Gender and Writers of Middle Grade and Young Adult Fantasy/Science Fiction

A gender imbalance exists in science fiction and fantasy--male authors get anthologized more, get more awards, and get picked for lists more, as discussed in this article by Alisa Krasnostein--The Invisibility of Women in Science Fiction. Stella Matutina picked up on this issue today, and has vowed to spend the next 14 weeks highlighting great women writers of fantasy.

In composing a response to that post, it struck me that there exists the opposite gender imbalance (men getting noticeably less attention) in the genre I care most about--middle grade and YA fantasy and science fiction. I see it in my own reviewing--out of the last twenty books I reviewed, only three have been by men. This seems fairly typical of my blog. Looking through all my posts, I seem to review about 4 sff books by women for every 1 book by a man. To see if this bias was unique to me, I went through the last five of my middle-grade science fiction/fantasy roundups, to get data--female writers are reviewed or interviewed 63 times, male writers 37 times. That's just middle grade--I don't have any data for YA, but my impression is that YA bloggers are giving an even greater percentage of their attention to female writers.

Now, one could argue that this bias is because the book blogging community has a similarly disproportionate gender imbalance (I don't think I'm simply unaware of the 100s of teenaged boys blogging about sff books). I myself (female) find middle grade speculative fiction that features non-stop, sometimes icky, slapsticky violence, and/or overt grossness, unappealing, although I have reviewed some such books, and try to be fair to them (even if they aren't the sort of book I love myself). And many of these books are written by guys, for guys, and that is just fine. But it does mean that I won't be seeking them out all that eagerly. I haven't, for instance, been tempted by Sir Fartsalot Hunts the Booger, by Kevin Bolger.

Turning, however, beyond the day-to-day life of blogs to the awards, one sees the same gender imbalance. Out of the 14 books shortlisted for the Cybils in sff in 2009, only one was by a man (and he was Neil Gaiman). Out of the 8 books shortlisted for this year's Andre Norton Award (the Nebula for children's/YA books), 6 were by women; last year, 4 out of 5 were women, the year before, 5 out of 7. No man has ever won this award. Of the four fantasy books in contention for this year's Guardian's Children's Book Award, 3 are by women.

I looked at my last five posts on new releases of science fiction and fantasy for children and teens, to see if more women were being published. They are--there are 57 books by men, 102 by women. If I were writing this as an academic article, I'd also look at the sales data (NY Times bestseller list, books on display at bookstores), but life is too short...Still, even without that piece of the picture, it seems clear that middle grade/YA fantasy and science fiction is a female-dominated genre.

I thought it would be interesting to throw out all the reasons I could think of (whether I believe in them or not--so please don't assume I do!), under two main categories:

The Gender of the Readers:

Is this because girls ostensibly read more than boys, and, since women more often write girl-friendly books than boys, more women are being published (and more girls then want to read the books, continuing the cycle)? The gender imbalance in published books is more pronounced in YA--are boys moving more quickly into the adult section (for whatever reason), where there are more male authors? Is it the case that grown-up women (like me!) are more likely to "read down" than grown-up men, and publishers are thinking of this demographic (women with credit cards) when they make their decisions?

Larger Social Expectations/Gender Stereotypes

Are there larger social issues at play? Are women, for instance, (I write with tongue in cheek), subtly conditioned to take on the role of those who look after children, and thus choose to write for children? Or are there factors of ego at play? One can argue (although I wouldn't) that writing for children is less "prestigious" than writing for adults. Are women more comfortable with writing for children, because they are more accustomed to being told that what they do is not important? Or because they give less of a hoot about what other people think?

Or, more insidiously, is it because the publishers are suggesting to female authors that they write younger than they had originally wanted to, while marketing male-written sff as adult? An unconscious patronizing attitude, that may be coming into play in the Andre Norton Awards, that writing for children is the province of women.

I have a huge respect for books written for children and teens--those are the books I enjoy the most myself, and I think many of them are gorgeously written, incredibly creative, and all around excellent. I don't mind at all that so many talented women are writing just the sort of book I want to read. But I do mind the possibility that men might be having a harder time getting their mg/ya fantasy/science fiction published than women (if this is in fact, the case), and then getting attention for their books.

