I’ve just read that people are looking for books with female characters that will engage boys because, apparently, there’s a belief that boys don’t want to read books where the main character is female? To the extent that this year — 2016, no less — US author Caroline Paul writes about how 8th grade boys had been “excused” from Shannon Hale’s author talk in school, because the main character was a girl. Apparently one 3rd grade boy seemed ashamed to be seen as interested in “girls’ books”. Whether or not this is an accurate interpretation of most children’s feelings, the idea is certainly real in adult minds and if we leave it there, we run the risk of planting it into children.
My first thought was that this has to be ridiculous. How many girls grow up enjoying honey with Winnie-the-Pooh, flying with Peter Pan, sprinting from Efrafans with Holly and Bigwig, or shouting “Wingardium leviosa!” with Harry Potter? Black Beauty wasn’t dismissed by generations of girls just because he was male. Are we saying that our boys have less flexible imaginations? That’s not my experience.
As a little girl, I devoured books and engaged with whichever character had the most appeal (usually the best magical skills). I was a little offbeat and didn’t always follow the MC, but it wasn’t gender driven. If I’d been in Hogwarts, I’d have been Hagrid before Potter… in Skellig, I’d have been Skellig rather than Michael. But I wouldn’t have needed to be Hermione, Mina, or anyone’s mum.
When I read as a child or young adult, I was neither female nor male; just a spirit, essence of me being absorbed into the story. I was happy to become male, non-human, or fantastical, and I loved flexing the suppleness of my green-stick identity to become someone or something else. My children appear to be the same.
I don’t believe we should write boy MCs for boys, or girl MCs for girls, I don’t even really believe we should overly encourage children to imagine being someone else — even that speaks of “other”. I think we should just hand out books and let them get on with it. As Hale says, kids aren’t born ashamed.
If we give our youngest boys the books that contain the best stories, they will read them. There are lovely books out there for the very young that include male, female, and group MCs.
Looking to the female MCs for a moment, there are fairy and folk tales: Little Red Riding Hood, Hansel and Gretel, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Grimms’ The Goose Girl, the Selkie tales, and the old Greek myths, to name a few. (OK, a few stereotypes, but we can talk through that later.) Modern stories include Polly Faber’s Mango and Bambang: The Not-a-Pig, and Julia Donaldson does a nice line in female MCs with Gruffalo’s Child, Room on the Broom, and A Squash and A Squeeze. Heading up the age ranges, there’s Dahl’s Matilda, while Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events spans a series of books with 3 MCs; two girls and a boy. Classics include Charlotte’s Web (nice), the Narnia tales (two girls and two boys), Alice in Wonderland, and more recently, stories such as Baker’s Magic by Diane Zahler (female orphan MC plus delicious magical bun recipe included in the back, because boys like cake too). And so it goes, right on up to The Hunger Games. Katniss not cool enough for boys? She’s cool enough for mine.
There are far more decent female-MC books than I’m going to list here, but YA author Lou Morgan has produced a list of books containing female MCs that may appeal to boys (8-11y). Do head over there and add to the list — and every other such list we can find.
It’s essential that we don’t turn outdated adult prejudices into self-fulfilling prophesies about our children; our boys are fully capable of imagination, empathy, interest, and spectacular writing of their own. They need to choose what they read unhindered by adult expectation or prejudice. They should be free to fly on their own imaginations, to become whoever they want for a few hours at a time.
They deserve the same magic as girls.