Edinburgh International Book Festival 2013

Edinburgh in August means only one thing. Festivals! The key one for me is the Book Festival, and I spent two very happy days in Charlotte Square Gardens eating ice cream, sitting on literary deckchairs while reading, and of course, listening to (and even talking with) authors. I’ll write a few pieces on the events I attended and this blog is the first one in the series.

Where Have All the Brave Girls Gone? Heroines in Literature

When I booked this event, the billing was John Marsden (Australian teen fiction author) and Samantha Shannon (author of The Bone Season) in a discussion that was to be chaired by Kate Mosse (author of Labyrinth). And that line up was enough for me to book it with anticipation.The added bonus of Julia Donaldson on the discussion panel was just the icing on the cake.

Kate Mosse, in her introduction, stated that there are plenty of ‘feisty’ heroines in children’s books but in ‘grown up’ literature, the protagonists seem to be a majority of males.

deckchairJulia Donaldson revealed that although she didn’t consciously think of gender when writing the Gruffalo, she thought a male protagonist was more suitable for the fairy tale style of the story. The sequel, The Gruffalo’s Child was a deliberate attempt to redress the balance by making the child female. She was quite surprised however, when the book was published in France to find that they had changed the sex of the child to male.

Many of the restrictions on authors were down to the views of the publishers, Donaldson thought. There could be no girls baking in the kitchen with their mothers, girls must be shown as adventurous and extrovert which again gives an imbalanced approach. The new stereotype of grannies is that they all ride motorbikes!


Her Princess Mirror-belle books have a naughty but adventurous mirror image, and the Princess and the Wizard has a strong female character. Her book Tabby McTatt features a family with two mums, Prunella and Pat. The author confessed that she hadn’t deliberately chosen to write about a lesbian couple, she had chosen the gender neutral name Pat to rhyme with cat, and it was the illustrator Axel Scheffler who actually made the decision to portray a lesbian couple.

John Marsden made the point that society rarely sees teenagers as they really are. They seem to exist in alternate visions of ‘innocent childhood’ or ‘wayward teen’, and as such they are accorded a low status in society. There seems to be a pronounced ‘fall from grace’ myth as children approach puberty, and his writing is deliberately targeted at building up the image and therefore, the self esteem of teenagers.

He is proudest of his female protagonists. He chooses often to write in a female voice as he finds it very difficult to identify with positive male protagonists. During his own childhood and teenage years, he found it impossible to verbalise his own feelings, to the extent that at the age of 19 he was admitted to a psychiatric hospital. It therefore feels easier to him to explore inner landscapes with a female hero.

Samantha Shannon is a young author, only just graduating from Oxford, but her books have been hailed as the ‘new Harry Potter’ series. She chose a female character as that was what she was most comfortable writing and it was the voice of her lead character, Paige, which was the main influence in how the story developed. Although Paige is kidnapped and dominated by the Warden, this is the first book of seven, during which Paige’s character is destined to grow.

She quoted Joss Whedon’s reply, where he was asked ‘So, why do you write these strong female characters? He replied ‘Because you’re still asking me that question.’ We need to get to a point where we are no longer surprised by strong female characters. And they shouldn’t have to be tomboys. Girls can be strong in other ways than physical.

Authors who write for grown ups and include brave heroines were mentioned. George R.R. Martin, Suzanne Collins (enjoyed by Young Adults and Adults alike) but it was noted that Victorian heroines who were rash enough to be ‘feisty’ were usually killed off and therefore implying to readers that the adult world was no place for brave females.

The panel admired quest based computer games, where players are able to choose their gender. Young Adults don’t find that strange and so they are more open to ideas of equality in life as well as in fiction.

Although the discussion was wide ranging, the general consensus was that authors choose their heroes for very different reasons, and write from a very personal viewpoint. It was felt that YA literature was paving the way for strong female characters in adult literature, and it was hoped that soon strong female characters would be so prevalent that they were no longer thought to be novel.

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