Blurring the Boundaries: Writing Fiction for Boys and Girls (Yona Zeldis McDonough)

I am girly-girl writer.  There, Ive just come out and said it.  Although Ive written bios for kids that appeal to both boys and girlsmany of them in the popular WHO WAS seriesmy real love is girl-friendly stories and the fact that no fewer than five of my childrens books have have the words doll or doll house in the title reaffirms that contention.
          I never saw this as a particular problem or even issue to be addressed.  Subsets in the childrens audience abound, as the fans of mystery, dystopia, humor and fantasy can happily attest.  So writing books that appealed chiefly to girls didnt seem like an issue to me.
          But a chance meeting with an editor from BoysLife was the first chip in my frilly, feminine facade. We had been invited to speak on a panel together and when it was over, she encouraged me, strongly, to consider writing fiction for the magazine.  I was flattered but didnt think I was up to the task.  Writing for a specifically boys market was alien to my sensibilities and I wasnt confident I could do it. But an invitation from an editor is nothing to sneeze at and I began to play around with some ideas, eventually settling on a story set in 1941 that was slated for the December, 2016 issue.  That was the 75th anniversary of the Japanese invasion of Pearl Harbor and in my story, a 12 year old boy finds himself defending his best friend, Kenzo, whose Japanese family had arrived in the United States some ten years prior and who owned the fish store in town. It was about the need for facing down prejudice and bigotry and it advanced a message of tolerance and acceptance.  The editor liked the story and asked for others, which I happily provided. 
So when I was tapped by an editor from Scholastic to write what eventually became The Bicycle Spy, I had already taken some tentative steps across the gender line. Scholastic wanted a book about a 13 year old boy who lives in the Southwest of France during World War II. His parents own the bakery in town, and unbeknownst to him, are members of the French Resistancehes been delivering their messages that have been baked into loaves of bread.  Hes an avid cyclist and fan of the Tour de Francesuspended during the war yearsand bicycling was to play a major role in the story, which was also to involve helping the family of a new friend to escape.   These were the bare bonesthe rest was up to me.
          I now had the task of writing a book whose primary audience would be boys, a much more challenging and complex task than writing a 1200 word magazine story.   If I was going to succeed, I needed to widen and expand my range as a writer and I was nervous.  Yes, I had written boy protagonists, but always in the short run.  Could I sustain a boys point of view and hope to engage boy readers for a whole chapter book? I would soon find out.
          To my surprise, I found the task less daunting and more exciting than I expected.  I wanted to make my protagonist Marcel appealing and relatable, so I turned him into an unlikely hero: small for his age, bespectacled and sometimes the target of the class bullys teasing and aggression.  Marcel loses to his best friend in a game of chess, flubs the occasional answer in class and dreams constantly of being stronger, taller and fasterlike the winners of the bicycle race he reveres. And yet, for all his flaws, hes also shown to be brave, loyal and determined. 
          As Marcels story evolved in my mind, I realized I wanted it to include a female component, something that would appeal to girls as well as boys.  And so I began to develop the character of Delphine Gillette, the new girl at school who loves cycling as much as he does and is revealed, midway through, to be Jewish.  Her family has escaped from Paris and is hiding out in this small town, protected by the false papers her father has been able to procure.  But when the Nazi presence intensifies, Marcel learns that the papers of the residents, particularly those newly arrived, are going to be scrutinized carefully. Delphine and her family are no longer safe.  They will need to escape again and it is Marcel who is instrumental in the daring plot to help them towards freedom.
          As I wrote, I tried to keep the concerns of both boys and girls in mind. I knew that boys would enjoy the suspense aspects of the story, the coded messages, and the workings of the Resistance movement, as well as the descriptions of both the occupying soldiers and the French gendarmes who supported them.  I also made sure to include details about Marcels relationship to his parentshis mothers worry and occasional tendency to nag, his fathers pride in his courageas well as the ones with his friends.  For the girl readers, I explored Delphines experiences as the new girl in town, her efforts to fit in and be liked as well as her spunk and her courage.  I also included references to the clothes she worebecause yes, girls do careand her affection for her pet cat.
          But I also began to notice a certain blurring of gender lines and realized that ultimately the concerns of these two characters were more alike than different. They both loved cycling, worried about their place in the social pecking order, and had to deal with parental expectations. Both faced the awful upheavals of war and fear of the future.
           I had started out thinking that boys would relate to Marcel, and girls to Delphine; I came to see that each of these characters would have appeal for the other gender. Its a revelation that I hope to carry with me when I approach my as-yet-unwritten next book.  Writing for boys taught me something about writing for girls and I am glad to have discovered that that universe of fiction is far broader and more inclusive than I had formerly imagined.

Yona is giving away one signed copy of THE BICYCLE SPY and one free Skype visit! Just fill out the form below to enter. If the form's not working for you, just leave a comment here--be sure to indicate whether you'd like a copy of the book or a visit!

Also, be sure to visit Yona online at her author site.

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  1. I really enjoyed hearing about your "evolution" into writing for boys. LOVE historical fiction!

    1. Thanks for being in touch! I'm always happy to hear from other historical fiction lovers. :-)

  2. This sounds like a really good book. I love historical fiction

  3. So do I! It was my favorite when I was a child. You too?
    Thanks for writing.


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