In a genre dominated by teen girls, White Flight is a high-interest young adult novel written specifically for teen boys.
by Christopher Paslay
Let’s face it: Young adult literature is dominated by girls. A quick peek at Amazon’s teen list proves this fact (as does Goodreads, and the Young Adult Library Services Association). The large majority of YA books are written by women, represented by female literary agents, purchased and promoted by female editors, and read by girls. I’m not suggesting the industry is sexist, as many so-called “social justice” activists would if the situation were reversed and boys dominated the YA lists. No; the fact that the ladies rule the teen book kingdom is due to something called the free market—AKA supply and demand. For the most part, when it comes to fiction and literature, girls buy and read books, and boys don’t.
In 2014, I experienced this reality firsthand. Sara Megibow, an agent at KT Literary, read my manuscript for White Flight and agreed to represent me; KT Literary is an agency that specializes in juvenile and YA literature, is run and operated by five agents (all women), and has a total of 81 clients (65 of them women). To my delight, Sara was very interested in my novel, and felt confident she could sell it relatively quickly to one of the Big Five publishers—either Hachette Book Group, HarperCollins, Macmillan Publishers, Penguin Random House, or Simon and Schuster. After all, she’d made these kinds of deals before. Multiple times, in fact. Plus, KT was non-fee charging (as are all reputable literary agencies), so if she didn’t sell it, she didn’t get paid.
So I signed a contract and Sara started shopping White Flight around the big houses in New York. She sent it to Sharyn November at Viking/Penguin. And she passed. Joy Peskin at FSG/ Macmillan. And she passed. Sara Sargent at Simon Pulse/ S&S. And she passed. Connie Hsu at Roaring Brook/Macmillan. And she passed. In fact, after nearly nine months of shopping the book, Sara was 0 for 21. Sara loved the novel and believed in it, but the publishers weren’t biting.
Interestingly, nearly all of the purchasing editors at these houses were white females (like Sara and her partners at KT Literary), and all of these editors talked incessantly about diversity and social justice, and how they wanted to expand YA literature to be more inclusive of all races and socioeconomic backgrounds.
Yet when these white female purchasing editors were offered a novel about two teen boys from Philadelphia—one white, one black—who confront racism, sexual assault, aggressive police officers, and try to reverse the deterioration of their neighborhood by testifying against a known drug dealer who committed first-degree murder, they didn’t get it.
It’s too edgy, they said. Too much about crime and neighborhood disputes. Lost on them were the themes of white flight and communities sticking together; confronting the no-snitch mentality; the peer pressure involved with snitching (and the differing viewpoints from a social and racial standpoint); street fights; and the biggest no-no for boys: being viewed as soft by your friends. These editors wanted diversity and social justice—they wanted to expand YA literature to be more inclusive—but only as long as it conformed to their sheltered, over-simplified, cookie-cutter version of “diversity,” with all the standard cheeseball stereotypes. Basically, they wanted a liberal, white, suburban female version of “diversity,” one custom made for, well, liberal white suburban females. And why not? That’s what the YA market demands.
The tragedy is that teen boys (especially minority boys who don’t like to read) get left out. Not always, but most of the time; again, just look at the YA lists. The tragedy is that a decent little book like White Flight can’t get into the hands of teen boys who’d actually appreciate (and enjoy) reading it. After thinking about this for nearly three years, I’ve decided to self-publish White Flight via Amazon Direct Publishing, and see if I can get some of these reluctant male readers reading. The book is now available in the Amazon Kindle store for $2.99, and the paper back is only $6.99 (the paperback will be available within the week). I am donating all profits to Swenson High School’s track team, to pay for new uniforms and entry fees to invitational track meets.
With permission from my principal, I’d like to pilot the book in my Drama class this semester, and see how students respond. Below is a link to the ebook on Amazon (the paperback will be available soon), and any teacher interested in previewing the book can read a summary and the first 25 pages for free. One advantage of the novel is that it is written in verse—82 interconnected poems—each of which can be studied or analyzed as an individual activity or lesson.
Thanks for reading. And if you find White Flight to be useful or a good fit for your students, please pass the word along to your fellow educators.