Thursday, April 30, 2015

A Hero(ine)’s Quest For Books Without Genders

This will probably come across every bit as shocking as my six year-old stating that he likes macaroni and cheese, but I like fantasy books. As far as I can remember, I’ve pretty sure I’ve always like fantasy books. Or, at least, I have going back to when I was, I don’t know, 8 or something and my slightly older neighbors showed my big brother and me their brand spanking new Dungeons and Dragons guide books for the very first time.  It was magical, wonderful moment that…that…

Well, that’s actually a pretty long story that I should probably not get into at the moment or we’ll never get anything done.  So I’ll go ahead andy reel myself in a bit before Triple Lindy-ing my way into a 1200-word diatribe about how gaming is an awesome gateway into genre books, especially for the imaginative middle grade reader. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’d love to go off on that tangent, but that’s another post.

Meanwhile, back on the ranch, I’m a middle-aged reader now, but time has done little to temper my love for fantasy stories. Especially middle grade ones, because no matter how old I get, the twelve year-old that lives inside me is always going to hunger for another story to give Midlife Crisis Me the same feelings I had when reading one of the chronicles of Prydain or Narnia.

But I’m a dad now, too, and much of the way I think about middle grade these days is either informed by or filter through my kids.  So it should probably come as no surprised that I’ve done what I can to instill my own love for middle grade fantasy adventures in them. Of course, tastes vary, and just as I’ve got one son that would eat mac and cheese for every meal and three times on Saturday if we let him, I’ve got another that would rather eat salad.

No, seriously. I’m not kidding.

In that same way, not all of the kids love fantasy adventures the way I do. But they do enough, and that makes me happy.

What makes me less happy, though, is when I realized just how hard it is to find a MG adventure yarn filled with hunting for McGuffins, vanquishing evil, and generally swashing and buckling all the live-long day that isn’t predicated on a boy getting out of the village and learning to hero. That makes me unhappy for a lot of reasons, including that a) I have a daughter who has every right to think of herself and other girls in the world as a potential hero as opposed to just a potential “Damsel Prize” at the end of a quest, and b) there’s no reason to raise my sons thinking that girl characters are only important in books with pink covers.

Of course, my fellow MG-Minded blogger Jamie said pretty much everything that needs saying about why gender-labeled books are kinda not the best idea in the world in a post a couple of weeks ago. If you want to consider that a bit more, make sure you check out that post.  For now, though, I’m content to say that it bothers me that we live in a world where finding books about girls on an adventure-filled quest is just about as rare as finding the mutton in the vegetarian root stew in the common room of the King’s Bunion Inn.

Which got me wondering if maybe I just wasn’t reading the right books. Maybe there are MG novels out there that aren’t specifically girl books yet still have rockin’ girl main characters. So I asked my kids if they’d read any books with female leads that weren’t pink or about taking their place as the long-lost princess.

I’m sad to say, these were short  conversations. They didn’t have much to offer me. We did, however, settle on a couple of stories where ladies do the heavy lifting in the narrative and yet don’t convey the feeling they’re dreaded “girl books”.

Charlotte’s Web –  While not exactly an adventure, it’s still one of my all-time favorite books. And you’ll be forgiven for thinking the protagonist is Wilbur, Zuckerman's Famous pig. Put bluntly, Wilbur is little more than a wailing, cringing set of potential side dishes for someone’s future Magnificent Seven breakfast, obsessed with saving his own, well, bacon.  He does very little to actually move the story forward himself, instead letting Fern and Charlotte do the work of keeping him alive while he relishes the occasional buttermilk bath.  And if you really believe the protagonist hero here isn’t Charlotte—the spider who gives everything she has to save this pig, which includes a vocabulary better than most American adults, spun in silk from her backend—well, that makes me a sad little piggy.

Hook’s Revenge – I mentioned Heidi Schulz’s Never Land adventure story in my last post about lady authors who were damn good at being funny. And after today she’s probably going to start getting a little concerned that I won’t shut up about her book and am maybe on my way to becoming that crazy guy who tries to help a little too much and only succeeds in demonstrating his compatibility with the Addams Family. But the fact is that Hook’s Revenge is exactly what the world of MG needs more of: a gender-neutral adventure that’s fun, funny, filled with pirates, and driven by a female protagonist who’s a character rather than a set of stereotypes.

So that’s two, but two is appallingly short of the mark, if you ask me. There are hopefully lots of other middle grade novels out there with girls as the main character that aren’t burdened by a gender label. I’d love to hear of more, if for no other reason that to make a recommendations list for my kids (and, I’ll admit it, me too).  So if you’ve got one (or more) in mind, please share it with class.  The comments are below. You know what to do.

Hopefully just in time for a little fun weekend reading.


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