And I mind very much indeed that I, myself, have such a glaring gender imbalance on my blog, because I do care very much about boys reading (since boys is what I have at home), and I want my blog to be a useful resource to those looking for books for boys. Moreover, since it's absurd to think that "men write books for boys, and only boys," I would hate to think that I was unconsciously overlooking books by men that I (and other girl-type people) would like lots. So I will try to be mindful of that, when I am at ALA next weekend and pouncing on books. I will try to pounce with gender equity and an open mind.


  1. That's an interesting observation, but had you considered that simply less men write YA fiction. A lot of male authors that I know do not have exposure to a lot of kids, even if they have them, and when they write it does not occur to them as an option.

  2. It funny that you should mention Bolger because I was just looking at his new book today Zombiekins. I didn't want to read Sirfartsalot either. (though the boys do like it) I do want to read his new one.

    But you are right there are alot more female authors.

    If JK Rowling was a man this could've gone the other way.

    Female bloggers are not ignoring male authors of this genre, I just think there aren't a lot of new male authors being published.

    I think many bloggers don't spend too much time reviewing well known established authors

    There simply aren't a lot of new male (the last 3 yrs) MG fantasy or YA authors to be reviewed.

    Publishers marketing male fantasy writers older, - you may have something there.

    Two of my co -worker loved the Codex Alera series by Butcher. The MC is a teenager.

    One co-workers said it reminded her of Chronicles of Prydain series by Alexander's and would work for 12 up. The Butcher series is in fantasy not YA

    Ironically its not hard to find MG fantasy books that feature boys (thanks Rowling) though its very very hard in YA.

    With MG , fantasy is one of the few genre along with sports that there are a lot of books that feature boys.

  3. This is a very interesting post. I have noticed before that I mostly read and love books by female authors. Although I think that's because I'm drawn to strong female protagonists.

  4. I know I read a lot of male authors when I was growing up, and I think the bulk of my reading as a kid was fantasy. Edward Eager, Edward Ormondroyd, CS Lewis, Oliver Butterworth - but I guess these are all older writers who are no longer active. Huh. I wonder if a higher proportion men used to write for kids than do so now, or if I'm just unaware of this generation's comparable writers.

  5. For both science fiction and fantasy I have been drawn to women authors, and I think it's because they write about female characters in a way that I can relate to. I have been turned off from some men sci-fi writers whose male characters are one-dimensional testosterone factories. I guess I need to be more willing to read more from male sci-fi writers (I know there are a lot of them out there). Anyway, my favorite two female sci-fi/fantasy writers are Anne McCaffrey and Sheri S. Tepper.

  6. Due to my column I probably get more books than the average blogger (at my peak it was just under 1,000 a year but I've pushed back hard enough against some pubs to bring that down to around 700) (believe me, I would reduce it much more but some things are just unstoppable in this world!) and I've been looking at this for awhile. I've noticed that it's all about writers more than the readers. Way more women write for MG & YA compared to adult (and picture book), period. There is a similar problem with male protags in YA - I think boys are pretty even to girls in MG but boys drop off the cliff when you get to teen titles.

    I think all of this comes down to the self fulfilling prophecy - pubs think boys read less than girls so publish less directed at boys than girls and thus SHOCKING - boys read less than girls. I can only assume that more men write for adults (especially genre writing) because they see it as a more welcoming publishing environment....if I was a guy writing SF I'd aim for adult. (And if I was writing anything set in space then I'd aim for adult because there is practically nothing for teens set there.)

    I love this subject - it drives me crazy but I think the more we talk about it, the better.

    Oh - and how much of the YA fantasy is vamp related? If you remove vamp/werewolf titles what are you left with, because vamp stuff pretty much all skews girl these days and is written by women. (And reviewed by women as well.) (I think, anyway!)

  7. It's interesting that you should bring up the older male writers, Jenny--they were writing before YA took on a life of it's own. I vaguely feel that in the eighties and nineties sff in YA per se was thin on the ground...and then we saw in the last ten years a surge of YA fantasy books by predominantly female writers, so very many of which seem to be paranormal romance-esque.

    Men, as several commentators noted, simply wrote, and write, less YA--they are moved up, or choose to move, to adult. The YA sections of bookstores don't seem to me to be very boy friendly at all. And here's Colleen's self-fulfilling prophecy-- if there was more sff for boys on those shelves, the boys might be drawn in...

    But in the adult sff reviewing community, there still seems to exist a ton of contempt for YA books. I just read the following in a book review at a very well established site-- "I found the characters to be very one-dimensional even for a YA book." Ouch! With the sort of attitude prevalent, there's absolutely no reason why authors or publishers should send their teenaged boy books to YA, where the market is girls and the adult sff readers won't look for it.

