Quickhit: Librarian whines about girls in kidlit

Via pharaoh-katt, librarian Diantha McBride has a complaint about the number of girls there are in kidlit. Is she having trouble finding good books with interesting female protagonists?

No. She is whinging that not enough boys feature in kidlit. She seems particularly appalled that there are female protagonists in books that aren’t specifically about female topics. Whatever they are. Shopping and boys, I guess? Ponies? Glitter makeup? How dare girls feature in books about boystuff, like adventure and mystery? Boys must have manly role models! They can’t be expected to relate to those freaky cootie-wielding hormone-laden chicks!

Read for yourself. Excerpted:

Dear Publishers: […]

Still, there are many things I wish publishers would do differently, things that could make your books much better. Here are my top 10 suggestions. […]

5. More boy books.

I’m afraid this won’t be popular, but I need more books for boys—as do most librarians who work with young people. I’ve noticed that lots of books with female characters aren’t really about being female. In fact, in many cases, the main characters could just as easily have been males—and that would make my job a lot easier. Our young guys love Anthony Horowitz’s “Alex Rider” series (Philomel), Dav Pilkey’s stuff, and Jonathan London and Frank Remkiewicz’s “Froggy” books (Viking). But a novel like Ann Halam’s Siberia (Random House, 2005) could have included a male protagonist. (Sorry, Ann, but it’s true.) And Gloria Whelan’s The Impossible Journey (HarperCollins, 2003) could have featured an older brother and a younger sister—instead of 13-year-old Marya and her younger brother, Georgi. Am I being silly? Probably, but some of our boys have never read a complete book in their lives. It’s important to offer them good, appealing stories, and, sad to say, that means stories with prominent male characters.

For perspective, the Telegraph published an (Anglocentric) Top 50 Children’s Books list last year. Here’s the top twenty.

1 The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, C S Lewis

2 The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Eric Carle

3 Famous Five series, Enid Blyton

4 Winnie the Pooh, AA Milne

5 The BFG, Roald Dahl

6 Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince, J K Rowling

7 The Faraway Tree, Enid Blyton

8 The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame

9 Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll

10 The Gruffalo, Julia Donaldson

11 The Tales of Peter Rabbit, Beatrix Potter

12 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Roald Dahl

13 Matilda, Roald Dahl

14 The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett

15 The Cat in the Hat, Dr Seuss

16 The Twits, Roald Dahl

17 Mr Men, Roger Hargreaves

18 A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens

19 The Malory Towers Series, Enid Blyton

20 Peter Pan, J M Barrie



Categories: education, gender & feminism

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18 replies

  1. Girls must learn to accept a world with boys as protagonists ASAP, and boys must never think that they might be supporting players in a girl’s story! Why, the little darlings might get entirely the wrong idea about how the world works?
    (And she doesn’t like “Does My Head Look Big In This?” as a title? That’s a brilliant title!)

  2. And from the first comment currently posted to the article (they’re shown in reverse chronological order):
    …Here’s a typical email comment I receive, “Hi, I’m the mom of a 13 year old boy who has a hard time finding books he likes. He loves your books. While browsing the bookstores, I have found so many books that sound like they are right up his alley. The only problem is that almost all the protagonists are girls! How are we supposed to turn our boys on to reading when the main characters are girls? It is well known that girls will read books with boys as main characters, but not the other way around. (Not that I think that’s right, just that it is the way it is.)”

    If it weren’t so damn frustrating and rage-inducing, it’d be interesting to watch the other mental knots the woman who supposedly wrote to this commenter puts herself into, to maintain the world As It Is.

  3. I’m utterly gobsmacked. Um, satire?

  4. Anytime women or girls come even remotely close to 50% of any group, they are perceived as wildly dominating it. When you look at kid’s fiction, especially anything action adventure, there is not a preponderance of girl protagonists. But they do exist, THEY EXIST, and boys should not be encouraged to read them! After all, what if they get the idea that girls can be interesting and often feel the same feelings that boys do? What if they discover that there are situations where boys and girls behave the same way? THE HORROR!

