Friday, January 4, 2013

Realistic Girls and Fantastic Boys? Middle Grade Fantasy, Realistic Fiction, and the Great Gender Divide

One of the very first books my now eight year old daughter loved was called Ruby Bridges Goes to School. Even before she could read well, she would return again and again to this slim volume, turning the pages reverently, frowning at the hateful expressions of pro-segregation racists, smiling as she contemplated the bravery of this ‘real little girl.’

At the time, I thought that perhaps it was the similarity of their ages. Ruby was an entering first grader, as was my daughter. She was a girl of color, also like my child. But Ruby lived in such a different time, and struggled against such overt, violent racism. What did my daughter find so compelling about this book, that she preferred it to most others – including bookshelves full of fairy tales and princess stories?

Now, a few years and any number of books later, my big reader eight year old still gravitates to fiction and nonfiction exploring the lives of ‘real little girls.’ Unlike her older brother, who launched quickly from early chapter books into fantasy series like Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, Artemis Fowl, Septimus Heap, and the like, my daughter craves stories about realistic girl protagonists. I was at first a bit flabbergasted at her lack of attraction for fantasy – a genre her mother and brother both adore. In fact, my current middle grade novel is a fantasy adventure based on Indian folk-tales, and starring, you guessed it, a middle grade girl protagonist. So why doesn’t my daughter enjoy the genre I so love?

As a parent, pediatrician, and feminist activist, I’ve always struggled against the notion that there even is such a thing as a ‘girl book’ or a ‘boy book.’ In fact, my beliefs had been seemingly verified out by my son, who as readily consumes male protagonist fantasy as he does more ‘realistic’ stories with girl main characters such as the Ramona books or Little House on the Prairie series.

Yet, there is clearly a message being sent. And it’s through the eyes of my daughter that I am finally able to see it. With the notable exception of Harry Potter’s Hermione (whom my daughter loves), there are few central female characters in middle grade fantasy novels. If literature is a mirror – an opportunity to show children a reflection of their own lives and their own experiences (or approximations of their own lives and own experiences), then what is happening for my daughter is obvious. While she was able to see herself even in the struggles of a girl who lived in such a different time, like Ruby Bridges, she is unable to see herself in most of the the fantasy novels that populate the bookshelves in her house.

Even the names of each of her brother’s favorite series send out the message loud and clear – fantasy is a boy’s genre. Or at least a genre dominated by boy protagonists. And it’s certainly not because women aren’t writing fantasy. As this blog entitled Finding Female in Middle Grade Fantasy notes:
“Even fantasy books written by women have mostly male protagonists: Rowan of Rin by Emily Rhodda, Dragon Rider by Cornelia Funke, The Spiderwick Chronicles by Holly Black, Septimus Heap by Angie Sage, and The Unnamables by Ellen Booream. And among those books with females heroines, most are paired alongside boy heroes, such as A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snickett, Fablehaven by Brandon Mull, Rick Riordan’s The Kane Chronicles, and of course, Rowling’s Harry Potter.

To read the rest of this essay, please visit From the Mixed Up Files of Middle Grade Authors!

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