    Yet somehow it's ok for the books with girls to be marketed for girls, while the boys get to be (or are forced to be) marketed for grown ups. Is this an insidious reinforcing of gender stereotypes? Does it hurt boys, in that they might not read all the great YA sff that isn't vampire romance, with all the strong female characters who might usefully shape their ideas of what it is to be female? With all the male characters who aren’t, as Alyce put it, “one-dimensional testosterone factories” ?

    If I have time today, I'll go back and count the middle grade titles published, to account for that YA skew factor. I bet it's a lot more evenly divided.

  8. This is such an interesting topic that I hadn't really thought about. As a woman writer never having grown up with brothers, I feel much more comfortable writing about a girl main character. I wonder if that's the same for other middle grade & YA fantasy writers.

    I'm read a fair amount of author blogs. Like what you're noticing about publishing, I think is true of the blogs. At least the ones I read are mostly written by women. Many of them (not me) are not working outside the home. I wonder if some of why more men aren't being published is that if they write, it's at a slower pace because they must support their families and have less time. I know that is very true for me. I have a demanding job as an attorney and have to squeeze in time to write. My productivity is much less than the women who blog who stay at home. For many wage earners, being an author full time might not bring enough money in to support the family, have medical benefits, etc.

    I'm not sure that boy readers are too into the romantic paranormal books that are flooding the market now, even in YA. Though there are some good books out there for boys, though like you said most are by women authors. A male friend of my daughter (he's 13) who loves fantasy and reads a ton has already moved into adult fantasy. Perhaps it's because it has more to offer and more male characters.

    Thanks for raising this issue.

  9. And now, Natalie, I'm thinking about what authors get paid--do you get paid more for an adult book? Do men, with the expectation of being the Breadwinner, write adult books because it pays better?

    And viz 13 year old boys reading in the adult sff section--is that, too, a reflection of our society's expectation for males? The whole idea that boys should grow up faster than girls --"Be a Man" -- coming into play?

  10. Charlotte--When I go to the national Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators, the attendees are mostly women, and of the few men there, many are illustrators. I think women who are teachers and mothers tend to gravitate toward writing for children and YA, frankly. A lot of authors (myself included) have been teachers at some point and maybe working with kids go them interested. (Personally, I wanted to write children's books long before I had the slightest interest in teaching!)

    In general, I find that there's a dearth of science fiction for MG/YA compared to fantasy. A couple of the new sci-fi writers for kids/teens I've come across recently are both men, Dom Testa and Brad Strickland (although Catherine Jinks also threw her hat in the ring with Living Hell). Which brings us to yet another gender bias--that men are more likely to feel comfortable or simply more interested in writing about hard science and technology.

    On the other hand, a lot of women writers are producing dystopian fiction right now!

    I had a tough time finding books to interest my 15-year-old boy students this year, but one of them ended up liking The Hunger Games and Catching Fire, also Robert Muchamore's gritty kid-spy series. He turned up his nose at things like Garth Nix's Sabriel and other fantasy offerings.

    Charlie Higson's Stoneheart trilogy is a nice dark fantasy trilogy featuring a boy and written by a man, by the way. I think it's for upper MG.

    Great post!

  11. As others have said, I think there are (for whatever reason) a LOT more women writing YA and MG. I remember being kind of surprised when I joined the Debut2009 community (for YA/MG writers with a 2009 debut book) that there were only about 5 men and something like 50 women.

    From everything I've heard, the money is better in YA right now than adult, at least for sff. But I have no hard evidence of that.

    I'd be curious to see a breakdown of male-female based on the YA and MG books that are on the bestseller and/or awards lists (as opposed to the overall huge swath of books). Because when I think of the "famous" writers, I certainly do think of plenty of men (Scott Westerfeld, Garth Nix, Jonathan Stroud, Rick Riordan, Neil Gaiman, Terry Prachett, etc).

    But then, as others have said, I do think there's a definite drop-off in male protags between MG and YA.

    Very interesting discussion! I hope it continues!

  12. So, as per Kate and Katie's comments, are women more likely to write for kids because they are around kids/care for kids more hours of the day? So is this the Natural Order of Things/Just the Way It Is, which would be kind of sad for the guys, who have to swim against the stream if they want to write for kids?????

