Boys and Girls

The Bookzone for Boys ran a nice piece by Sarwat Chadda recently in which he dismisses the theory that boys won't read books whose leading character is a girl.  It's still a surprisingly common assumption, despite all the evidence to the contrary, and although girl heroes are pretty common in children's books now a lot of the low-end spies'n'dinosaurs series titles which are aimed at boy's of Sam's age still barely feature female characters at all, except perhaps a mum to provide a packed lunch for the protagonists before they set off on missions or adventures.

It's not an attitude I've ever really understood.  When I was a boy I always preferred books that had heroines; especially tough, brave or resourceful heroines like Elionwy in Lloyd Alexander's Prydain books, or all the girls in Swallows and Amazons*.  Books which didn't have such heroines (like The Lord of the Rings whenever Eowyn's not around) always seemed to me to be missing a trick.  When I tried to write a book without a heroine myself (No Such Thing As Dragons) one crept in anyway.  And when I tried to write a limp 19th Century heroine prone to embroidery and fits of the vapours (Myrtle in Larklight) she turned out to have a peculiar strength of her own and kept taking over the story.

So I'm in complete agreement with Mr Chadda that boys will happily read books with girl leads.  But I do wonder - and this is more of a stray thought than a settled opinion - whether all these tough heroines don't represent a particularly male fantasy.  Boys like them, but do many girls?  I've had lots of conversations with, and letters from, girls who love Hester, but I suspect they're a minority, and that her basic appeal is to boys.  I'm always aware of the danger that, in writing a character like her, you may end up not with a girl lead at all, but with a boy in disguise.

I think the success of the Twilight series feeds into this debate.  I have to admit  that I've not read Stephanie Meyer's books, and have no particular opinion of them.  I know of Twilight only from the film (which was... odd) and from all the (often very funny) attacks which people keep inflicting on it, like this one (right). (Gosh, it's hated.  If people got as hot under the collar about the war in Afghanistan as they do about Twilight, governments would have fallen and the troops been brought home years ago.)  Readers whose opinions I respect assure me that the books are very badly written, and received wisdom tells me that the heroine, Bella, is a mimsy, flimsy doormat who is obsessed with, and ordered around by, Edward Cullen*, her vampire boyfriend.  But the books' massive popularity among teenage girls is undeniable, and suggests that Bella is providing something which Buffy and the other kick-ass heroines who have dominated popular culture lately don't.  I suspect that a lot of girl readers like to identify with a character who is emotionally fragile and self-absorbed; more worried about romance and rejection than revenge and rocket launchers.

This doesn't mean that I'll be trying to write more Bella-ish heroines myself, much as I'd love my sales figures to equal even 1% of Ms Meyer's.  The girls who emerge from my imagination alway seem as tough as old nails.  Cluny Morvish, the new female protagonist in Scrivener's Moon, is as gung-ho as any of them, riding to hounds and gamely leading mammoth-charges against squadrons of the Movement's landships.  She's just the sort of girl boys like to read about...

*(I know Susan is a bit mumsy, but her top-notch tent-pitching and fire-lighting skills mean that she's still far more tough and resourceful than me)

*Did there not used be a chain of grocery shops in London called Cullens?  For some reason I always associate his name with almond croissants.