In which Annie (high school teacher, mother of two young girls and a younger boy) and her aunt Deborah (children's bookseller, mother of two young women in their 20s) discuss children's books and come up with annotated lists.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Teen lit to pleasantly obsess both boys and girls

Dear Aunt Debbie,

Nice Publisher's Weekly piece!  I enjoyed your quotes.  It's always good to read an article that implies that the selling of real live books has a future.

I'm finding this conversation on YA lit for girls vs. boys fascinating.  I threw it out there to my network on Facebook, and got some interesting responses as well.  I'm going to summarize here (with few links, so I can get to bed some time tonight), and then focus in on three books which, in my experience, appeal across gender lines.

Male friends mentioned: Dungeons and Dragons rulebooks (tongue in cheek, but two more echoed it), Louis Lamour, Robin McKinley's The Hero and the Crown (dragon-fighting heroine -- I loved this one too), Isaac Asimov's Foundation series, Sherlock Holmes stories, Edgar Rice Burroughs's Tarzan books, the Oz series, the Lloyd Alexander Black Cauldron series, Susan Cooper's Dark is Rising series, the EarthSea Trilogy by Ursula LeGuin, Agatha Christie, Ian Fleming, Gregory McDonald's "Fletch" mysteries, and Judy Blume.  This last bunch come from my friend Mark (husband of excellent guest blogger Cyd), who wrote about Blume and YA realism several years ago here, in the Times.

Female friends mentioned: Lois Duncan, Christopher Pike, Sweet Valley High (I admit, I read them all too, borrowing them from friends in junior high), Gone With the Wind, A Wrinkle in Time, Judy Blume, Nancy Drew, Jane Eyre, Constance C. Green's A Girl Called Al series, and Richard Peck.

Definitely more sci-fi going on on the male side, but I was heartened by the amount of crossover. 

Jeff's cousin Megan wrote that she, her husband, and her sister all loved a book I hadn't thought about in ages: The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, aged 13 3/4, by Sue Townsend.  It's the first book in a British series I discovered on my one childhood trip to England, and found massively funny.  Adrian Mole is a neurotic teenage boy, a fabulous unreliable narrator who keeps a diary recounting his obsessions and daily humiliations.  It's set in 1981-82, and I remember a great deal of focus on Charles and Diana's wedding.  I also read and loved the first sequel, The Growing Pains of Adrian Mole.  There are a bunch of other sequels following Adrian into adulthood.

My friend Zara mentioned another great junior high school love of mine.  Aside from Madeline L'Engle, the only science fiction I got truly obsessive about were Douglas Adams books: The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy trilogy (which is five books long), and the Dirk Gently books.  Adams's brand of offbeat, deadpan humor made me dissolve into laughter, and I devoured the stories of hapless Arthur Dent, off with his towel in space with Zaphod Beeblebrox.  The only gender discrepancy I remember in the Adams fan base of my youth was that I had a soft spot for So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish, the only book with a love story, while my male friends thought it was a little weaker.  It's also the one where Arthur learns the secret of flight: you fall, and forget to hit the ground.

Finally, there is The Westing Game, by Ellen Raskin.  Raskin calls her book "a puzzle mystery": the six apartments in brand-new Sunset Towers on the shores of Lake Michigan are rented out to families chosen for reasons which are only explained by the book's end.

Who were these people, these specially selected tenants?  They were mothers and fathers and children.  A dressmaker, a secretary, an inventor, a doctor, a judge.  And, oh yes, one was a bookie, one was a burglar, one was a bomber, and one was a mistake.  Barney Northrup had rented one of the apartments to the wrong person.

The empty Westing mansion looks down at them from up on the north cliff -- Sam Westing disappeared fifteen years before.  Then, on Halloween evening, smoke begins to rise from the chimney....

The cast of characters is decently diverse -- the judge is a black woman, the family who owns the top-floor restaurant are Chinese -- and one of the protagonists is a spunky 13-year old girl named Turtle Wexler.  The mystery is such that I didn't fully understand the ending the first time I read it (probably at age 10 or so), but loved it anyway.  It rewards rereading.

So I read it, and reread it, and then for years I forgot The Westing Game, until one day a year out of college, shortly before I was leaving the Boston area to move to Seattle for a year, I noticed it again on the bookshelf of a male friend I was just getting to know better.  He happened to have two copies; he had been obsessed with the book himself; he gave me one of them.  Reader, I married him.

Love, Annie


  1. I loved the Hitchhiker's Guide books when I was in high school. I have distinct memories of first reading it in the bath and laughing so hard I soaked the book. All the other books I read in drier settings.

  2. I loved the Adrian Mole books, which I read as an adult. Oddly, though, they seemed very similar to Bridget Jones's Diary--diary format, and starts out in a similar way with the Jan. 1st entry. The Adrian Mole books were published well before the Jones books. I once read that Helen Fielding has said the Mole books were an influence.