The Bookzone for Boys ran a nice piece by Sarwat Chadda recently in which he dismisses the theory that boys won't read books whose leading character is a girl. It's still a surprisingly common assumption, despite all the evidence to the contrary, and although girl heroes are pretty common in children's books now a lot of the low-end spies'n'dinosaurs series titles which are aimed at boy's of Sam's age still barely feature female characters at all, except perhaps a mum to provide a packed lunch for the protagonists before they set off on missions or adventures.
It's not an attitude I've ever really understood. When I was a boy I always preferred books that had heroines; especially tough, brave or resourceful heroines like Elionwy in Lloyd Alexander's Prydain books, or all the girls in Swallows and Amazons*. Books which didn't have such heroines (like The Lord of the Rings whenever Eowyn's not around) always seemed to me to be missing a trick. When I tried to write a book without a heroine myself (No Such Thing As Dragons) one crept in anyway. And when I tried to write a limp 19th Century heroine prone to embroidery and fits of the vapours (Myrtle in Larklight) she turned out to have a peculiar strength of her own and kept taking over the story.
So I'm in complete agreement with Mr Chadda that boys will happily read books with girl leads. But I do wonder - and this is more of a stray thought than a settled opinion - whether all these tough heroines don't represent a particularly male fantasy. Boys like them, but do many girls? I've had lots of conversations with, and letters from, girls who love Hester, but I suspect they're a minority, and that her basic appeal is to boys. I'm always aware of the danger that, in writing a character like her, you may end up not with a girl lead at all, but with a boy in disguise.
*, her vampire boyfriend. But the books' massive popularity among teenage girls is undeniable, and suggests that Bella is providing something which Buffy and the other kick-ass heroines who have dominated popular culture lately don't. I suspect that a lot of girl readers like to identify with a character who is emotionally fragile and self-absorbed; more worried about romance and rejection than revenge and rocket launchers.
This doesn't mean that I'll be trying to write more Bella-ish heroines myself, much as I'd love my sales figures to equal even 1% of Ms Meyer's. The girls who emerge from my imagination alway seem as tough as old nails. Cluny Morvish, the new female protagonist in Scrivener's Moon, is as gung-ho as any of them, riding to hounds and gamely leading mammoth-charges against squadrons of the Movement's landships. She's just the sort of girl boys like to read about...
*(I know Susan is a bit mumsy, but her top-notch tent-pitching and fire-lighting skills mean that she's still far more tough and resourceful than me)
*Did there not used be a chain of grocery shops in London called Cullens? For some reason I always associate his name with almond croissants.