I’ll admit, I’m quite proud of the paperback design of my book. My publishers did a fantastic job. I believe the color scheme is really fun, the description is intriguing, and my name is in a funky font that I wish I could use all the time.
But my name is Maya.
And my book is pink.
And for these stupid, irrelevant reasons, boys get teased for carrying Popular around at school. They hide it under their desks or have their sisters check it out for them at the library. My own brother read it at night so his classmates wouldn’t see him with it. This seems to be a recurring theme.
When Popular came out in the UK, I traveled to London for a three-day publicity tour. I was asked to be on BBC Channel Four news. At the last minute they brought in a well-known journalist to discuss her take on my book after only skimming the synopsis. Her only complaint was that there should be a self-help book directed toward young boys and not just girls. I was fifteen at the time, and terrified to be on television, so I stammered some response about how I hoped my book had messages for everyone who wanted to read it.
It was only after the cameras stopped rolling that I really thought about what she’d said. And I wished I’d given a different response. I wished I would’ve asked her why.
Why does there have to be an entirely different book devoted to boys when a lot of the advice I gave was convertible if not universal for both genders? Why can’t a boy read a book written by and about a girl when all my childhood I read books written by and about boys? Oliver Twist and The Hobbit weren’t overflowing with female characters, but that didn’t mean I didn’t fall in love with the stories, learn from the male protagonists, enjoy the adventures. Why can’t boys feel confident picking up copies of Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret? by Judy Blume or Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson? If girls can learn things from these books surely boys could too, right? And vice versa! Why is it that there are whole articles devoted to listing “Best Boy Books” and “Best Girl Books” instead of just “Best Books”? Girls can love Lord of the Flies. Boys can be obsessed with Nancy Drew. Why is it such a big deal?
And maybe it’s good that I didn’t say all of this in the television segment, because unfortunately I don’t think there’s an easy answer to any of if, at least nothing that could be resolved in my allotted three minutes. The upsetting thing is that it’s a conundrum with an incredibly simple solution. Let people read what they want to read. That’s it.
But then again, I was blessed with great parents and open-minded librarians who never told me “That book is not for you” and handed me something “more appropriate for a girl.” So I never felt limited in my literary options. I could read stories about princesses or monsters or both! And I loved every second of it. But unfortunately that isn’t the case for every kid.
So for all the girls whose backpacks are full of sports novels and scouting adventures, for all the boys who read Popular and any book with pink on the cover, don’t let anyone convince you that what you want to read wasn’t written for you. Because as an author, I can tell you that we write for whoever pulls that book off the shelf. And young or old, girl or boy, we’ll always be happy you enjoyed it. Promise.
Maya Van Wagenen is seventeen years old. At age 15 she published Popular, her New York Times bestselling memoir of her 8th grade year. Maya was named one of Time Magazines most influential teenagers. She currently lives with her parents and two siblings in rural Georgia.