In March, award-winning middle-grade author Katherine Marsh set online kid-lit communities on fire with a frank post on the Nerd Daily website about the preferential treatment of—and entitled behavior by—male authors in a largely female-dominated industry. Her remarks reminded me of an exchange I had with Jennifer Sweeney, a librarian in Rosendale, New York, about a type of book that’s all too prevalent. Jennifer wrote to me:

“Personally, I am over books about middle-class white boys characterized as ‘mischievous’ who really come across as borderline sociopathic. As a mom of boys, I’ve sat them down and (gently) lectured [them] that everyone needs to take accountability for their actions. These types of books seem to quietly validate the insidious notion of ‘boys will be boys.’ If reading fiction is supposed to help build empathy, these books strike me as doing just the opposite and reinforcing white privilege and male entitlement (like it even needs any reinforcement).”

It’s not that middle-class white boys shouldn’t get to be gleefully childish, of course. But the world too rarely affords anyone else this freedom (in books or in real life). Indeed, I’ve noticed a striking pattern in which the feckless white boy protagonist is kept in check by an uber-responsible, hyper-competent girl sidekick, a dynamic that troublingly foreshadows the unequal division of emotional and cognitive labor in many straight relationships.

YA books such as Louise Finch’s remarkable 2023 Kirkus Prize finalist, The Eternal Return of Clara Hart—which unpacks toxic masculinity in accessible and engaging ways that speak directly to boy readers—are still vanishingly rare. Of course, people of any gender can enjoy any book: I wish I’d been able to recommend Finch’s novel several years ago, when I was speaking with a frustrated teacher who was trying to disrupt boys’ disturbingly misogynistic behavior while some of the girls defended them as “just joking around.” Still, there’s a stark contrast between the abundance of books about girls actively engaging with gender norms and the relative dearth of ones about boys doing the same—books that would hold up mirrors to boys and reflect their emotional lives and relationships. That lack makes the following new releases all the more valuable.

Strong Like You by T.L. Simpson (Flux, March 12): “I haven’t cried one time since you disappeared”: An Arkansas high school football player’s search for his absent father takes him on a profound emotional journey.

Safe Passage by G. Neri, illustrated by David Brame (Tu Books, March 26): In this graphic novel, a boy navigating dangerous, gang-controlled neighborhoods in Chicago grapples with pressures from his social media–influenced best friend and with his loving stepfather’s advice.

Brock, Pike, Rook, and Lark by Anthony McGowan (Union Square & Co., April 2): These interconnected novels explore with honesty and heart the complex relationships between two brothers, one with developmental delays, and their single dad. (Read an interview with McGowan.)

Escape From St. Hell by Lewis Hancox (Graphix/Scholastic, May 7): This graphic memoir, which follows a teen’s coming out as trans as he figures out how to remain true to himself, unpacks messages about being a “real man.”

Laura Simeon is a young readers’ editor.