Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Heroines are not just for girls! Lari Don

I’m very wary of being a “girls’ writer”. I am a girl, or I used to be, and both my own children are girls. But I don’t write for girls. I write for readers. I write for readers like me who enjoy adventure, tension, riddles, magic, defeating monsters and solving problems. Some of those readers are girls, some of those readers are boys.

However, I’ve always been a bit concerned that so many kids’ books have a boy as the protagonist and a girl as the clever sidekick. So the main characters in all my novels so far have been girls (usually with a male sidekick, though not always a human male sidekick) and as far as I can tell, from emails and signing queues at book festivals, boys enjoy my novels just as much as girls.

But now I’ve done something a bit risky, for someone who doesn’t write for girls. I’ve written a book of heroine tales.

Most of my fiction is inspired by old myths and legends (that’s where my familiarity with magic and my long list of monsters who need defeated come from) and I love telling old stories too. I especially love telling Greek and Viking myths. But most of the best known monster-defeating myths are about boys and men. About heroes. And if girls appear in those stories at all, they’re not even the sidekicks. They’re usually the prizes.

“And the man who rids of us of this dragon will win half my kingdom and my daughter’s hand in marriage.”  

I don’t like giving girls away like sweeties. So one day, I changed a Viking dragon myth.

Standing up in front of a class of 10 year olds, I let the dragon eat every single one of the princes and warriors, and encouraged the princess to kill the dragon herself then refuse to marry anyone. It went down very well with the audience and I enjoyed it at the time, but I felt absolutely rotten afterwards. I felt like I’d ripped the heart out of the story.

So if I wasn’t prepared to alter stories quite so radically, either I had to tell all these hero myths without any balancing heroine myths, or I had find some authentic heroines. So that’s what I did. Once I started looking, I found dozens of them: Inanna the Sumerian goddess, Durga the Hindu goddess, the ballad of Li Chi, Tokoyo the pearl diver, unnamed girls in folktales from all over the world. All defeating monsters or solving problems. None of them waiting for some bloke to rescue them.

I started telling these heroine stories. And kids loved them just as much as they loved Theseus and the Minotaur, or Assiepattle and the Meester Stoorworm. Boys loved the heroine stories, just as much as girls had loved the hero ones.

To be honest, I doubt any of the kids were counting the number of boys and girls in the stories. It was probably only me who was worrying about the cumulative effect of the imbalance of heroes vs heroines.

And now comes the risky bit. I’ve just put my favourite heroine tales into a book. But it’s not a book for girls. No, it is not. It is a book for anyone who enjoys adventure and quests and magic and defeating monsters.

So I was delighted when, at my first public event with Girls, Goddesses and Giants earlier this month, several boys turned up, and they enjoyed my retelling of a goddess defeating a demon just as much as anyone else. And they bought the book. One 11 year old boy read most of it on the way home on the bus.

So boys can enjoy books about heroines too. (Whew!)

I’d be interested to know other writers’ and readers’ opinions on whether there are too few strong girls in the well-known old stories which inspire so much of our contemporary culture, whether that imbalance is a problem (for boys as well as girls), and if so, how we address it.

And in the meantime, I’ll keep looking out for more authentic heroine stories. But I still don’t write books just for girls…

nb - I’m away from my computer for a few days (scheduling posts ahead of time is a great thing!) but I'll respond to any comments as soon as I’m back online.

Lari Don is the award-winning author of more than a dozen books for all ages, including fantasy novels for 8 – 12s, picture books, retellings of traditional tales and novellas for reluctant readers. 

Lari's book of heroine stories, Girls, Goddesses and Giants, was published earlier this month by A&C Black. 


Susan Price said...

My sister (in-law) Pratibha has statues of Durga in her house, riding a lion and wielding a fearsome weapon in every hand - she's a heroine and then some! (And so is Durga.)
I agree that I don't think children, or listeners, care much about the gender of the tale's protagonist, so long as it's a good story - but I'm glad to see someone else finding out the legendary heroines and giving the lie to the idea that 'traditional stories are about Sleeping Beauties being claimed by a prince.' - I did my bit with my book Crack-A-Story, where the active character in every tale is a girl or woman.

Joan Lennon said...

Your book sounds great!

Lari Don said...

Nice to hear from another Durga fan, Susan! I was so impressed at how Francesca Greenwood managed to show her with ten arms and ten weapons in the book and still made her look elegant! A Durga statue sounds great - I'd love to meet Durga in 3D (so long as she wasn't angry with me...) I must hunt down your CrackAStory, Susan - is it old tales or ones you've made up yourself?