I dove back into new books by old-favourite authors recently, in particular, Robin McKinley, Donna Jo Napoli, and Garth Nix. Nix FINALLY released the prequel to his Abhorsen series, Napoli published a duo of novels Hush and Hidden, and McKinley’s ever-deep wellspring gave birth to a new fantasy, Pegasus, which I cannot wait for the follow-up to.
I read these authors repeatedly since I was around 10 years old, maybe younger, as well as many of their contemporaries. I was a fantasy nut (still am) in a pre-Harry Potter publishing world, too young for Stephen King or J.R.R. Tolkien. So I picked up Nix and McKinley, Terry Pratchett, Diane Duane, Patricia C. Wrede, Charles de Lint, Cynthia Voigt, Diana Wynne Jones, and T.A. Barron, to name but a few authors. What I noticed then, was spell-binding writing, fantastic stories, epic journeys, and heroes brought to life anew. The characters were real. They had good bits and bad bits to their personalities. They were like me. What I noticed this time around, however, was that though I overlooked whether the characters were male or female when I was younger, I was acutely aware that I had no lack of strong role models (female or male) when I was first falling in love with reading, and absorbing all of the influences that would help to make me who I am today.
I grew up in the 90’s craze of demanding that more girls be given more opportunities in science and maths, better guides for how to dream BIG than Disney movies, and at the time where demands for strong female characters were starting to be heard. But I never felt a lack of them; I had books. Many were off the beaten track, were titles and authors that had their own cult followings but that most people wouldn’t find on a best-sellers list – not because of quality, but because of genre. Fantasy and science fiction especially for young adults written from the mid-80s through the 00s could be horrendous, but there was a lot of exceptional work written as well. Patricia C. Wrede’s Dealing with Dragons set the foundation for four books where the ideal princess was done away with, and a bloody dragon put forth idea that “King” is just a job, a title, and that gender had little or nothing to do with it. Diane Duane’s Young Wizards series showcased the growth of two adolescents, outcasts for their own reasons, developing themselves and a friendship, written and constructed in a way that it was not the gender of the characters that mattered, but the presentation of their strengths and weakness.
I could examine so many series, books and authors, but at the end, what matters more is that people branch out and actually explore available texts before condemning an entire body of literature as lacking. By polarizing the discussion about ‘good’ role models in the frame of whether or not people will identify with characters based on their gender, good books that defy the confines of the debate end up buried. When good books are buried, no one wins; certainly not young adult readers of any gender looking between pages for someone to identify with.
Sometimes finding the words you need to read requires looking far away from a bestsellers list. My advice, ask a librarian. Ask book blogs (like this one). Reach out to readers and hit up a local independent bookstore. But understand that everyone’s reading is different; and anyone who speaks of literature in absolutes, in my opinion, has not read far or widely enough.
P.S…. interested in my literary time-travelling? Follow me on Instagram to see what other books I dig up: #bookfeet #100books #fortheloveofthepage (share your own reads too, I like having an immense list to look forward to)
Until next time…