Feminist AF: Hearing Their Voices: Supporting Female Empowerment in Middle Grade Fiction for Tweens and Teens a guest post by Author Diane Magras
When I was a child, the books I loved most—fast-paced adventure stories that swept me away from my rural, small town life—regularly reinforced the belief that girls’ voices didn’t matter. Those glorious, heart-pounding stories featured girls who were present only to be saved, or to be silly, or both—or had no girls at all.
That these attitudes still exist in books and life during my adulthood, even after more than a decade of “girl power” movements, is a problem. And it’s a huge problem when it sneaks into the books that kids love to read. What are we showing our girls—and our boys—when a popular series features a female sidekick whose role is to be beaten up by villains, and then rescued by the boy protagonist, in every single book? Thank goodness
for Sayantani DasGupta’s Kiranmala and the Kingdom Beyond series, where a girl
battles demons and leads rescue missions with boys right alongside her; or Henry Lien’s
Peasprout Chen books, which depict a world of skating and kung-fu where girls are
always equal to (and sometimes rather superior to) the boys.
We need books like these, books that show girl’s voices—loud or quiet—making a
difference. Right now in the real world, we’re still debating how much women’s voices
matter—and “feminism” is a loaded term. Students are growing up seeing women reach
high political offices—and then be relentlessly criticized for being themselves and
We children’s authors have a crucial role to play in changing this, especially if we’re
aiming to write books that kids will love to pick up. Our books can, with subtlety,
challenge gender stereotypes by showing girls’ voices influencing all parts of a plot. And
I’m delighted to be part of that.
(Cover art by Antonio Javier Caparo)
I’m the author of unabashedly feminist middle grade fiction, which I hope will serve,
engage, and inspire both girls and boys. My books—the first two are The Mad Wolf’s
Daughter and The Hunt for the Mad Wolf’s Daughter—address gender stereotypes and a
girl’s role in fiction head-on. They’re Scottish medieval adventures filled with swordplay
and escapes, secrets and betrayals, tense scenes and cliffhanger chapter endings—the
kind of vivid, action-packed narrative I always loved.
They also star an unusual female protagonist who I could have used when I was a tween.
Her name is Drest. She’s the youngest in a family of men who together form a ferocious
war-band. Because she’s one of them, she’s been trained like them, and there’s no
question that she’s equal. When her father and brothers are captured and hauled off to be
hanged, she finds a sword and embarks on a rescue mission.
In Drest’s world, her confidence rarely wavers and her male family constantly backs her
up. In their relationship, I aimed to depict a realistic world where boys and men
supported the actions and voice of a girl.
And where a girl is, hands down, the most capable character on every page.
In the second book, Drest is fleeing for her life when a deadly price is put on her head. In
this adventure, she meets women who have the power to change her story—a mysterious
healer who helps to arm her, a village wife who protects her, another healer who stands
up to a castle of enemy knights to help Drest escape, and a noblewoman whose voice can
utterly shift the power in the world around Drest.
I want my readers to see women and girls ruling, deciding, making a difference—and
being listened to across the board by all the boys and men in the book because their
voices are crucial. (And I want readers to also see that boys and men can be thoughtful,
compassionate, caring, and able to cry—and not be insulted for crying.)
I’m glad to stand with my fellow 2018 debut authors Sayantani DasGupta and Henry
Lien in depicting strong girls in exciting adventure stories. And there are others leading
the charge in realistic fiction too—Laura Shovan’s Takedown features a young female
wrestler struggling against gender bias, whose male wrestling partner backs her up at
every turn; and Mae Respicio’s The House That Lou Built (the 2019 Asian/Pacific ALA
Honor book for Children’s Literature, by the way) stars a young engineer who plans to
use her skills to build a home, gathering a group of kids of different genders who support
and follow her.
I’m heartened that authors writing for tweens and teens are thinking about this, but there
still needs to be more. And we parents and teachers and librarians need to encourage boys
as well as girls to read these books. Girls can’t be the only ones to read stories that say
their voices matter. And boys can’t be shamed for wanting to read a book with a girl on
the cover, something that happens far too often at school, at libraries, and at home.
When girls and boys both are reading stories where girls’ voices matter, they’re delving
into a crucial model for our real-life world. These models will reinforce and strengthen a
commitment to equality in the real world through that empowerment of girls’ voices.
I want girls and boys to learn from my books, as well as other books challenging
stereotypes, that it’s crucial to question the status quo of gender roles.
And when they see a girl—or woman—being criticized for her looks, her personality, or
her voice, I want all kids to ask why, and to feel empowered to challenge it.
Diane Magras is the author of the New York Times Editors’ Choice The Mad Wolf’s Daughter and its companion novel, The Hunt for the Mad Wolf’s Daughter. She’s obsessed with Scotland, castles, legends, and most things medieval, though from a decidedly contemporary perspective, and always with a feminist bent. Diane works for a cultural nonprofit and lives with her husband and son in the woods in Maine.
Filed under: #FeministAF
About Robin Willis
After working in middle school libraries for over 20 years, Robin Willis now works in a public library system in Maryland.
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