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 (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 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
[This post originally appeared as a guest post on Ellie Rollings blog.]