Publishing follows trends, and the trend in current YA fantasy seems to be toward a blue and pink division, adventures “for boys” (about 40%) and romances “for girls” (about 60%).
Boys get books like John Flanagan’s Ranger’s Apprentice series, Joseph Delaney’s The Last Apprentice series, and James Dashner’s Maze Runner series, in which the emphasis is on a young male protagonist coming into his power, finding his courage, or both. Romance is minimal, if it is present at all. Female characters may show up, but they’re often irrelevant (with very little page time) or untrustworthy (with readers, along with other characters, questioning their allegiance from one chapter to the next). Girl readers may enjoy these books, but because they appreciate the adventure and the strength of the male protagonist, not so much because they admire or identify with the questionable female characters. The writers of these books certainly don’t mind girls reading them, but they mainly have a male audience in mind.
Thanks to the unstoppable juggernaut of popularity that is Twilight, girls get its innumerable knock-offs, stories of ordinary high school girls falling for mysterious, brooding bad boys (e.g. Hush, Hush, Tiger’s Curse, Fallen, Halo, Evermore…). The heroines of these books don’t have an adventurous bone in their bodies, except when it comes to attaching themselves to dangerous, powerful guys. Not all female protagonists in current YA are quite so wimpy; take the girl out of the contemporary high school setting, and she may rise to an adventurous occasion, as in Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games series, Kristin Cashore’s Graceling, Marissa Meyer’s Cinder, Alison Croggon’s wonderful Books of Pellinor, and Laini Taylor’s excellent Daughter of Smoke and Bone. But all these books include romance as a crucial factor. It’s not uncommon for writers to force even the toughest and most independent female protagonists into a love triangle, so that their journey towards self-discovery is tied to their realization of which of two “hot guys” they belong with. Boys are central to these girls’ stories, while girls are more peripheral in the boys’ stories. Yet it is far more common to see a girl reading Ranger’s Apprentice than to see a boy reading Twilight.
What I long to see are more YA fantasy tales with cross-gender appeal, in which adventure and romance may coexist happily and both male and female characters are interesting, believable individuals with vital and sympathetic roles to play. I love the Harry Potter series and its title protagonist, but it’s Hermione Granger, that wonderful magical nerd, that first drew me to the series and has held my heart ever since. Hermione’s allegiance is never for one moment in doubt; she is a trustworthy and resourceful ally. Even when she ventures into damsel-in-distress territory in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, spending the last third of the book petrified by the basilisk, she provides Harry and Ron with the answers they need to defeat the monster. In the next book, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Ron is the one taken out of commission, while Hermione fights at Harry’s side. The Harry/Hermione friendship shows that boys and girls don’t have to fall in love in order to be important to each other. Romance is introduced in the later books, but it never overwhelms the fight or diminishes the agency of the characters involved. Other series in this mold, with male and female characters sharing the adventure, include Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series, Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaeus Trilogy, and Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl books. All the books have well-developed heroes of both genders — yet in all these stories, the central character is male. Publishers and writers still hold to the notion that boys aren’t likely to read a book with a female lead, however rollicking an adventure it might be.
I love a good romance. After all, I write YA romance fantasy and am very proud of it. But as a reader I catch myself wondering, do all female protagonists in YA fantasy have to fall in love? The genre does include a good many female-led adventure stories, including the aforementioned Graceling and Books of Pellinor, Robin McKinley’s The Hero and the Crown, Gail Carson Levine’s The Two Princesses of Bamarre and her fairy-tale adaptations Ella Enchanted and Fairest, and, of course, Tamora Pierce’s series involving Alanna the Lioness, her daughter Aly, Daine the practitioner of wild magic, Beka the Terrier, and Keladry the Protector of the Small. These are wonderful characters in wonderful stories, the sorts of girls I would have loved to read about as a teen and love to read about now. They are the saviors rather than the saved. Yet I do believe that Keladry is the only heroine of this set who doesn’t end up in love and/or married by the story’s end. If a YA hero can manage to get through a series of adventures without falling in love, why can’t a YA heroine?
I don’t have an answer. But perhaps, before my own writing days are done, I will manage to cool my romantic heart long enough to send a heroine on an adventure in which she finds her strength and courage as well as loyal friends but doesn’t find romance. It’s on my bucket list.
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