FINDING FEMALE IN MIDDLE GRADE FANTASY

28 Feb

Today on the blog I’ve got something a little different–and special! Laurisa White Reyes, author of THE ROCK OF IVANORE,  has stopped by talk about females in Middle Grade fantasy. She even provides us with a list of her favorite girl-centric fantasy books for kids–love it! Here’s a little more about Laurisa’s upcoming fantasy debut: 

The annual Great Quest is about to be announced in Quendel, a task that will determine the future of Marcus and the other boys from the village who are coming of age. The wizard Zyll commands them to find the Rock of Ivanore, but he doesn’t tell them what the Rock is exactly or where it can be found. Marcus must reach deep within himself to develop new powers of magic and find the strength to survive the wild lands and fierce enemies he encounters as he searches for the illusive Rock. If he succeeds, he will live a life of honor; if he fails, he will live a life of menial labor in shame. With more twists and turns than a labyrinth, and a story in which nothing is as it seems, this tale of deception and discovery keeps readers in suspense until the end.

 THE ROCK OF IVANORE goes on sale May 15, 2012. Read on for a fantastic, insightful post on the state of female writers and characters in the fantasy genre. 

In the realm of fantasy literature, male protagonists have traditionally reigned supreme. That could be because the vast majority of fantasy novels were written by men. Authors like Jules Verne, Lewis Carroll, Johnathan Swift, H.G. Wells, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkein dominated the genre all the way up to the late twentieth century when a few women fantasy authors began to emerge, such as Madeline L’Engle, Tamora Pierce, Ursula K. LeGuin, Anne McCaffrey and Marion Zimmer Bradley. Then along came Harry Potter.

The Rowling Revolution

Today the name J.K. Rowling is synonymous with success.  There isn’t a person alive in western civilization that doesn’t know about Harry Potter and his now incredibly rich and famous creator. So it may be hard to believe that in 1997 when Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was published in the United Kingdom (The Sorcerer’s Stone in the US), Joanne Rowley’s publishers were so concerned that boys might shy away from reading a book written by a woman that they insisted she use her initials. (Since she did not actually have a middle initial, she chose ‘K’ from her grandmother’s name Kathleen). And of course, it worked. The Harry Potter franchise is the best-selling book series in history, and is cherished by both male and female readers the world over.

Rowling may not have been the first woman fantasy author, but she did do something no one else had succeeded in doing – she made it cool for boys to read books with girl heroines. Yes, Harry Potter is a boy – but he wouldn’t be worth a nickel if it weren’t for his sidekick Hermoine Granger. Hermoine is certainly not the first female fantasy heroine, but until she showed up, girls mostly read about girls, and boys mostly read about boys. Even books where there were both male and female protagonists were most often read by girls. But Harry Potter bridged that gap somehow.

Hermoine is my favorite heroine of all time. She is spunky, smart, courageous – and feminine. She is not a girl trying to act like a boy. She is all girl, so girls relate to her, and boys fall in love with her. Rowling hit on a truly magical formula.

The Gender Gap in Middle Grade Fantasy

Despite the huge success of Rowling’s books, the gender gap really vanished? Among the current list of popular middle grade fantasy novels, there are very few female protagonists.  Consider the following titles: Percy Jackson and the Olympians by Rick Riordan, The Ranger’s Apprentice by John Flanagan, The Bartimaeus Trilogy by Johnathan Stroud,  The Abhorson Trilogy by Garth Nix, His Dark Marterials by Robert Pullman, Eragon by Christopher Paolini, Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer….see a pattern here?

Even fantasy books written by women have mostly male protagonists:  Rowan of Rin by Emily Rhodda, Dragon Rider by Cornelia Funke, The Spiderwicke 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.

Writing for Boys

Traditionally, the fantasy genre is an effective lure to get boys to read. My own book, The Rock of Ivanore: Book 1 in The Celestine Chronicles (Tanglewood Press, May 2012) is a traditional fantasy adventure with a male protagonist. Marcus is an enchanter’s apprentice who tends to botch all his spells. But when he’s sent on a quest to find the Rock of Ivanore, he must search deep within himself to find the courage and the skills necessary to face the dangers and secrets he encounters along the way. I wrote The Rock of Ivanore because at the time, my then eight-year-old son was a reluctant reader. I understood firsthand how difficult it could be to get some boys to read, so I created a story that would capture the attention and imagination of these boys. Fortunately, I have daughters, too.

