I knew I wanted to be a writer from the second I could string a sentence together.
Yes, the pearls on these strings were often wonky, cheap or misshapen but I had a true passion. However it wasn’t long before I was completely disheartened. ALL of the books available to me were mostly written by men, about men or boys, taking on the universe as heroic pirates, warriors, karate kids or superheroes. Even if the role weren’t so glamorous, the protagonist would always be a boy, on an adventure.
The first book I seriously bumped heads with and thought YES was Jacqueline Wilson’s Tracy Beaker (still one of my favourite books). Yet even with Tracy, we still have a vulnerable, angry character who is living on the false hope of her mum coming home to rescue her. She is still desperate. She is a great female lead but she is in trouble.
Roles for girls
At drama school I was p****d off. Girls and women trained as actors, auditioned and grafted and worked, for years on end, only to play weak characters that just looked pretty. They watched while the blokes sucked up all the best lines and parts.
Most of the female leads in scripts that I could find when I was young that were exciting or powerful would always be the old hags, the widows, the grannies or the rebellious child, the ugly one ... a witch or demon. Or worse, the old chestnut of a woman going absolutely crazy because of all the oppression and struggle she has had to face and now it’s her time to lash out and get even. I don’t remember reading many parts for males that went like that. I also didn’t understand why the woman couldn’t just lash out and get even on a daily basis. It’s so annoying. Why couldn’t sexes just collide like in real life?
Because at home, it was my Mum that made the rules, who went to work, who got drunk, invited everybody over and sang around a table. Yet in literature, IF IF IF IF IF IF IF IF IF IF a character ever did ever do anything ‘out of the ordinary’ for a female character it was made a feature of. We had to know that this character was clever (for a woman), funny (for a woman), outspoken, resilient, brave, bloody good at wrestling (for a woman) but this would never be a big deal if this was a male part.
I think this is a weak, lazy and inaccurate portrayal of the women surrounding us and almost unpicks the vibrant threads the women before us have woven so far. Which is why I always wanted to play men in school productions and still do this day. I wouldn’t shave off a beard if I managed to miraculously grow one overnight.
Reading for everyone
On my schools tour (where I go to every part of the UK and read my books to schools) I am finding, constantly, the attention and focus centered on ‘getting boys into reading’. Why can’t we just be getting everybody into reading? I feel like I am finding myself reassuring boys that my new series is written for them too.
In truth what’s neglected is actually how many girls don’t actually read either and that’s because it’s being overlooked. Something is going wrong here, terribly. At the moment I am writing for the 9-12 age bracket and these kids are perfect fans. Girls, in particular, they obsess, they idolise and they go mental for something they are into. Once they like you, you belong to them and they shower you in praise and love and attention. This is why pop music is so successful, but why doesn't it work so well with books?
I believe this is because there are not enough inspiring, refreshing or honest female protagonists in fiction for young people. Not enough leads that kids actually want to be like; too many roles they can’t identify with or don’t aspire to. I think the power is in our hands; writers' hands, editors' hands, the media's hands – give us some space and we can talk about it. The audience is there, we just have to cater. I don’t want anything false. I don’t want great men to be dissolved from literature and taken over by women. I just want some active, accurate portrayals of powerful characters, both male and female. And quickly.
I am asking, politely, for humans in the industry to support and encourage all readers. Writers and editors – think twice when coming up with new characters, are the voiceless being voiced? Are the normal girls in society being fictionalised? Are we seeing true reflections and interpretations of ourselves in the texts we read?
And are we doing our job? Inspiring? Influencing? Encouraging? Let’s take care of our younger readers, prove to them from the beginning that writing and reading is something that is for them, they are NOT excluded, that we hear that and acknowledge that. That they are interesting with things to say, they have a story.
Let’s write it, let’s read it and let’s certainly not let them down.
P.S. I have a new female character in my next book who has a beard. So I am serious.
Laura Dockrill is the author of the Darcy Burdock books, published by Corgi Children's, and is currently Booktrust’s online writer in residence.