reading literature with diverse protagonists. (But the topic of literature and public education is a whole other can of worms.)

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  20. This is a fantastic article.

    You know what warms my jaded heart? That The Cruelty seems to have flopped HARD. Turns out that readers are smarter than you think and don’t like being condescended to and put down by someone who knows almost nothing about the genre.

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  22. What a wonderful article! I’m so excited to see such in-depth research and writing on a subject very near and dear to my heart. I hope this becomes an article series, because I would love to see more on intersectionality in YA!!

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