Invisible, Insipid or Intelligent sidekick: the girl character in modern kid’s literature

I’m reading a fast paced series of kid’s books at the moment. The central character can become a dragon, his best friend becomes an ogre and two others boys become a centaur and a giant lizard. When I started reading the series I was hoping for girl characters with strong exciting creature roles too. I was disappointed when the first girl grew fairy wings and the next became invisible. Later on the fairy managed to successfully shrink. Two other girl characters do better in the creature lottery, but it could be said that these stories are strongly codified to reinforce the idea that girls are weak, that their best defence mechanism is not to be noticed, and that being small and on the side-lines is where girls belong.

As a female reader I’m schooled in putting myself in the place of a boy or imagining myself as the sidekick – the Hermione Granger along in the support role as information analyst to Harry Potter’s adventurer. Publishers know and expect this.

JK Rowling was originally ‘jk’ rather than Joanne because it was felt by publishers that a female author would only attract half of young readers. For the same reason I publish as DM Potter. I don’t want my gender to put off a male reader (or the parent of a male reader) before they get beyond the cover.

Literature has the power to reinforce and/or challenge society’s codes. I’m not saying all female characters have to be adventurous, fierce amazons but I am saying it’s nice to give girls a bit more choice. They shouldn’t have to always side with a male character to get beyond insipid, invisible roles.

Writing in the second person has given me a lot of opportunity to reflect on gendered stereotypes in kid’s literature. Girls react with excitement to a ‘you’ character that could be themselves. Moderated by the fact that just as many boys will be reading as the same character I’m not tempted to stop and preen, add irrational fears or let the character take second place most of the time. I let them take charge of their own destiny. I also let them moderate, advise and support other characters – in other words be fully rounded characters.

What I’ve noticed is that the other characters I surround my kids with tend to be less stereotypical too. That doesn’t mean I have eliminated all gender differences, I think I’ve just been more aware of stereotyping potential and sometimes that awareness has sparked stronger stories. The librarian in In The Magician’s House is a great example. Aware she could have been a fusty old woman I expanded her role to be an active rescuer of a lost soul, able to deal with three menacing pigs and to befriend a big, bad wolf. I also enjoyed writing the character of the young Charles Dickens. So many stories require heroes to go through harrowing experiences that make them stronger. I allowed myself to show a boy who experienced cruelty and abandonment which shaped his non-violent pursuit of social justice.

March 8th is International Women’s day.

(Deb Potter writes interactive fiction for The Fairytale Factory. She has studied education, human development and children’s literature and has a masters in creative writing.)

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