    Viz the bestsellar lists--Natasha at Maw books has around seventy of the NY Times bestseller lists up at her blog, and I looked through them. But the same few names (Suzanne Collins, Rick Riordan, Stephanie Meyer etc) repeat ad nauseum that it's not interesting data. What one needs is the sales statistics from all the publishers...

    I am a little worried, too, Deva, that when one (ie me) thinks of the famous sff writers for kids/teens, men tend to pop into my head first....even though I think they are out sold by the top women.

  13. I usually hear about this from another angle -- the disproportionate percentage of male authors who win major awards. But it's true that any SCBWI event is about 95% female.

    I wonder if there isn't also a backlash dynamic at work. Many current women authors were once girl readers who found very few strong girl/woman characters in kids and YA fiction, and are still trying to correct that. Because this flood of women authors/girl characters is really pretty recent.

  14. Wonderful post full of lots of thoughtful observations. You gave me much to ponder over... Thanks!

  15. This is a great post! I've been tracking the numbers of male authors and female authors I read. It is astounding that I have about 3 times as many female authors. It probably is from my choice of books, but also from the ratios publishing too, I think.

  16. Many female authors who write MG Fantasy create strong, female characters but I think t many who write male protagonist.

    Though this year I have noticed less MG books that feature boys, especially if you don't count continuing series.

    In YA the gender character gap is ridiculously big

  17. A trend I've commented on recently is that there's a nice little influx of male writers in kidlit who come from the screenwriting side of things. Greg Taylor (Killer Pizza), Derek Landy (Skulduggery Pleasant), and Charlie Fletcher (Stoneheart, not Charlie Higson as I said above!) are three examples. And there's a TV writer in my local writing group who's a guy...

  18. Hmm...I guess that next time I have a free hour I might go through all the new releases to see how many book feature boys..It would probably be interesting!

    Viz strong female characters--what worries me is that all these strong female characters are going to be overlooked by the boy readers, esepcially the older ones. I know that in my own efforts to get my almost 10 year old boy to read, I pass over books with strong female characters in a desperate attempt to get him to enage with books in general...falling into the "girls read about boys, but boys don't read about girls" sterotype. Sigh.

    vz male screenwriters becoming children's authors--I wonder if they feel more comfortable then your average non screenwriting male because of having an already established identity...

  19. I've thought about this again and again. I think that many more women are teachers and YA librarians,and more of these blog. There DON'T seem to be as many young male bloggers who concentrate on books. I hope that all of the discussion in the kidlitosphere filters through to the publishers, and that we see more BOY books published-- there is such a difference in middle school.

  20. So what we have is a loooong history of books in which only boys have adventures, the girls are there for set decoration, and a very short, very recent history of strong female characters and female authors. It seems a bit soon to be sounding alarms. Read any kidlit agent blog -- almost every one is "actively seeking more boy-centered MG." No doubt this will be swinging the other way soon. In the meantime, we have Iain Lawrence, Christopher Paul Curtis, Rick Riordan and Garth Nix (just to glance at my bookshelf for examples -- I'm sure there are many more!) and several women who write great male characters (Elizabeth Wein, Geraldine McCaughrean, Nancy Farmer), and men like Derek Landy and Garth Nix writing girl characters. And an author friend of mine whose very girl-centered MG book prompts fan mail from boys. Seems to me things are going pretty well.

  21. I agree, mb--it's a great time for girls in fantasy, both as readers, characters, and, for women, as writers.

    But there are some subtle implications that I am bothered by (even though I think there are greater problems facing the world)

    For instance, I'm bothered by thought that great women writers might be being dissuaded (actively by others, or unconsciously, by subtle societal expectations and assumptions) from writing adult sff, leaving that a male dominated field.

    Here's a quote from the Publishers Weekly's announcement of Laini Taylor's new book, (which sounds wonderful) "[Little Brown Books for Young Readers] is promising a significant marketing push for the title, which it believes will have crossover appeal to adults."

    If Laini were a guy, would her book have been marketed straight to grown-ups?

    If a woman starts writing children's and YA sff, and develops a significant reputation in that sub-genre, is it hard, if not impossible, to be published as adult fiction? Harder than for a man in the same circumstances? (Eoin Colfer seems to be doing it without a problem)

    Aside from redressing gender imbalances in adult sff on behalf of women everywhere, is there any reason to want to be shelved in the adult section??? The book would be more likely to win the Hugo or Nebula, and more likely to be read by men. But are there any other advantages?


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