Harry Potter would be eligible for entry into a contest sponsored by up-and-coming young adult novelist R.J. Nimmo – on one condition.
“He would need some magic spell or potion to change himself from a ‘Harry’ to a ‘Harriet,’” joked Nimmo, who is an expert on entertainment for children and young adults.
“Describing how the famous boy wizard would behave as a witch would be enjoyable for author and reader alike,” Nimmo said. “And it is just the kind of fun, witty and creative submission our judges are looking for.”
Nimmo, author of the emerging “Mustard Twins” fantasy series, says that trends in literature aimed at young people risk trapping kids in what he calls a “kind of reading time-warp.”
“Certainly, where representations of gender in fiction heroes and characters are concerned, kids’ books lag way behind today’s society,” he said. “A lot of popular fiction reflects outdated stereotypes of masculine and feminine roles. And books aimed at children and young adults share much of the blame. I am not only talking about mainstream books either, but Newbery and Caldecott medal winners as well.”
To challenge the status quo, Nimmo is encouraging contestants to describe how a favorite fiction book or story hero would act or react in a dramatic situation. But there’s a twist: Entrants are first required to swap the hero’s gender role or characteristics.
With the contest, Nimmo hopes to positively attune parents and kids alike to the subtle messages being transmitted through popular entertainment.
“Readers – especially younger ones – are constantly being exposed to values that are completely out of step with modern times,” he said.
Studies show that, from Harry Potter to Artemis Fowl, boys outnumber girls about four to one in books and TV shows, including those written by women. Furthermore, Nimmo points out, even books with female or gender-neutral names in their titles frequently revolve around a male character.
Why should parents be concerned?
“Society’s values are largely transmitted to children through fiction,” Nimmo said. “It is therefore important that parents be aware that self-esteem and personal development are influenced by the sort of book and story heroes we emulate as kids.”
Nonetheless, Nimmo said, there are things parents can do to sensitize kids to the issue.
“Make sure to include books in your reading selection where individuals are portrayed with distinctive personalities irrespective of gender, where achievements are not evaluated on the basis of gender and where individuals are logical or emotional depending on the situation,” he said.
To encourage young people to challenge the conventions in stories and books written for them, Nimmo is offering a $300 cash prize, plus signed copies of his latest novel, “The Ancient Egyptian Ennead,” which tells the story of two spunky teenage female heroes and their exploits in ancient Egypt in the time of the pharaohs.