Principal Boys

Now I am something of a feminist in case you didn’t know, Dear Reader – but I do love a Principal Boy. I love a girl in britches. I always fancied the Prince in the Panto, and any story where the girl dresses up as a boy and gets away with it, gives me great pleasure.

What a pirate! ( Jacket from The Dark Angel)

There’s the irrepressible Linnet in The Children of Green Knowe playing at being a choirboy, Jo March acting in Little Women, Celia Rees’ Sovay – a highwaygirl and of course, most of the cast of Terry Pratchett’s Monstrous Regiment.

Sovay, Sovay all on a day
She dressed herself in man’s array

I never knew George out of The Famous Five books – but I would have loved her. Likewise Mulan and Tamora Pierce’s Alanna . I was a bit of a tomboy – having to be forcibly made to wear a frock, turfing my dolls out of their pram and using it to carry bricks, and jousting with the clothes pole.

I have to admit I was easily hoodwinked. I had no idea about the central character in The Turbulent Term of Tyke Tyler ( which I still love) and honestly, it came as a great and glorious surprise to me when Dernhelm took off ‘his’ helmet in The Lord of the Rings. It still moves me every time I read it.

I really don’t want contemporary girls to think they have to be boys in order to have autonomy.(See my previous post and this splendid one by Katherine Langrish). But in historical fiction and fantasy, it’s a way for our heroines to get out of the home – and it’s such great fun. There’s something about the sheer audaciousness of it.

And in my case, I identified more with Robin Hood or The Lone Ranger or Ivanhoe or my Dad than my stay-at-home Mum. That probably speaks volumes about me. I’ll end with Gandalf speaking about Eowyn to her brother Eomer:

but she, being born in the body of a maid, had a spirit and courage at least the match of yours.

I think that’s it – spirit. Girls in britches embody courage for me.

Female Samurai courtesy of Retronaut



Rescuing the Heroine

This post has been partly inspired by the excellent Katherine Langrish and her post Fairytale Princesses: tougher than you think. I can only agree: what I  learned from traditional stories was that kindness and effort brought you more success than vanity and pride. So I don’t want to rescue any of those heroines myself – just the term.

That’s why I winced when I read Kate Mosse refer to ” female action heroes.” In fairness it was in a perfectly reasonable piece asking for more active central characters to be female. I am unlikely to disagree with that. (But oh, the irony – if you read the piece via Mail Online there is article after article defining women by their looks down the side bar.)

There needs to be equality. There needs to be a balance of protagonists who are girls or women. Have a look at picture books. Really look at them. The apparently gender neutral use of animals often masks the presumption that the lead is male.

Out of ten picture books reviewed, only two had female leads.

I think the word ‘hero’ does that – assumes male is the only important way to be.

Not books, I know, but in an idle moment at Budapest airport  I took a look at some toddler toys (British by the way). Lovely primary colours, diggers and dumpers tractors and so forth (some of my favourite things). Out of twenty named characters, three were female.

We seem to have end up back at the Smurfette Principle – if something is marketed at boys, or meant to be unisex, girls will have only a token representation. Girls are ghettoised. In pink.

You’re not supposed to create with this stuff.

And don’t get me started on pink Lego.

1981 Why have we gone backwards?

So it really is important that half our central characters are female – with lots of agency. I would also argue it’s important you make sure your secondary and minor characters are balanced too. I’ve found myself putting too many males.

But our heroines should not just be blokes with breasts.

Lara Croft won’t do. She’s just eye-candy for boys.

Katniss Everdeen is better. Though I wish the trilogy hadn’t dwindled to that defeatist ending – this is the Katniss I wanted:

(It gets me every time)

We will always need more Lyra Belacquas, more Jane Eyres, more Pippi Longstockings, more Tiffany Achings – and my colleagues provide some amazing female central characters. Some full of gusto and yet feminine.

A black belt in Arnis – Philipino Stick & Sword fighting

Just don’t call them ‘heroes’.



The Case of the Invisible Girls

This is a very simple post addressed to fellow writers, illustrators and publishers especially for younger children.

Where are all the girls?

photo by katiek2


I looked in ‘Carousel’ – these are my stats for the Spring 2012 edition.

  • Babies Books: 9 books reviewed , 2 male central characters & 7 neutral.
  • Toddlers: 8 books reviewed, 5 male central characters, 1 female and 2 neutral
  • Picture Books: 15 reviewed, 8 male central characters, 5 female and 2 neutral
  • First Steps: 8 books reviewed, 6 male central characters, 1 female and 1 neutral
  • Reading Alone: 14 reviews, 5 male central characters, 4 female & 5 neutral
  • Reading with Confidence: 13 reviews, 5 male leads, 6 female & 2 neutral
Out of 67 books, 31 had male leads, 19 had either a neutral or an equal balance, and only 17 had female central characters. That gives 46% male (OK) 28% neither/both & 25% female. Take out the books that had an equal ratio or featured neither and this remains:

65% male to 35% female central characters

Now I have no wish to criticise ‘Carousel’ – it reports what there is – and it might be just a statistical blip. So I thought I’d better cross-check with Amazon.

I won’t bore you with the full breakdown but here’s a summary:

  • out of the top 30 best-sellers from 0-8, 14 featured male characters, 11 were neutral or balanced, and 5 had female leads.
  • 47% male, 37 % neutral & 16% female
  • 74% male to 26% female (if you take out the neutral books)
I did the same with ‘The Book People’:
  • out of the 60  Top Ten books promoted in ranges from Babies through to 9+, 32 featured male central characters, 14 were neutral & 14 female
  • 70% versus 30%
What on earth is going on?

Photograph by D Sharon Pruitt

To my shame, this is a rough transcript of a conversation betwen me and an agent for children’s writers.
‘I’m stuck – need to choose between a boy or a girl as my  central character in my 9+ fantasy adventure – which would you suggest?’
‘Well, if you really can’t choose any other way, then the boy commercially speaking.’
‘Oh. Why?’
‘Girls will read books with a boy central character- but boys won’t read it if it’s a girl.‘ ( my emphasis)

by youleah

So all my readers that have anything to do with books – what on earth do we do about this?