Realistic Girls and Fantastic Boys? Middle Grade Fantasy, Realistic Fiction, and the Great Gender Divide


One of the very first books my now eight year old daughter loved was called Ruby Bridges Goes to School. Even before she could read well, she would return again and again to this slim volume, turning the pages reverently, frowning at the hateful expressions of pro-segregation racists, smiling as she contemplated the bravery of this ‘real little girl.’

At the time, I thought that perhaps it was the similarity of their ages. Ruby was an entering first grader, as was my daughter. She was a girl of color, also like my child. But Ruby lived in such a different time, and struggled against such overt, violent racism. What did my daughter find so compelling about this book, that she preferred it to most others – including bookshelves full of fairy tales and princess stories?

Now, a few years and any number of books later, my big reader eight year old still gravitates to fiction and nonfiction exploring the lives of ‘real little girls.’ Unlike her older brother, who launched quickly from early chapter books into fantasy series like Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, Artemis Fowl, Septimus Heap, and the like, my daughter craves stories about realistic girl protagonists. I was at first a bit flabbergasted at her lack of attraction for fantasy – a genre her mother and brother both adore. In fact, my current middle grade novel is a fantasy adventure based on Indian folk-tales, and starring, you guessed it, a middle grade girl protagonist. So why doesn’t my daughter enjoy the genre I so love?

As a parent, pediatrician, and feminist activist, I’ve always struggled against the notion that there even is such a thing as a ‘girl book’ or a ‘boy book.’ In fact, my beliefs had been seemingly verified out by my son, who as readily consumes male protagonist fantasy as he does more ‘realistic’ stories with girl main characters such as the Ramona books or Little House on the Prairie series.

Yet, there is clearly a message being sent. And it’s through the eyes of my daughter that I am finally able to see it. With the notable exception of Harry Potter’s Hermione (whom my daughter loves), there are few central female characters in middle grade fantasy novels. If literature is a mirror – an opportunity to show children a reflection of their own lives and their own experiences (or approximations of their own lives and own experiences), then what is happening for my daughter is obvious. While she was able to see herself even in the struggles of a girl who lived in such a different time, like Ruby Bridges, she is unable to see herself in most of the the fantasy novels that populate the bookshelves in her house.

Even the names of each of her brother’s favorite series send out the message loud and clear – fantasy is a boy’s genre. Or at least a genre dominated by boy protagonists. And it’s certainly not because women aren’t writing fantasy. As this blog entitled Finding Female in Middle Grade Fantasy notes:


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

Fantasy as a genre has perhaps been considered a vehicle to ‘get boys to read.’ Yet, without getting embroiled into a debate about whether the ‘reluctant boy reader’ notion is a myth, we as writers, publishers, parents and teachers have got to ask ourselves: what are the consequences of boxing female protagonists out of fantasy?

The problem can be examined from multiple angles. While both male and female authors are writing fantasy about primarily male protagonists, female protagonists dominate realistic fiction. Just consider, while both my son and daughter began their reading careers with The Magic Treehouse series (historical time travel fantasies with a boy and girl protagonist), my son soon graduated to The Time Warp TrioThe Bailey School Kids, and then rapidly to the fantasy series named above. My daughter, on the other hand, seemed to skip like a pebble against a lake from one to the other series of realistic novels with girl protagonists.

In approximate order, these books included: Ivy and Bean, Judy Moody, Amber Brown, Clementine... see a pattern? Each of these (wonderfully written) series were named for their girl protagonists. Even her most recent literary love affair – with Rebecca, Kit, Kanani, Lanie, McKenna – and all the other heroines of the American Girl series — follows this pattern.

Which has gotten me wondering (and worrying!): is the gendering of realistic vs. fantasy middle grade fiction simply playing into archaic gender roles? Ie. that girls should care about things like home life and friendships, while boys should be training to use magic, fight dragons, be secret agents, or discover treasure? Is our literature itself encouraging domesticity and relationships in female readers and imagination, bravery, and problem solving in boy readers?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m certainly not trying to suggest that friendship and home life aren’t important — for both boys and girls. Or that realistic fiction can’t model problem solving or other important skills. Or even that there aren’t some fantastic realistic fiction about boy protagonists (just think of Andrew Clemets’ great school stories). But rather, what worries me is that the predominance of fantasy books with boy protagonists and realistic books with girl protagonists is a troubling gender divide.

So in writing this blog, I’m making myself a pledge. To try to at least introduce my realistic fiction-loving daughter to some girl protagonist middle grade fantasy, a partial list below. (Some more great suggestions here and here). I’m thinking some of these fantasy heroines just may match up to the bravery of Ruby Bridges, the zaniness of Clementine or the pluck of American girl Kit Kittredge. The goal isn’t to steer my daughter away from realistic stories, but rather, open up for her the possibility of reading in multiple genres. Some of the books I’ve been thinking about include:


The Worst Witch Series by Jill Murphy


The Tiffany Aching Series by Terry Pratchett


The Enchanted Forest Chronicles by Patricia C. Wrede


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


The Girl Who Could Fly by Victoria Forester

In the comments below, please suggest your favorite girl protagonist middle grade fantasy to add to the list!

Sayantani DasGupta is a lover of fantasy, but also of traditionally ‘domestic’ stories. Her ideal fantasy-realistic fiction might be a Jane Austen inspired remake of Lord of the Rings. Hey, you never know. It could happen.