  5. It makes me sad that the Harry Potter series, had it been the Hermione Granger series, wouldn’t have made JKR so successful.
    *sigh*
    I mean, this is why I think there is so much Mary Sue fic around HP, LotR, and other fantasy/adventure stories. How else are girls supposed to see themselves in the story?

  6. And yet, if listening to YA author Tamora Pierce is any indication, kidlit still has a majority of male heroes. People are just finally writing stories that are worthwhile to people of both genders using female characters, instead of only writing about dresses and tea parties and being rescued by dashing princes.

  7. They must be freaking kidding me. I work in a bookstore, and the books that we sell the most out of the Middle Reader and Teen sections all have male protagonists. The only exception is Twilight, but the damn thing is so anti-feminist that it doesn’t count. If a girl is a protagonist in any of the books, the book has to be about high school, romance, vampires, or horses. Boys get to do cool things like defeat dark wizards, travel through time, meet Greek gods, and live in graveyards. Girls? Not so much.
    Really, if anything, there needs to be more girls in children’s literature, especially as the protagonists of action or fantasy series. The only books I can think of off the topic of my head that we’ve sold a lot of that didn’t have a male protagonist and were action or fantasy where Hunger Games, Eon, and Graceling. None of which, I might add, did anywhere near as well as series with male protagonists.
    Gah, that crap pisses me off. These people have no idea how hard it is to find a decent series in children’s lit (let alone adult lit) with good female characters that are well written.

  8. See, I think the librarian is seeing a real phenomenon (girls devouring books with female protagonists while boys are less enthused about books generally) and misattributing the reason.
    It’s not that there are so many books with strong and capable female protagonists and so few books with strong and capable male protagonists, it’s that narratives with strong and capable male protagonists are all around us, so why should boys be especially enthused about finding those narratives in books? Whereas girls often have very few other sources of narratives with strong and capable female protagonists.

  9. I think you have it tigtog.

  10. xxblaze.wordpress.com/@7
    Try Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, Isobel Carmody’s Obernewtyn series, various books by Diana Wynne Jones (including Hexwood, House of Many Ways, Howl’s Moving Castle, The Game, The Time of the Ghost, Aunt Maria), Neil Gaiman’s Coraline, Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, Garth Nix’s Abhorsen trilogy.
    All well written, all with a female protagonist.

  11. Oh, and also Isobel Carmody’s Billy Thunder and the Night Gate and The Winter Door.

  12. I read this post this morning and it’s been niggling at me all day. I think I have an urge to talk through this librarian’s complaint with her, and see if she actually realises what her point seems to be. Because the reading I get is that she thinks that books for kids should either be a) about girlie things that boys don’t like, in which case it’s ok for them to have a female protagonist, because boys won’t read it anyway or b) have a male protagonist, presumably on the (common) assumption that both girls and boys will read that, while boys can’t be expected to read a story with a girl in it.
    This upsets me for two reasons: 1) the idea that someone who hasn’t stopped to think about what books actually teach children should be allowed to have anything to do with their education, and 2) the hideous, sloppy assumption made routinely in all kinds of media that if there is a problem (here, boys not reading novels) the cause is that women have begun to have a presence similar to that permitted to men, rather than the cause being that things haven’t changed enough (here, to boys being taught that what happens to girls is no less important or interesting than what happens to boys).

  13. Tangentally, I was given a book to review about some obnoxious young poseur called Percy Jackson (if memory serves), and I would like to nominate it for some kind of Casually Blundering Offensiveness award. Don’t give this to your son as cunning blend of adventure and Greek mythology with a male protagonist, unless you want him well schooled in castration anxieties and careless racism.

  14. It makes me sad that the Harry Potter series, had it been the Hermione Granger series, wouldn’t have made JKR so successful.

