Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Importance of Strong Female Leads in Kid's Literature - Guest Post

The Importance of Strong Female Leads in Kid's Literature
by Aleesah Darlison

In years to come, if my daughter is asked who her childhood role models were, I wonder if she will list so-called celebrities of today such as Paris Hilton, Kim Kardashian and Snooki. Women like these dominate newspapers, magazines and websites for no other reason than that they’re pretty, bored, wealthy and ... and ... maybe it’s just me, but I find it hard to think of things these women actually have going for them. Great fashion stylists, perhaps?

Forgive the cynicism, but I think our girls need more. I hope they want more, too.

Almost every culture in our world is ruled by a patriarchal society. That’s the way it’s always been. Men hold the vast majority of the top positions of power in politics. They earn the most money in the corporate world. They earn the most money, sponsorship, TV coverage and adoration on and off the sporting field.

Our daughters have it stacked against them before they’re even born. Can we ever break this cycle?

The answer is: maybe. And maybe it all starts with how girls are portrayed in children’s literature.

In the words of Kofi Annan, “There is no tool for development more effective than the education of girls.

All learning, all education starts with reading. Surely if we had stronger female role models in kid’s literature we might not have our daughters wishing the best they could achieve in life would be to look like Paris Hilton. If there were more Hermione Grangers out there (few and far between) they might grow up with a desire to be something other than a doctor’s wife, or better yet, a PRINCESS, the dream of all little girl dreams.

Age-old fairytales we still insist on reading to our children, despite their dark, doomsday and often terrifying nature, feed the monster idea of the ‘damsel in distress’. Little Red Riding Hood, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty. None of these classic heroines were capable of solving their own problems or of saving themselves. A male had to do it for them every time.

I’m reminded of the immortal words of Bonnie Tyler, bless her:

I need a hero
I’m holding out for a hero til the end of the night
He’s gotta be strong
And he’s gotta be fast
And he’s gotta be fresh from the fight
I need a hero
I’m holding out for a hero til the morning light
He’s gotta be sure
And it’s gotta be soon
And he’s gotta be larger than life


Heroes, heroes everywhere. Do we really need so many heroes? What would be so wrong with a few more literary heroines?

Even the recent cinematic retelling of Rapunzel as seen in Tangled has the heroine rescued from her tower by a man. Sure, she swings a mean frying pan, but she still remains sweet, innocent, girly, innocuous and disempowered to the very end of the tale. In all her eighteen years Rapunzel didn’t even CONSIDER venturing outside alone until a man came along?! I think not.

The oldest and most used basis for almost all storytelling is the Cinderella story, the rags-to-riches, the commoner-turned-princess tale. We’re all dying to live the fairytale. And heck, when we see shining examples of commoners marrying their princes and living happily ever after (so far), cases in point being Mary Donaldson and Kate Middleton, sorry Princess Catherine, why can’t all our daughters dare to dream of being a princess one day? It’s the ultimate fairytale come true.

Sure, the lengths these newly-converted princesses went to for the men they love is admirable. They changed their names, their personas, their nationalities, their mother tongue ... but these are exceptional circumstances. Besides which, there aren’t enough princes in the world to go around for everyone. The rest of us commoners are going to have to make our own fairytales come true. We can’t rely on a man to do it for us.

Luckily, our daughters have never been in a better position to empower themselves. Their opportunity, their right, is there for the taking. But girls are still being held back by society, social mores, senseless female celebrities, weak literary heroines and unfulfilling plot lines that are as outdated as Doris Day and Marilyn Monroe.

Our little girls can still dream and be feminine. And they should. But they don’t have to be the damsel in distress, the weeping willow that has everything solved for them by a male who comes dashing in to save them, annihilate the villain of the piece and sweep them off their feet for their happy ending.

One of the first rules of writing for children I was taught was that you must let the main characters in your story – ie the children – solve their own problems. It doesn’t work for readers if the problems are solved by an adult or other third party. Whatever the gender of these main characters, be it boy or girl, this one basic rule should always apply.

As a female myself, a mother of a thoroughly modern daughter, and an author of girl’s books, I may be coming from a rather biased angle in all this. I’ve just released four instalments in my feisty new girl-focused fantasy series, Unicorn Riders. The books are set in the mystical kingdom of Avamay and feature four main female leads: Willow, Quinn, Krystal and Ellabeth, who work with their unicorns to fight evil forces and protect their kingdom. They’re strong, empowered, independent heroines. They have faults and foibles. They’re real girls who learn from their mistakes. And they solve their own problems. Phew!

There’s no doubt about it. We need more books for girls. We need more girls as main characters. As it stands, males far outnumber females as protagonists in kid’s literature. And when we’re writing our female leads, they need to be more empowered and independent and less stereotypical. They need to rescue themselves. Simple.

Good books for girls are out there. If you’re seeking more bite in your female literary list, check out some of my favourite heroine-empowered tales:

The Chronicles of Estelliana Series by Kate Forsyth
The Ivory Rose by Belinda Murrell
Wildwood by Colin Meloy
Alice Miranda Series by Jacqueline Harvey
The Littlest Witch by Martine Allars
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis
Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling (admittedly Hermione Granger is a secondary character to Harry Potter, the male lead, but she is a strong heroine nonetheless)

Others have written about and researched the subject of strong female role models in literature in far greater detail than what I can here. To find out more, follow these links:

http://childrensbooks.about.com/cs/strongfemales/a/strongfemales.htm
http://msmagazine.com/blog/blog/2011/05/25/where-are-the-girls-in-childrens-lit/
http://jenniek917.pbworks.com/f/Strong+Female+Characters.pdf
http://www.nerve.com/news/books/study-childrens-books-are-inherently-sexist
http://www.northnet.org/stlawrenceaauw/girlbook.htm

Yours in adventure,
Aleesah Darlison

Find out more about the Unicorn Riders series on Aleesah’s website. There are also some excellent resources, including colouring-in pages, teacher’s notes, chapter samplers and character profile pages.

Follow Aleesah’s We Ride As One Blog Tour posts by visiting these sites:

Monday 24 October: Kids Book Review with Tania McCartney, Fun Facts About Unicorns,

Wednesday 26 October: Running With Pens by Kerri Lane, Marketing Your Book,

Thursday 27 October: Books for Little Hands by Renee Taprell, Inspiration & Setting,

Friday 28 October: Running With Pens by Kerri Lane, Author Interview,

Wednesday 2 November: Bug In A Book with Ang Hall, Meet the Unicorn Riders,

Thursday 3 November: Read Plus with Pat Pledger, Series Review,

Monday 7 November: My Book Corner with Emma, Take the Unicorn Riders Quick Quiz,

Tuesday 8 November: Need to Read This with Sally Hall, Author Interview,

Thursday 10 November: Free As a Word with Oliver Phommavanh, Heroes & Villains,

Friday 11 November: Kids Book Capers with Dee White, Author Interview
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