The second book in the series, The Last Enchanter (to be released in 2013) introduces Marcus’s female counterpart, Lael. Lael is a lot like Hermoine Granger in that she is resourceful, determined and all girl. She also happens to be very adept at her weapon of choice – a sling. When Marcus leaves their village in order to protect the man who raised him, Lael insists on tagging along. Years earlier her mother was sold as a slave, and Lael is determined to find and free her. My hope is that The Celestine Chronicles will appeal to both boy and girl readers.

Bridging the Gap Once and For All

But the question remains, will boys pick up a fantasy novel where the protagonist – the only protagonist – is a girl? I don’t know the answer, but maybe we’re getting there. Fifteen years post-Harry Potter, everyone knows J.K. Rowling is a woman and no one bats an eye at it. In fact, I think it is pretty safe to say that nowadays, kids (boys and girls) don’t care if a book is written by a man or a woman. And thanks to the proliferation of male/female co-protagonists, the gap between “boy books” and “girl books” is closing.

So maybe, just maybe, in the not-too-distant future it will be cool for boys to read fantasy stories starring females heroines. Here are a few current titles that just might help this prediction come true:

Tuesdays at The Castle by Jessica Day George

Dragonswood by Janet Lynn Carrey

The Chronicles of Aneador by Kristina Schram

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente

The Books of Elsewhere by Jaqueline West

Saavy by Igrid Law


Learn more about Laurisa and THE ROCK OF IVANORE here!

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15 Responses to “FINDING FEMALE IN MIDDLE GRADE FANTASY”

  1. Charlotte March 4, 2012 at 12:02 pm #

    Thanks for the interesting post!

    I think of Lyra as the main protagonist of Philip Pullman’s series…even though a male lead is introduced in book 2, this will always be Lyra’s series to me!

    From my own personal experience with my boys, the gender of the protaganist seems (happily) to be a non-issue for now. In part this might be because there’s a lovely abundance of graphic novels with strong female leads (like Zita the Spacegirl!)

    The Chronicles of Aneador is one I’d not heard of before–I’ll check it out!

    • Laurisa White Reyes March 10, 2012 at 1:42 am #

      You’re so right about Lyra. I think you’ll enjoy Aneador. Thanks for your comment. 🙂

  2. L.S. Zwarenstein March 4, 2012 at 2:38 pm #

    Sorry to be a nitpicker, but the primary heroes of both the Abhorsen Trilogy and His Dark Materials are female – in the Abhorsen Trilogy, an amazing number of the important characters are female, without anyone making a big deal out of it. It’s awesome!

    Also, to be fair, many of the books you mention use the same pattern as Harry Potter, where the hero is a boy but a girl also features prominently and is treated as brave and competant (although few can hold a candle to Hermione). I think that’s fast becoming the standard pattern of MG fantasy.

    • Danielle Rollins March 5, 2012 at 8:22 pm #

      I love these comments! One of the things I think is really interesting in putting together this blog is learning what other authors consider a “girl book” versus a “boy book”. Charlotte, I –like you–always considered the Dark Materials series to have an amazing, strong female protag. I can’t speak for Laurisa, but I wonder if she’s pointing out that the authors of both books are male? I know that I, for one, love to see epic fantasy written by females. (Anyone else waiting on eggshells for BITTERBLUE? Anyone?)

      In any case, I love the discussion going on here! Keep it coming. L.S., I love your comment about this pattern in MG fantasy–boy main character with female sidekick who is brave and competent in her own right. This has brought us some truly fantastic characters!

    • Kelly March 7, 2012 at 1:24 am #

      Agree. The Abhorson Trilogy by Garth Nix is all about the women – I’m not sure that it’s middle grade, though, I would have said YA – and His Dark Materials is all about Lyra.
      I always argue for more female protagonists, so don’t want to undermine your claims in this post, but I do wonder if fantasy is actually more likely to have powerful female protagonists than some other genres? I would have thought it’s one of the recent defining aspects of the genre. But maybe they are just the books I read – I’m no great expert.
      So lots more to be done, and probably still a great gap, but perhaps the picture isn’t quite as grim as you paint it. [She says hopefully.]

