It's no secret that there's a serious lack of diversity and representation in the current literary landscape; more often than not, books will feature white, straight, cisgender people, usually boys and men. We need diverse books now more than ever, and that includes books featuring female characters of every color, ethnicity, religion, and sexuality. The gender bias within the publishing industry doesn't just ignore female authors, but it also ignores women's stories, too, stories that readers of every gender need to see, especially young readers.
There’s an ongoing conversation about the need for strong female characters in children’s literature, the most obvious argument for them being that that young women need to see themselves represented in the pages of books as often as boys, and not always as the damsels in distress. But what about young male readers? Girls aren’t the only ones who need to see the strength of their gender.
Books featuring young girls who can stick up for themselves, defend their loved ones, change the world, or simply be themselves without fear or shame send a strong message about equality: anything boys can do, girls can do too. Sometimes, they can even do it better.
Whether they’re in an intense action and adventure story or a simple picture book, female heroines in kid's literature are important to every kind of reader, boys and girls alike. Whereas girls like the titular character from The Hunger Games teach young female readers that there is no limit to their own strength and abilities, books starring powerful young women teach male readers not to underestimate females, either. Books featuring young girls who can stick up for themselves, defend their loved ones, change the world, or simply be themselves without fear or shame send a strong message about equality: anything boys can do, girls can do too. Sometimes, they can even do it better.
From the illustrated pages of The Paperbag Princess to the chapters of Brown Girl Dreaming to each volume of His Dark Materials, books for young people that feature kickass heroines teach both girls and boys about what it means to be female, show the importance of feminist thinking, and act as an explanation for the need for gender equality. Because of that, young children of every gender need to see more unyielding soldiers like Suzanne Collins's Katniss Everdeen, more brave brainiacs like J.K. Rowling's Hermione Granger, and more brave and bold individuals like Nalo Hopkinson's Scotch, because while these young women act as role models for their girl readers, they serve an equally meaningful purpose for young male readers. They’re proof that girls are just as smart, just as courageous, and just as capable as every male hero to grace the pages of a book.
There needs to be equal representation of male and female heroes on the pages of books for kids and young adults, because the classic narrative — the weak damsel in distress in need of a knight in shining armor — has run its course. It’s time to tell a new story.
If we want the young boys of the world to turn into respectful, supportive, feminist young men, we need to give them to opportunity to see women as equals, not a lesser gender. The way we educate them in school, the way we parent them at home, the way we interact with them in public, and the books we choose to share with them all have their effects on the type of men the young boys in our lives will grow up to be.
If we want them to have respect for women, we should give them stories that feature healthy, stable, and equal relationships between young boys and girls. If we want them to believe women are strong enough on their own to make choices for themselves, we need to give them stories where the girl is the hero and the savior. Instead of exclusively sharing stories of strong boys riding off into the sunset to save damsels in distress, instead of narratives focusing solely on the plights of male adolescence, instead of a constant dichotomy that divides people into two groups, either strong men or weak women, we should be embracing, sharing, and talking about books that star young female heroines, too. There needs to be equal representation of male and female heroes on the pages of books for kids and young adults, because the classic narrative — the weak damsel in distress in need of a knight in shining armor — has run its course. It’s time to tell a new story.
The heroines of the world aren’t just for little girls’ bedtime stories. They’re essential to creating the next generation of girls and boys who look at all genders as being equal. Books shape our lives from the time our parents read us picture books in the nursery to the time we finally finish our high school reading list, and beyond. It’s time to take advantage of that influence and use it to make the world a more respectful, more equal place for every gender.
Girls already know how strong they are, and they already believe in their own equality. It’s time to show the young men of the world the same thing, and books are a great place to start.
Images: Warner Bros.; Giphy (2)