Boys can be encouraged to enjoy books with strong female lead characters, argues author Adam Guillain
Like many children's writers with a background in teaching, I enjoy telling stories and holding writing workshops in schools. Recently, a headteacher of an all-boys school confidently advised me not to focus too much on my Bella Balistica series: "You understand the boys won't be interested because she's a girl," he told me. I let the comment go, knowing from my personal experience that he was quite simply wrong. (Bella, by the way, is a spirited and adventurous character who loves football and even without her mystical powers can urban free-run across the rooftops of Delhi.) A few weeks later, I was sent a pile of children's books to review and realised that nine out of 10 had male protagonists. Fair enough, you might say. We all want to encourage boys to read and boys won't read about girls, will they? Won't they?
Recently, as part of my writer-in-residency post at the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre, I was asked to work in schools with "reluctant" readers and writers, a group I've come to know well over the years given my own dyslexic roots. As I expected, 95 per cent of the groups schools offered up for the sessions were made up of boys. I wasn't surprised at all when these boys told me right out that they would never pick up a book called Bella anything. Five minutes later, after a quick character biog and a reading from a chase sequence, they were all over the Bella books, wanting to borrow them overnight.
This reaction correlates entirely with the one I get at festivals and in workshops with "mainstream" children: that both boys and girls will read books with a strong and adventurous female protagonist - Philip Pullman's Lyra being a shining example. So why do we all perpetuate the idea that boys only want to read about male characters, while accepting that girls will read about anyone? Where does this idea begin? Is it simply part of the way boys are, or do we make them this way?
I have two children, George aged three and Anna aged one. George is a big fan of CBeebies, a lifesaver, particularly in the aftermath of meals. It doesn't take long, though, to realise that the channel is all about male lead characters: Postman Pat, Fireman Sam, Underground Ernie, Lunar Jim, even Andy Pandy (Looby Loo is always the one handing out the tea and biscuits you'll notice). Where are the female equivalents? Women and girls only turn up in ensembles and as sidekicks.
What are we saying to our daughters? That only male heroes are worth championing? And is it acceptable that our boys are growing up believing that only men and boys ever do anything interesting or fun? We reinforce this perception by making sure boys are only channelled towards books with male protagonists. Is it them or us who thinks that a female character couldn't possibly be of the same interest?
At an early age boys don't make a distinction between male and female characters. Three-year-old George will happily play at being Maisy the mouse and loves Lola just as much as Charlie. I'm sure he won't suddenly wake up one morning and decide these characters are no longer fun. But the world he's encountering more and more is already telling him that only men matter.
I worry about the same messages being fed to my daughter. Don't we all need to help boys to accept and celebrate the fact that girls are just as adventurous, as clever, as rude, as silly, as funny and as brave as them? And, even more importantly, don't children's publishers and TV producers need to redress the balance rather than pandering to an ill-advised and very unhelpful assumption?
Adam Guillain's Bella Balistica books for key stage 2 and 3 are published by Milet