      • Laurisa White Reyes March 10, 2012 at 1:48 am #

        Great comment. I just got ripped apart in a review about having a male protagonist in my book. So this topic is particularly interesting to me at the moment. It almost appears that reviewers in particular are expecting fantasy to attract more female readers these days. But that’s just one perspective, of course.

    • Laurisa White Reyes March 10, 2012 at 1:44 am #

      You’re absolutely right. Thanks for pointing that out. And the male/female protagonist team is the norm these days, though there are some very successful series with only male protagonists, such as The Ranger’s Apprentice, which I just love. Thanks so much for your insights!

  3. Danielle Rollins March 5, 2012 at 8:21 pm #

    I love these comments! One of the things I think is really interesting in putting together this blog is learning what other authors consider a “girl book” versus a “boy book”. Charlotte, I –like you–always considered the Dark Materials series to have an amazing, strong female protag. I can’t speak for Laurisa, but I wonder if she’s pointing out that the authors of both books are male? I know that I, for one, love to see epic fantasy written by females. (Anyone else waiting on eggshells for BITTERBLUE? Anyone?)

    In any case, I love the discussion going on here! Keep it coming. L.S., I love your comment about this pattern in MG fantasy–boy main character with female sidekick who is brave and competent in her own right.

  4. Joel March 7, 2012 at 1:51 am #

    I second the Abhorsen Trilogy as having an amazing female lead character. Sabriel (in the first book) is one of my go-to heroines in fantasy fiction and although Lirael (from the second two books) is not quite as kick-ass, she’s still the major character in book two and a looming figure in book three.

    • Marissa March 8, 2012 at 5:25 am #

      Interesting post, Laurisa. It would be interesting to get middle-grade boys and girls to weigh in on this. I was drawn to books that had both boy and girl mc when I was a girl, and I don’t think a boy-alone would have been off-putting. I wonder if some of it is believing kids are capable of looking beyond gender, too. I remember reading the Anne books to my 5th grade class – majority boys – and, despite their initial protests, they were into the story as much as the girls. And vice versa when we read Where the Red Fern Grows.

      My personal opinion is that books that have a boy and a girl protag (or a trio, like HP) are the strongest, because kids at that age are learning to navigate all sorts of relationships. I remember feeling like I needed all the help I could get! And reading books where boys and girls were true friends helped when a lot of the confusing boys! boys! boys! feeling set in. 😉

      Very thought-provoking post…

      • Laurisa White Reyes March 10, 2012 at 1:52 am #

        Hi Marissa!

        I agree with you about the strength of having both male and female protagonists, but on the other hand, I also think it is just fine to have some “boy” books and some “girl” books – even in fantasy. I know some of my critics disagree, but I have three sons and they do love a good adventure with no girls in them. I think catering to both genders has attracted more girls to read fantasy than in the past. And that’s always a good thing. Right?

  5. Julie Musil March 10, 2012 at 2:40 pm #

    I never knew that was why JK Rowling used her initials! Interesting.

    I know it’s a different genre, but I think Hunger Games has had a huge impact on boys, even though the mc is a girl. My son, his friends, my nephew, all of them have loved that book.

  6. Leslie Rose March 11, 2012 at 3:17 am #

    I just bought The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland… I can’t wait to sink my teeth into it. Great post, Laurisa. Interesting stuff.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Bookish News and Publishing Tidbits 7 March 2012 | Read in a Single Sitting - Book reviews and new books - March 7, 2012

    […] MG fantasy: where are all the girls? […]

  2. About this Blog « Ellie Rollins - March 7, 2012

    […] Everyone has different opinions about this, and I couldn’t be more excited about the conversation that’s happening on the blog right now, whether it’s Caroline Starr Rose remembering the great Laura Ingalls Wilder, or Marissa Burt introducing us to the fantastic characters in her new book, STORYBOUND, or the heated debate that arose in the comments section of Laurisa White Reyes’s post, FINDING FEMALE IN MIDDLE GRADE FANTASY. […]

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