I recently finished reading The Foreshadowing, by Marcus Sedgewick, a ya novel about World War I. Alexandra sees when people will die. After foretelling the death of her oldest brother, Alexandra becomes desperate to forestall the death she sees happening to her other brother. With minimal training as a nurse in the hospital where her father is a doctor, she heads off to France to find and save him.
This book was recently described in the Guardian as a book "that could help boys read" -- these books, apparently, should be "action packed" and "attention grabbing," which The Foreshadowing certainly is. I enjoyed it, although I might not have checked it out of the library if I had known it was a boy's book. I was tricked by the female-ness of the narrator into thinking I was getting a girl's book. So much for superficial snap judgements, because I quickly came to the conclusion that The Foreshadowing was indeed more a "boy" book.
[nb: although the Guardian started the "boy book" labeling, I am now going to become equally culpable. My definitions of girl's book vs boy's book are my own idiosyncratic ones, and I feel guilty about using these categories, believing strongly that gender stereotypes are bad bad bad. So I am using the terms with tongue firmly in cheek, as a conceptual device to talk about the books I like (girl) vs books I don't so much (boy). And in the process I continue to worry about my own boys, and whether they will be permitted/inclined to enjoy many of my favorite books that aren't boy books. My six year old is ashamed that he likes Angelina Ballerina. I hope to heck he didn't pick up on that bit of gender stereotyping from me. But of course even when you say, "It's just fine for boys to like ballet," the act of saying it makes it clear that it's not the normative viewpoint].
But anyway. What The Foreshadowing doesn't have, that a good girl's book should have, is introspective inaction. Alexandra is certainly thinking a lot, but the Cassandra theme of her narrative is so great that she doesn't have space to be anything else. The other thing a good girl's book has are powerful relationships. Alexandra is pretty much alone throughout the book, and the author's tight focus on her mental distress keep her isolated. Her reactions to non-dying people (such as the wounded soldiers all around her) are not particularly deep and thoughtful. And a girl's book would have put in more romantic frisson between Alexandra and a man she meets in France, who also can see when people are marked for death.
A girl's book about wounded WW I veterans that I love to pieces is After the Dancing Days, by Margaret Rostkowski (first published 1986, still available in paperback, but with a much more "modern" cover than this old one). This book is also narrated by a teenage girl--Annie visits the veterans' hospital where her father works and makes friends with Andrew, a horribly scarred young solder. It is not actioned packed--not much happens on the outside. But inside, Annie is growing up, Andrew is healing, and Annie's family is regrouping.
After the Dancing Days is a book I re-read every other year or so, whereas, although I certainly liked it, and would recommend it to those who lean toward action, I will probably not be re-reading The Foreshadowing. (Do girls re-read more than boys, establishing close relationships with their favorite books and brooding over them? Do boys leap actively from book to book?)
And then there's my favorite WW I girl's book of all, Rilla of Ingleside, by LM Montgomery...