Renee Mihulka – Children's Book Reviews & Writer

Would Harry Potter been as popular if Harry was Hermione?

harrygirlLately, I’ve been wondering. If JK Rowling had made her leading character a girl and kept everything else the same, would her series of books have been as popular? Even half as popular? If Harry was a witch, and Dumbledore and McGonagall traded places, would she have gained the unprecedented success she has?

The short answer: Nup.

By making Hermione the ‘girl who lived’ she would have effectively reduced almost half her readership, because in general, boys do not read books with a female protagonist.

“Oh, but surely you are mistaken!” I hear some of you cry. No actually, I’m not. And to prove it, I offer you the reasoning behind Joanne Rowling’s pen name, J.K. Rowling. It is well known that the use of this pen name was suggested by Barry Cunningham, her publisher, because he thought that young boys might be wary of a book written by a woman. (J.K. Rowlings website)

Yes, that’s right. Apparently boys won’t even pick up a book if it has a female name on the cover. So, is it then that hard to believe that they won’t bother actually reading it if it’s main character is a girl?

Even when I was first reading the Harry Potter series, devouring book after book, there was always one thing that irked me about it. I knew it was written by a woman but nearly all the main characters were male. Certainly the most influential and dare I say ‘important’ characters were male. Harry, of course, Dumbledore, Valdamort, Snape and Sirrius. Sure, Hermione, McGonagall and Harry’s mother’s memory play a significant part, but really there is little doubt their significance pales compared to the male characters. Then there is The Goblet of Fire, where there is only one girl chosen to represent her school in the challenges and then poor Fleur, well she doesn’t do all that well, coming last and actually failing so badly her sister needed to be rescued by Harry. I could give you more examples, but you get the point.

It’s irritating that a book that means so much to so many people, girls and boys alike, and is written by a female, is so skewed towards males. But I don’t blame Rowling at all. In fact, I completely understand why she made those choices, consciously or not. She made them so she would have a better chance of becoming published. She is even quoted in an interview as saying “..they could have called me Enid Snodgrass. I just wanted it [the book] published.” (Harry Potter and the mystery of J Ks lost initial – Telegraph). And I get that. I really do. Actually, I understand it so much that I have consciously made the protagonist of one of my books a boy to increase my chances of it becoming published. Publishers want to make money and they know that if the book’s main character is a girl you can pretty much kiss goodbye to your male readership.

Its not the same with girls. My daughter will happily read ‘Diary of a Wimpy Kid’ or a Geronimo Stilton book but ask my son to read a ‘Billie B Brown’ book, yeah, good luck. Which has made me wonder why? Why is it that boys resist reading books written by females or about females?

Is it just a matter of content? No, I don’t think it’s as simple as that. (see Harry Potter and the Harry/Hermione question earlier) The answer is more subliminal.

A study of almost 6000 children’s books published between 1900 and 2000, found that males were central characters in 57%  of the books published each year with just 31% having female central characters. (www.theguardian.com, ‘Study finds huge gender imbalance in children’s literature’, Alison Flood, 6 May 2011) This is even more incredible since twice as many girls are avid readers than boys. The article even goes on to suggest that these figures show a ‘symbolic annihilation of women and girls’ in children’s literature.

Basically, we accept that girls will more often have a secondary role in children’s books, because boys are reluctant to read books with girl main characters. Yet on the other hand we expect our girls to read books regardless of the protagonist. In short, we don’t expect, or teach, our sons to value a female point of view. We don’t do it on purpose. We just don’t talk about it and don’t really even think about it. But we need to. We need to start encouraging our sons to read books with girls as the main characters, to consciously show them the value and importance of reading these kinds of books. Not just be deliriously happy that they are reading something.

Now I am not suggesting you harangue your little man into reading super girly, pink and fluffy books. I have two sons, I realise this will not work. Nor am I suggesting you frown when they want to read about bums and farts. What I am suggesting is that you encourage your son to also read (or better still, read them with him) books such as:

Ten by Shamini Flint – a story about a soccer obsessed girl in Malaysia, or

Sherlock Lupin and Me by Irene Adler – a detective book narrated by Irene that features a young Sherlock Holmes, and

Awful Auntie by David Walliams – a Roald Dahl like story where the main protagonist is a girl named Stella Saxby

In short, books with strong female characters that a boy can relate to.

So come on, let’s try and balance out the constant male dominance in middle grade fiction especially, with some girl power, because the more we expose our boys to this type of literature, the more they will become like our girls and no longer really care if a female wrote it or if they are listening to the voice of Max or Maxabella.

Because until we do, authors will consciously (and unconsciously) bias their work towards male characters and hide their female name so that they get published. Me included, because just like Jo Rowling, I am so desperate to become published that I’m happy to be called Edgar Snodgrass.

What are your thoughts? I’d love to hear them.

Come on comment, you know you wanna.

Book Reviews and Writer