Why I Write Books for Boys (Hint: Because They Need Them)
By Ben Cameron, Feb 8 2018 10:57PM
By SJ Sherwood
The last thing I had intended to do was to write YA Dystopian Trilogy. I had originally planned to write an adult thriller and was almost ready to start the hard work. However, during my planning stage, I had set three questions for my lead character.
1. Who are your mentors?
2. Who do you turn to when you're in trouble?
3. Who can you trust?
As I started to dig into the questions, the answers that emerged made me think about who I really wanted to aim my book at.
I had not had the easiest of childhoods - an alcoholic stepfather and a self-absorbed, chronically angry mother were not the best combination for a happy marriage. I was shipped off to school and what felt like my heart being ripped from my chest as I was separated from my family home, turned out to be a seminal moment in my life. For the first time, I was given real attention and a structure - you know, time keeping, being polite, working hard, that kind of stuff. I also learnt the utmost importance of having positive people in my life.
But I realised, that for many, the above questions aren't so simple, as they wouldn't have been for me before getting sent away to school. I feel lucky that I was cut a break, but living in London, it's not hard to see disillusioned young men, who are more interested in materialism then understanding who they are and what they are capable of as unique individuals. Men no longer seem to have a rite of passage from boyhood to manhood.
They were the catalyst of why I ended up choosing orphans as my main characters - the image of the lost and forgotten. It's why I further isolated them in my dystopian world, and forced them to work together, to have to trust each other when they really wanted to run or even fight as the easier choice. We are all hard wired to be part of a group, a tribe, a basic family structure of some sorts. Ned, my main, protagonist is a contradiction. He's a loner by nature, but he craves friends. He's tough and self-reliant, but he wants to communicate and be part of a tribe. More importantly, he wants to do something with his life and he has to answer the three questions above in order to progress. I love his personal challenge.
The current YA market is dominated by some excellent women writers who pen strong female characters. The market it deep and mature, and sales speak for themselves. But if you look at books for boys in this bracket, they tend to fall into two board categories: your mini-James Bond/ Spy Hero; or the Apocalyptic/ Sci Fi where the lead character is an alpha male and somewhat stereotyped (sorry, fellow writers). Patrick Ness with his Chaos Walking Trilogy and James Dashner with his Maze Runner Series, gave us male characters who were looking to define themselves through the challenges they encountered. But, I feel, that what has followed has been a bit thin on the ground for teenage boys who want to read this type of book.
To date, most of my readers have been YA female teenagers or young women who have been extremely kind with their reviews. However, I'm slowly but surely tapping into those teenage boys who seem to get what I'm trying to say. If, like me, their start wasn't the best but they get a sense that you can pick your mentors, as you can your tribe and friends then I will have achieved something. And if, like Ned, they find that that thinking for themselves and learning to trust their instincts is something they have to develop, then perhaps us men don't need that rite of passage, just a better understanding of who we are.
And if one teenage boy gets to understand that his destiny is his choice and not chance, then, as a storyteller, I've hit my goal and I'll go to sleep a contented man.
SJ Sherwood is the author The Denounced. He grew up in a small town in rural England and spent most of his youth dreaming of escaping to the bright lights of a big city. He eventually made it to London where he writes, enjoys life, and strives to be happy. You can find out more at http://www.sjsherwood.com
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