 

37 Responses to Realistic Girls and Fantastic Boys? Middle Grade Fantasy, Realistic Fiction, and the Great Gender Divide

  1. Late to the party, but love the topic!

    Seems to me all (but one) of the Black Stallion series and anything written by Jim Kjelgaard (Big Red, Stormy, Desert Dog) are boy-centered realistic fiction. There’s also a lot of the Marguerite Henry novels.

    My mom didn’t hold with much fantasy-fantasy, so I had combo stuff with talking animals or this near-spiritual human/animal bond (Miss Bianca, Babe the Gallant Pig, and the Boy-and-his ______ books that are a different sort of fantasy, portrayed as realism ;})

    Mrs. Piggle Wiggle is sort of a fantasy/”realistic” combo that I’ve found attractive to a number of boys and girls.

    My favorite girl-centered stories in MG were the Bracken Trilogy by Jeri Massi (The Bridge, Crown and Jewel, The Two Collars).

    I was more like you, in that I liked fantasy far more than “real life” (Little House on the Prairie and any Green Gables book after the first I just couldn’t get into). The Bracken trilogy was a wonderful crossover. It wasn’t magic, but it felt like magic, and had all the intrigue and arcane powers I loved from fantasy along with the implicit promise that these were things *I* might learn if I applied myself.

    Heady imagining, that.

    But, really the reason I wanted to comment was because this break down could be as much about personality as it is about gender (I will allow it is still about gender b/c there are clearly personality types that are more or less acceptable based on your gender.)

    I’m thinking primarily of the Myers-Briggs system (summary links in the menu bar at helmericks.net if you want more context), because there is a specific contrast/comparison between “sensors” and “intuitives.”

    Sensor-types are described as most-focused on details and the information they gather through their five senses, while intuative-types are described as those who gravitate toward the “big picture” and the other sources of information and understanding (imagination, logical/deductive leaps, etc.).

    In my experience a good story can catch anyone, but sensors (S) gravitate toward realistic fiction, and intuatives (N) to fantasy/scifi-ish elements.

    Statistically the population is made up of 25% N & 75% S, but writers, specifically fiction writers (I don’t have the precise number in front of me) reverse those numbers.

    My theory about the lack of “realistic” male fiction is that the boys just go read non-fiction if they don’t find what they want in fiction.

    If we want to play the sexist card, the most “acceptable” women, the stereotypical “together” female, is always an S. So is the “ideal” male, *but* in the other stereotypes, we’ve got benign males that are strong Ns (the “absent-minded professor” for example) when their female counterpart is not treated so kindly (the only opposite I can think of at the moment in Luna Lovegood, from the Harry Potter series).

    My point is, because I have this other vocabulary (S or N) I tend to look here before gender, because I think of how the fantasy of the perfect dog (say) fed my hunger for that kind of connection and adventure even without the female character or the (more) fantastic setting.

    I can’t say the absence of females didn’t affect me (the fish can’t tell you how wet the water is) but I know I eagerly imbibed the stories that were available and never felt deprived.

  2. I loved Ruth Chew books as a young girl – magic and fantasy combine. Good for boys and girls as there is generally a brother and sister on the adventure.
    Edward Eager’s Half Magic followed the same pattern.
    Diane Duane’s Wizard series
    The Fairy Rebel by Lynne Reid Banks was a childhood favorite
    Jane Yolan is another great author for girls as is Victoria Hanley (The Seer and the Sword, etc.)
    The Wrinkle in Time had a strong female protagonist, as did The Wizard of Oz books.
    I loved E. Nesbit as a girl as well.
    On the spooky side I LOVED Mary Downing Hahn as a child, and my 8 year old loves her now. All those ghost stories, and all with great female protagonists.
    Alice in Wonderland, of course.
    E.D. Baker has the Wide Awake Princess and a few other good strong female protaginist stories.
    My 8 year old daughter LOVES the Goddess Girls books as well as the Rainbow Magic Fairies (I abhor the rainbow fairies, but the goddess girls I wholeheartedly approve of.)
    The Cinder series in YA (Marissa Meyer), The Uglies (Scott Westerfeld), Matched (Ally Condie) and other distopian novels. In YA there’s also the Maggie Stiefvater books.
    As they get older – Anne Rice’s Witch series, Marrion Zimmer Bradley’s Mists of Avalon, Carol Berg has a few books with great female protagonists…
    I’m sure I could think of more. I’ll try to write up a post and ping back to this one to share.

  3. Whoops, it’s Franny Billingsley.

  4. How about Well Wished by Franny Billingsly?

  5. Wow! The knowledge and experience about kidlit on this site is truly humbling! You’ll be happy to hear, dear friends, that since writing this blog, “The Worst Witch” books have been a major success! I realized the Tiffany Aching series is probably a tad too old for her just now, so I’m reading the first! Onward with my genre challenging project at home! (I can’t wait to share with my kids/read these books myself!) You all are truly amazing.

  6. My daughter really liked The Humming Room by Ellen Potter and she just finished The Rise and Fall of Mount Majestic by Jennifer Trafton, which she thought was a fun story about a girl. My daughter didn’t like reading and struggled with reading until a few years ago we found the Katie Kazoo series and she couldn’t get enough of them. I believe the next series she’s starting is Klimo’s Dragon Keeper books.

    While on the other hand my son really likes the Magic Tree House books and Flat Stanley.