YA is known for tackling timely social issues, so it’s no surprise that recent years have seen a tremendous rise in the number of titles with #MeToo themes. They center the journeys of strong female protagonists and are rightfully praised for being relevant and necessary; I only dream of the day when they are curious historical relics and young readers scratch their heads in disbelief that such stories were ever needed.
However, these books are only part of the story. There has long been a need for works that speak directly to young men who may not know how to recognize, let alone push back against, toxic masculinity. Fortunately, three titles coming out this winter help fill this gap, in the process deepening and enriching the pool of stories available to teen readers. They fill a critical hole in the literature, and I hope that they will be widely read and discussed.
Now That We’re Men: A Play and True Life Accounts of Boys, Sex & Power,edited by Katie Cappiello (Dottir Press, Jan. 14), blends a theatrical script—featuring five New York City high school boys talking about gender and sexuality—with tools for educators, including tips for leading conversations, discussion prompts, and advice for using the play in English classrooms. The second half of the book contains personal essays, monologues, and interviews by contributors of many different backgrounds—including Eve Ensler and young men from the original cast—reflecting on consent, gamer culture, male bonding, porn, and related subjects. This is a rich resource with potential to support courageous exploration among high school and college students.
A hilarious, insightful book to hand to every high schooler you know is Not So Pure and Simple by Lamar Giles (HarperTeen, Jan. 21). Giles is known for his YA mysteries and thrillers, but he moves with ease into realistic fiction, focusing here on a young man who accidentally signs up for a purity pledge at church while daydreaming over his unrequited crush. Meanwhile, his older sister has become a popular feminist vlogger challenging many of the messages he has absorbed. Del is charming and believable—and he’s surrounded by peers who are doing their best in a world where adults’ expectations can be baffling and contradictory. This accessible, engaging book is a sheer pleasure to read, and the insights and revelations around toxic masculinity are all the more potent for being delivered with a light touch. It’s an ideal book club choice.
The titular character in The New David Espinoza by Fred Aceves (HarperTeen, Feb. 11) struggles with muscle dysmorphia. It’s still all too rare to encounter a treatment of what happens to boys who succumb to eating and body image disorders. This #ownvoices title, written by an author who knows the pain of this experience firsthand, is a gift to teens. A particularly cruel incident of bullying motivates David to try to change his naturally skinny physique, but the bodybuilding world leads him into a steroid addiction that alienates him from supportive relationships. Toxic masculinity is an inherent part of David’s battle—what does it mean to be strong? To be a man? This intense book does not shy away from honestly portraying this often unrecognized condition and the ways it is intertwined with societal messages. It will leave an indelible impact on readers.
Laura Simeon is the young adult editor.