Friday 11 April 2014

Boys Read Girls (Let Books Be Books)

Last month an article written by Katy Guest, the Independent on Sunday Literary Editor, hit the usual social media sites and had a plethora of authors, publishers, librarians and book bloggers making their own comments on the issue that Ms Guest raised. In her article, she highlighted an online campaign called Let Books Be Books which has been set up to encourage publishers to stop marketing books specifically to boys or girls by having overtly boy-oriented or girl-oriented covers and/or titles (but before you read on click here and go and sign their petition).

On reading this article I rather selfishly felt the bottom drop out of my blogging world, and a small amount of self-doubt started scratching away at the back of my mind. I began to wonder whether a book blog called The Book Zone (For Boys) might actually be causing more harm than good. I wondered whether I was myself guilty of propagating the very stereotyping that was being so heavily criticised in the article. And yet, at school, I am often pushing books with male protagonists into the hands of girls, and have made a habit of recommending great books with female protagonists to boys. Boys at my school were reading The Hunger Games back in 2009, long before all the hype kicked off. Since reading Geek Girl, and loving it, I've managed to persuade a good number of boys to give it a go as well. My initial reaction was therefore to rattle off a blog post, but instead I took a deep breath and have put a lot of thought into the matter. I've also spoken with a couple of my 'friends' in the industry who have assured me that my concerns are unfounded, pointing out as evidence just a handful of the great books I have reviewed that have a female protagonist.

My 'mission', when I started The Book Zone, was to "raise awareness of the vast wealth of 'boy-friendly' books that have been published since Harry Potter burst onto the scene" and I state on my About Me page that "many of the books I review will also have great appeal to girls as well - I am certainly not saying they are only for boys". However, every few days or so I get a comment added to one of my book reviews, or I receive an email, from girls who are unhappy that I have labelled a book as a boys' book.  However, I can't expect a young reader to have the time or inclination to visit this page to read this, and so I reply politely to every one of them, in an attempt to address their unhappiness. So, my first action on finishing this post is to make that more clear somewhere on my blog's main area.

This morning I read about the next step in the Let Books Be Books campaign. Labelled Boys Read Girls, it encourages male readers to talk about the female characters they admired when they were young, or of current books that have great female characters. The Guardian have also posted a piece in support of this, which you can see here, and so I thought this would be a good time for me to share my thoughts and tell you about some of my favourite female characters (please note, that apart from a couple of exceptions I have mainly focused on Middle Grade rather than YA books as I feel that if boys get used to reading books with female protagonists at this age then they are more likely to carry this in to their teens and eventually adulthood):


Thinking back on my childhood, there are two books with awesome female characters that really stand out in my mind. The first is (or should that be are?) the Narnia books. From Polly in The Magician's Nephew, through Susan and Lucy in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and Prince Caspian, to Jill in the Silver Chair. Every single one of these female characters holds their own in relation to their male co-characters. The second book that sticks in my mind is, of course, the wonderful Alice in Wonderland. Brave, resourceful, intelligent... the epithets go on and on for this iconic female protagonist.

Another childhood favourite was The BFG by Roald Dahl, and I thought that Sophie was a great female main character. Without Sophie's brains (and bravery) the people-eating giants would have rampaged through Britain. I was seventeen when Matilda was first published, and didn't read it until I was an adult, but I think I would have loved it as a child - Matilda is heroism personified (as is Miss Honey), standing up to the fearsome bully that is Miss Trunchbull, relying on brains to overcome brawn.


I've spent the last hour or so scanning back though the reviews I have written over the past soon-to-be five years, and the list of those with female protagonists is pretty extensive. Also, wonderfully, many of these have covers that could be considered gender neutral, although there are a small number of reviews where I have questioned the publisher's choice of cover. So in no particular order:

Teodora in The Undrowned Child by Michelle Lovric

Michelle Lovric is not only one of my all time favourite writers of Middle Grade fantasy, she also writes fantastic female protagonists. Teo in The Undrowned Child, and its sequel The Mourning Emporium, is up there with Alice in my mind, but Talina (Talina in the Tower) and Amneris and Biri (The Fate in the Box) are almost as great.

Mosca Mye in Fly By Night by Frances Hardinge

Mosca is a handful, but in the best of ways. She is headstrong and independent, and always gives as good as she gets.

Deryn Sharp in Leviathon by Scott Westerfeld

Deryn lives in a society where women do not get to join up, fly in airships and see the world, so she has to disguise herself as a boy in order to fulfill her dream. She is another smart, brave and resourceful female character. 

Holly Short in the Artemis Fowl series by Eoin Colfer

For me, Holly Short was always the real star of these books, and I always saw her as the main character ahead of Artemis himself. Perhaps this is because of the way Artemis' criminal character was established in the first book?

Maddy in the TimeRiders series by Alex Scarrow

The three main characters in this series are definitely not equal in my mind. Yes, in the earlier books in the series it is Liam who gets to go back in time and do the adventure stuff, but it is Maddy's intelligence and leadership qualities that keep the team together.

India in Ironheart by Allan Boroughs

India is a  gutsy, courageous young lady who is ready to risk life and limb in order to find her father.

Valkyrie Cain/Stephanie Edgley in the Skulduggery Pleasant series by Derek Landy

I'm not sure I need to repeat again just how much I love Valkyrie Cain as a character. And these books have not one, but two great female characters as we mustn't forget the kick-ass brilliant Tanith Low.

Larissa in the Department 19 series by Will Hill

Will Hill has often explained that Larissa started off as a minor character, but when writing her it was almost as if she took on a life of her own, and now she has become a fan favourite. She is definitely my favourite character in the series, and I am reliably informed that in the next book, Zero Hour, she is really going to kick ass.

B Smith in the Zom-B series by Darren Shan

Full marks to Darren Shan for making his protagonist in this awesome series a teenage girl. And even more marks for the way he challenged his readers' perceptions in the first book in the series by not revealing this until the end of the book.

Penelope Tredwell in the Penny Dreadful series by Christopher Edge

My review of the third book in this series, The Black Crow Conspiracy, says it all: "Anyone who claims that boys do not enjoy stories with a female main character should be shown this book as an example that debunks that myth. In Penelope, Christopher Edge has created a female lead who is both a superb role model for girls, and also a kick-ass heroine who does not need to reply on a male character to save the day for her, despite living in an era when young women were expected to be demure and 'proper', with only a life of being a wife and mother to look forward to."

Darcy Burdock by Laura Dockrill

The cover of the first book the series was blue, and Laura has told me how happy she was with this decision by the publishers. Long time readers of this blog will know exactly how much I love Darcy as a character, and just how brilliant Laura's writing is for both boys and girls. Darcy is a character for everyone, male or female, young or old, and I have seen Year 7 boys hanging on Laura's every word, and then rushing out to read the book.

Sesame Seade by Clémentine Beauvais

I read and reviewed the three books in The Sesame Seade Mysteries just last week. Sesame is another character like Darcy Burdock, and I will be buying copies of these books for a number of the 9-11 boys that I know. 


  1. Great post. I love your blog and have used many of your recommendations for both my boy and girl. Your enthusiasm and insight for children's books is much appreciated. The truth is that my daughter has never much liked the pony and fairy books thrust upon her, and I have found she is much happier with "boys" books, but I just ignore the labels now.

  2. I really enjoyed this post, and the classics you picked are two of my favourites too. "Alice" is so brilliantly curious, honest and unsentimental...she's a really strong character, without any need for derring-do. And Jill from The Silver Chair will almost be my favourite Narnia girl (closely followed by Polly) not least because she's funny, as well as being a dab hand with a bow and arrow.

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