A few years ago I was rifling through a second hand book shop, and came across, in a dusty little hard-back, a list of ‘Suitable Stories for Girls’. I must admit to being quite entertained to find The Diary of Anne Frank among the entries. Did the (presumably long-dead) compiler even know who Anne Frank was, I wondered? Perhaps he imagined her a kind of 1940s Adrian Mole. How else could this most universal of stories be deemed irrelevant to 50% of the population?
Now older and wiser, with some experience of children’s publishing and two kids of my own to buy books for, I am more appalled than amused, because comparatively little has changed. As recently as 1997, Joanne Rowling could be advised to swap her first name for initials in order to sell books to boys. And a highly unscientific consultation of my sons’ bookshelves reveals only five books with female lead characters:
- Harriet the Spy
- Northern Lights
- The Forbidden Library – and this as someone who has always prided myself on promoting gender-neutral toys and strong female role models.
Of course, it wasn’t this way when we used to read picture books. Very few were overtly aimed at ‘boys’ or ‘girls’ – they were just aimed at children. In fact, the pre-school market is admirably inclusive. Writers and illustrators often go out of their way to depict diverse characters, and everyone – booksellers, publishers, authors, parents – seem to agree that this is a Good Thing.
Why then, when they hit chapter books, are children are presented with a dichotomy: dinosaurs or ponies, Beast Quest or Rainbow Fairies? Yes, children grow up and their tastes change – but I would argue that these tastes are driven by the publishing industry to an unhealthy degree.
As an author trying to make a name for yourself in the world of children’s literature, it is hard to ignore the received wisdom. Boys won’t read a book with a female lead. Children don’t want to read about a character who is younger than they are. Keep your chapters short, don’t make it too complicated, readers don’t want to work too hard… Publishers have the power and you don’t want to do anything to frighten them off. The meteoric success of JKR has hopefully meant that the embargo on using our (female) first names has been lifted – but there are still plenty of other battles that, as a new author, you just don’t feel in a position to fight. You want your novel to be a success. Better err on the side of caution.
But do you also, as a children’s author, have a responsbility to show the world as it is and as it can be? To show girls and women in all their myriad roles, including as the heroines of a range of narratives – not only ones involving unicorns and ballerinas? To show boys battling with everyday problems, as well as battling dragons?
Well, the short answer is no. You have a responsibility to nothing and no-one beyond the integrity of your story. However if, like me, you want to challenge pervasive gender-stereotypes, there are some simple things you can do.
1) Have both male and female main characters. So you’re writing a swash-buckling adventure featuring two unlikely heroes? Are you sure that your daring duo both have to be boys? I’m not talking female sidekick – that’s so old hat, it’s practically a bonnet – I mean a full and equal partner. In my novel Under Loch and Quay, Esther is the older sibling, the adventurous, outdoorsy-type, and Martin is the bookish younger brother (though smart, brave and mouthy enough to be a hero that kids identify with). Other examples are Caroline Lawrence’s Roman Mysteries and Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events.
2) Have ‘real’ female characters. Don’t feel you have to overcompensate by making every girl a tomboy or a feisty skateboarding kickboxer – kids are smart enough to spot a lazy stereotype. Hermione Granger is a good example: netiher tomboy nor ‘girly girl’, she is nonetheless a character we can all recognise instantly, obsessed with grades and unable to keep her hand down in class. Samira al-Abbas, in Rick Riordan’s new Magnus Chase series, is a young muslim teenager whose hijab, rather than defining her, is a magical form of camoflage that enables her to shape-shift and evade danger. These girls’ traits, while specifically female, are also what make them strong.
3) Make incidental characters female: the police sergeant, the fire fighter, the mechanic, the football coach… Ensure your novels pass the Bechdel test. [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bechdel_test]
4) Utilise the power of new media to spread the message. Movements like #letbooksbebooks have helped to challenge the way kids’ books are marketed. As a result of their campaigning, major bookshops and publishers have stopped labelling ‘for boys’ and ‘for girls’ – although non-verbal signals such as pink/blue cover design remain. For now, we as authors are still being told that we need to write for an identified market segment. It’s up to us, collectively, to show that there’s another way – to write for the world we want to see.