    My reading of the Harry Potter series was egged on by seeing what Hermione did next to save Harry and Ron from themselves. Harry is an accidental hero, Hermione’s the real thing – a strong, confident young woman who has thrilling adventures. Though I do squirm a bit when the strong confident woman (Hermione) has an incompetent man as her foil (Hermione has Harry and Ron).
    Perhaps we need some more books along the lines of the “Hardy Boys Adventures”, where the protagonists are a brother and sister pair (twins, just so we don’t have ageist/rank issues) where the sister is the gung-ho achiever (but still wears dresses sometimes, to diffuse accusations that she’s teaching our daughters to be lesbians, like George in the Famous Five) and the brother is the one who comes up with clever schemes to extricate themselves from whatever predicament they’ve found themselves in today. Show kids that it’s wonderful for girls to be strong, and it’s excellent for boys to be intellectual.
    Or perhaps the boys aren’t reading books because they get beaten up by the bullies if they have books in their possession. When I was at school I made a habit of finding a new hiding spot each day, so the boys wouldn’t beat up on an easy target and the girls wouldn’t hunt me down to make lewd comments (their form of teasing me for being un-manly was to proposition me – they’d go away happy that they’d used their bad words at someone, and believing that I refused the BJs because I was weak or unmanly. In the meantime I’d get to read my book in peace).
    TL;DR version: I’m a lecherous old man and I love reading about strong confident women (I was lecherous back in my school days too, the “old” is the only thing that’s changed, I’ve always loved reading stories with female protagonists). And I suspect there are non-literary reasons for boys not reading books.

  15. “Anytime women or girls come even remotely close to 50% of any group, they are perceived as wildly dominating it. ”
    Exactly this.

    My reading of the Harry Potter series was egged on by seeing what Hermione did next to save Harry and Ron from themselves.

    An interesting observation – I might make a point of quietly noting this in discussions around Harry Potter while I’m reading with my son, and see what his take on it is.

  16. I did see a poster for the new movie with only Hermoine on it. Unfortunately I think it was more for the “phwoar she’s all growed up” factor than anything else. Everything she was wearing was quite tight.

  17. Perhaps we need some more books … where the sister is the gung-ho achiever (but still wears dresses sometimes, to diffuse accusations that she’s teaching our daughters to be lesbians, like George in the Famous Five) and the brother is the one who comes up with clever schemes to extricate themselves from whatever predicament they’ve found themselves in today. Show kids that it’s wonderful for girls to be strong, and it’s excellent for boys to be intellectual.
    Have you checked out A Series of Unfortunate Events? All three of the Baudelaire orphans are involved in thinking up schemes and enacting them in exciting (albeit rather kid-Gothic) adventures, but the middle child, Klaus, is the bookish, thoughtful one. Violet, the eldest, invents (and BUILDS) things as her special talent, and the youngest, Sunny (a girl) is often the most physically active of the three, and can bites things rather well. Much is made in at least one of the books that none of the children can replicate their siblings’ talent as well as their ‘owners’ can.

  18. Manicdee and Lauredhel, I’d been quite struck by my sweetie’s observation about girls in contemporary stories, which is basically that they’re sidekicks, most of the time, even though they are pretty much actually the heroes. They’re allowed to, like, do stuff. They tend to be smart and understand people and be brave and active and physical and… well, actually they would kinda be the hero, except that, oh wait, the *boy* is the hero. In fact, the boy tends to be the hero not on the basis of being smart and wise and brave and strong, but on account of being *chosen*. It always did irritate me in the HP books that Hermione occasionally points out that Harry is ‘a better wizard’, because, really, while Ron and Harry roll their eyes and exchange looks and generally demonstrate that her smarts make them uncomfortable , Hermione seems to me to be total hero material (‘cept for that pesky vagina, o’ course), and I don’t recall a moment when she lacked witchy ability…
    But on another note entirely, I’m intrigued by how kids are meant to identify with characters on the basis of their sex (actually, I am intrigued by how *everyone* is meant to identify with characters on the basis of their sex, which is why people think it’s so weird that women watched Queer As Folk, for e.g.). And we do seem to encourage children to a) identify with characters (rather than, say, ‘befriend’ them or whatev: it’s all about similarity between reader and character) and b) on the basis of sex (esp. in the books we give/rec to kids). Which is kinda… interesting, given the diversity of male and female characters out there. And that kinda makes me wonder whether these boys who don’t read (who I actually think everyone above is right about: they don’t read for reasons other than the content of the books) aren’t reading because they don’t particularly like ‘boy’ books. 😉 Anyhoo. Rambly thoughts.

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