Q&A with Maria Nikolajeva: Author and professor at the University of Cambridge


Hello, Maria! Tell us a little bit about yourself and your research.

I am a professor of children’s literature at the University of Cambridge. I have worked academically with children’s and young adult literature more than thirty years and published a dozen books and hundreds of articles. I do not work on any specific historical periods, nor authors, nor genres, but I am interested in “big questions”, such as what makes children’s literature distinct from other kinds of literature. So perhaps what I do can be best described as philosophy of children’s literature.

How are female protagonists represented in children’s literature today?

Contemporary children’s and young adult writers cannot but be acutely conscious of gender issues. However, these can be dealt with in various ways. Replacing a male hero with a female in a conventional masculine heroic plot is not a good strategy. In fact, such pseudo-strong heroines frequently despise their less heroic sisters, which cancels the feminist thrust of the story.  Portraying a temporarily empowered heroine who falls for an attractive male the moment she meets him isn’t particularly radical either. A writer who really wants to be subversive must find ways of providing a female protagonist with agency and visibility, without withdrawing it at the end, and it must be plausible within the framework of the fictional world, be it realistic or supernatural.

How are children affected by what they read?

There is today reliable scientific evidence that reading fiction affects our brains, enhancing our understanding of the world, society, ourselves and other people. Young readers develop their cognitive and social skills through reading, using fiction as a training field for dealing with real-life issues and relationships. Most works of fiction place their characters in situations that readers are unlikely to encounter in real life, but can experience vicariously through the characters. For female readers such proxy experience can be particularly liberating.

You’ve written about the Twilight series and how damaging it can be to young girls. Can you expand on this? What are the big problems with this series?

Twilight is about rape and sexual abuse, which we normally perceive as socially and morally unacceptable, but which is in the series presented in a seductive way. Bella is easy for young girls to identify with, because she is such a nonentity, such a “just-like-me”, and it is a pitfall, because if readers align with a character they are unable to judge her, to see how erroneously she is thinking and acting. Young readers may not be able to liberate themselves from this immersive identification; in plain words, say to themselves: “I know that Bella is an idiot, and this is exactly why I am curious to read about her, since fortunately I will never be in this situation myself, because I am smart, and if I happen to meet a vampire, I will not be tempted”.

Could you provide us with some good example of books with strong female characters?

Two great recent examples are John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars and Marcus Sedgwick’s She Is Not Invisible. In the first, the protagonist is a cancer victim, in the other, she is blind. Neither book is “about” cancer or disability, but both portray young girls with strong personal integrity, powerful agency and voice. They don’t fight monsters, at least not in the conventional sense – they certainly fight their inner monsters. They are not “just-like-me”, and you don’t want to be like them, but you want to know everything about them because they are awsome.

What makes a female character “strong” or “weak”?

Lyra in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials is doubtless a strong herione, but she is not flawless and has much to learn. This ambivalence makes her a compelling literary character, as opposed to, for instance, Tris in Veronica Roth’s Divergent who may seem strong, but is manipulated, which a young reader can easily miss, enchanted by her superficial strength. Katniss in The Hunger Games is a strong character precisely because she has weaknesses, doubts, ethical concerns; but if the reader is only interested in action and romance, this complexity may go unnoticed. A female character who emulates masculinity is not strong. A female character who is one of a kind and disdains other women is not strong. A character who can both maintain her agency and affirm her femininity is strong.

How do you feel about the statement, “Girls will read books with female or male protagonists but boys will only read books with male protagonists”?

It is true and has been repeatedly confirmed in various empirical projects, although it is of course a generalisation, and there may be many concrete examples of the opposite. Cognitive psychology has shown that girls develop empathy, that is, ability to understand other people’s emotions and states of mind, on the average two years earlier than boys. Therefore a young female reader is more likely to engage with a male protagonist. Nowadays books are very clearly marketed toward a particular audience, and there is strong peer pressure, so a boy wouldn’t like to be caught reading a book with a girly cover, even if it may be of huge interest for him. (Ebooks are good because they don’t betray what you are reading). But this tendency certainly continues into adulthood: men typically don’t read books or watch movies with female protagonists, and generally men read less fiction than women. This is why women on the whole have more imagination and empathy, since reading fiction stimulates these qualities.

Who is your hero/heroine?  

Snufkin in Tove Jansson’s Moomin books.


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