Back in February, I posted about the topic I planned to speak on at the conference: comparing YA romances nominated by the Romance Writers of America (RWA) for their annual RITA award to YA romances (or YA books with strong romantic elements) named by the Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA) as Michael L. Printz Award winners or Printz Honor Books. Now that I've completed and given my talk, I thought I would share some of my findings here.
"Top Ten Best Fiction for Young Adults" list, compiled by a separate committee of YA librarians. I wanted to use the same number of books for each of the two groups I studied, and so anxiously waited for the end of March, when the RITA nominees were announced. Surprisingly, there were only four books nominated for RITAs in the YA category (most of the other RITA categories had seven or eight nominees). Finalists must score in the top ten percent of all books submitted, suggesting the pool of YA romances was far smaller that of other RITA categories.
Turning back to the YALSA Top Ten Best Fiction for Young Adults list, then, I selected three additional titles: Alethea Kontis's Enchanted, David Levithan's Every Day, and Maggie Stiefvater's The Raven Boys. None of these books focused exclusively on an adolescent romance, but each contains a strong romance storyline.
Some interesting things to note about these two groups of books:
• All of the YALSA titles were published in hardcover, or simultaneously in hardcover and paperback, while only one of the RITA-nominated titles appeared in hardcover (the one published by Houghton Mifflin). The three RITA romances published by romance houses were issued in paperback.
• While the YALSA books and the RITA-nominees both achieved high scores on reader review sites such as Goodreads and amazon.com, only one RITA nominee received strong praise from professional reviewers (again, the title published by Houghton Mifflin). The other three received lackluster reviews, if they were reviewed at all.
In addition to these general observations, I noticed several important differences between each group of books' depiction of ideal masculinity:
• The male protagonists in the four RITA-nominees are all white. Or at least, readers can assume that they are white, though race is never discussed as a salient category of identity in the books. In contrast, the characters in the YALSA books are more diverse: two Latino boys, and a narrator who wakes up in differently-raced bodies each day, in addition to white characters.
• The boys in both groups, however, reveal emotional vulnerability to their romantic counterparts. Normative American masculinity may push boys not to reveal emotions, or emotional vulnerabilities, but in order for romances to appeal to the largely female reading market, male characters must demonstrate their ability to feel.
• Physical fighting isn't restricted to males, at least not in the RITA books. Two girls fight alongside of their boys, while a third works violence behind the scenes, as an assassin. This might make it appear as if the RITA books offer more positive models of empowered femininity. But this conclusion only works if you accept the equation of strength with physical violence. The YALSA books reject this, not only for their male, but also for their female protagonists.
The overall conclusion of my small study—that librarians who specialize in young adult literature tend to honor books that are far less normative in their depictions of masculinity than do romance writers—is perhaps not surprising. But it is interesting, especially given that the guidelines of the Printz Award specifically note that the judging is based "entirely on its [a book's] literary merit." Librarians are not supposed to allow a book's ideology to influence their decision, yet this comparison shows that questions of content and ideology are often part and parcel of judging a book's literary merit.
And it is disappointing that YA romance writers, for whom "literary merit" is not as much at issue as it is for librarians, prove far less willing to embrace masculinities that depart from the norm. During the past decade, a substantial body of romance fiction grounded in feminist principles has been written for adults. Yet if a teen girl wishes to read romances that offer alternatives to a normative masculinity, a masculinity heavily invested in proving the dominance of males by eroticizing the subjection of girls, she'll still do far better if she looks to the books nominated by YALSA than to the ones held up as exemplary by RWA.
Do you think these patterns will remain constant over the next few years' cycle of awards?
Next time on RNFF:
Feminism and Revenge in Lori Austin's
Beauty and the Bounty Hunter