Many of YA’s classic protagonists are so established as to become almost archetypal: Holden Caulfield railing against the phonies, sunny Anne Shirley challenging everyone’s notions of an orphan girl’s fortitude, Brian with his trusty hatchet. But what if we swapped the genders on these characters? With some creative genderbending that we think William Shakespeare would be mighty proud of, we consider how wallflowers, greaser gangs, Indian reservations, and baby-sitters clubs would be changed—or even improved—when you look at things from the other end of (or various points on) the gender spectrum.
Hatchet, by Gary Paulsen
In the 1980s, when this book was written, giving a 13-year-old boy a hatchet as a going-away present before a summer spent in the Canadian wilderness wasn’t be out of place; giving it to a girl would be. Imagine instead a father handing that bladed tool to daughter Brianna, assuming she’ll help her mother cut firewood, never imagining it would become her one means of survival when her plane crash lands. Many of the YA survival-in-the-woods narratives revolve around young men; let’s see how a young woman fares.
The Outsiders, by S.E. Hinton
When you think of “Greasers,” they’re mostly men; The T-Birds’ closest equivalents in Grease were the Pink Ladies, for crying out loud. But women were part of the greaser subculture, proudly wearing the insignia of motorcycle gangs alongside their male counterparts. So it stands to reason we’d want to read Ponygirl Curtis’s account of the turf war between the Greasers and the Socs, how the tragedies that spiral out from a stupid show of territorial control loses her girls Janie and Dally, and how difficult it is to “stay gold.”
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The Baby-Sitters Club, by Ann M. Martin
In pop culture, babysitting is typically coded as a feminine duty, a preparation for womanhood—but for most of the twentieth century, male babysitters were much preferred. From about the 1920s (when the practice of babysitting was established) through the 1990s, teenage boys were considered more reliable than flighty teenage girls, who were stereotyped as ignoring their charges to fool around with their boyfriends. Boys represented reliable male role models for fatherless children, especially other young boys. If you set the Baby-Sitters Club books in any decade but the one in which it was published, it would make more sense that an enterprising group of adolescent boys would set up their own extracurricular caretaking business, and encounter all the same dilemmas (jealousy, peer rivalry, divorce/remarriage, illness) along the way.
The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger
How would you know you weren’t being a phony? The trouble is, you wouldn’t. You really want to tell me a girl can’t be just as obsessed with her peers’ phoniness as a boy? Fakeness is a weapon, something women are conditioned at a young age to be repulsed by. Though the genderqueer Dela (meaning “hollow valley,” same as Holden) probably wouldn’t share Holden’s fears of being perceived as homosexual, or his belief that it’s up to him to save young children from losing their innocence.
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie
Many stories about Native Americans coming of age on reservations shunt women off to the side in supporting roles. Let’s see them front and center: Agnes Spirit, Jr. (named for her mother), struggles with anger issues brought about by the crushing hopelessness of living on the Spokane Indian Reservation. But when acting out at the reservation school results in her transfer to an all-white school, Junior realizes how lonely it is to be the only Indian at her school aside from her mascot—especially when she, on the cheerleading squad, cheers for her new school’s team to beat her former classmates. As the only “nomad” on her reservation, Junior must also witness the tragedies wrought by alcohol abuse while struggling to be a good Indian and American woman.
Anne of Green Gables, by L.M. Montgomery
A middle-aged brother and sister intend to adopt a young girl to help out around their home with cooking, cleaning, and mending… only the orphanage mistakenly sends them a boy. Instead of plucky Anne earning her keep on the Cuthberts’ farm, it would be Andy, who through his imaginative and talkative nature charms the siblings into keeping him around. Just don’t make fun of his red hair…
The Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky
For most of these I’m genderswapping the entire cast of characters, but I personally would want to read a version of Perks where only Charlie is genderbent, and everyone else stays the same. That would tweak each of the dynamics in key ways: Sam taking an interest in Charlie and giving her her first kiss from someone who loves her might help Charlie better relate to the closeted Patrick. Furthermore, there’s something more damning in being a girl who’s a wallflower than a boy, in shrinking away from the scrutinizing gaze of her peers and adults in equal measure; I’d want to see a book like this address a young woman finding her place without the social requirements of prettiness or popularity.
Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson
The television series American Crime is taking on a similar plot to a genderbent Speak in its second season: a boy accuses several members of the basketball team of sexually assaulting him, then posting photos online. It’s interesting that the show’s season premiere opens on the revelation, while in Anderson’s novel it takes much of the book for Melinda to actually articulate the trauma; one wonders that if it were Mel, would he have come forward sooner, or also have had to use art or another avenue to “speak” to the horrors of what happened?
Lord of the Flies, by William Golding
To be fair, Mean Girls already did this, so…Also, see above re: stories of girls surviving the cruelties of nature (which are nothing compared to the cruelties of other humans).