WHEN I WAS PREGNANT the first time, I hoped I would have a girl. I know, obviously, that it’s hard to be a girl (the grim realities of Not Having it All, slut shaming, Todd Akin, etc.) but it seemed that parenting a girl, as a task, offered an appealing kind of clarity. You teach a daughter to be a strong, brave woman. But what, I wondered, do you teach a son? “Don’t get too full of yourself,” was about the best I could come up with.
I remember that quandary every time I read an essay about gender in Young Adult literature (which, since I teach it, is often). I see, in the ongoing conversation about Bella and Katniss, our culture pondering whether YA novels support the strong daughters we all want to raise. But as we debate ad nauseam whether, for example, Bella Swan is a dangerous role model for young women, we’ve neglected to ask the corresponding question: what does it tell young men when Edward Cullen and Jacob Black are the role models available to them? Are these barely-contained monsters really the best we can imagine?
The contemporary uncertainty towards young men snaps into focus when we compare recent texts to their literary ancestors — nineteenth-century novels for young readers. Hope Leslie, Jo's Boys, Northwood, The Lamplighter: these novels heralded the end of boyhood as a happy ending, the beginning of a triumphant journey into a powerful manhood. But today’s YA boys approach their manhood with trepidation. And they should. The adult men who populate YA fictional worlds are often careless, corrupt, incompetent — sometimes even cruel — and only rarely kind.
Why is it that in YA literature — a genre generated entirely to describe the transition to adulthood — there is so much fear and ambivalence surrounding manhood? When I read contemporary young adult novels, I see them asking over and over again a fascinating question, a question both for boys and for the stories describing them: are there any good men? And how can a boy become a good man, if he doesn’t know what that would mean?
When looking at boyhood’s end in contemporary YA fiction, there’s an obvious place to start: The Outsiders, S.E. Hinton’s iconic novel. The Outsiders is true to its title. Hinton’s central character, Ponyboy, is not only an outsider by virtue of caste (he’s lower class, a “greaser” in the novel’s terms) but also, because of his unusual academic success, an outsider from his caste. There’s a vague sense in his gang that Ponyboy is going to “make it”; that he’s destined to get some of the power greasers are always denied. But no one knows exactly what “making it” would look like. In the Outsiders, and for Ponyboy in particular, “manhood” isn’t so much a status to attain — it’s a problem to solve.
YA lit wasn’t always this way. Against Ponyboy, consider George Shelby, the boy hero of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Stowe’s novel isn’t “for young readers,” in the conventional sense, but nevertheless the nineteenth century’s most famous novel of social reform hinges on a frame narrative describing a young boy, George, growing into a man. In the novel’s beginning, George is appalled when his father sells Tom to a slav...read more