When my daughter was about ten, we read Molly Moon's Incredible Book of Hypnotism by Georgia Byng to her. After a while, we would have my daughter read every few chapters, and eventually we left her to read the rest of the series on her own. My daughter is now fifteen, and she reads a lot of fantasy and science fiction. She loves novels with smart, strong and funny girls as main characters, girls like her. I asked her to help me compile a list of some of her favorites for other girls, the list at the bottom of this blog post.
When I was her age I read a lot too, and like her, I loved fantasy and science fiction. I journeyed with Frodo through Middle Earth in The Lord of the Rings, discovered with Schmendrick the Magician why all but one of the unicorns had disappeared in The Last Unicorn, and learned how a boy named Sparrowhawk became a great sorcerer named Ged in A Wizard of Earthsea.
Unlike my daughter, however, I never found those smart, strong, funny female main characters that I was looking for. Shouldn’t a reader be able to find him or herself in the novels he or she reads? Where were the girls who were like me?
The women in The Lord of the Rings books are mainly there to be beautiful or to add a comic element. None of them have active roles in the story. Of all the fantasy novels that I read, The Last Unicorn came the closest to embodying what it feels like to be a teenage girl moving between childhood and womanhood, which is crazy considering the character who embodies that isn't even human. What's even crazier is that Wizard of Earthsea features a boy as the main character even though it was written by a woman. Not even women were writing female main characters back then, or so I thought. (Much later, I discovered that there were a few contemporary female fantasy protagonists, like Meg in Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, which was published a few years before I was born.)
So why did so few fantasy novels back then have strong female protagonists? Why were even women writers creating male main characters? Harry Potter is a much more recent example. Not only is the main character of that series a boy, the woman who wrote the series wrote it under the non-gender specific pen name J.K. Rowling. Why?
I think there might be two reasons. The first is that publishers don’t know there’s a demand for something until it hits the bestseller list. The Lord of the Rings hit the bestseller list in the sixties, so that told them there was an audience for fantasy novels of a certain type, a type with heroes, not heroines. So they tried to recreate that success and failed. By the seventies, according to Terry Brooks in Sometimes the Magic Works: Lessons from a Writing Life, the publishers had come to the conclusion that fantasy doesn’t sell. You had a hard time selling any kind of fantasy, forget about fantasy for girls. A publisher had to put his reputation on the line to publish a fantasy novel. Brooks was lucky to find a publisher who was willing to do just that. Stephen King also had a huge battle getting his first horror novel published, because publishers back then thought that horror didn’t sell. King had to prove them wrong, but first he had the almost impossible task of getting someone to publish his first horror novel.
Of course, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. Something that’s never published won’t make it to the top of the bestseller list. So if it was believed that fantasy for girls didn’t sell well, that was enough to prevent them from getting published at all.
The second reason is that it’s long been assumed that girls will read books with male main characters, but boys wouldn’t read books with girl main characters. This led to the assumption that if you want to sell a lot of books, you had to attract both boys and girls readers—and the only way you could do that was by making your main character a boy. Changing a female writer’s name to something less gender specific or even male was also considered good for sales.
While it’s still somewhat assumed that boys won’t read books with girls as main characters, everything has changed. Why? Because it’s now generally acknowledged that women and teenager girls buy more fiction than men and teenage boys. There’s still a preference for boys as main characters in middle grade, but female main characters are blossoming in YA and older fiction. A few fantasy and science fiction novels with female protagonists--like Twilight or The Hunger Games have turned into runaway successes. What difference does it make which gender of reader puts something on the bestseller list, as long as it goes on the bestseller list and stays there?
And the most interesting thing is that, while in the past even women were writing male protagonists, nowadays even men are writing fantasy and science fiction novels with girls as main characters, like the Maximum Ride series by James Patterson.
As for me, not being able to find the books I wanted to read when I was a teenager turned out to be a good thing. I eventually I came to the conclusion that the only way I was going to get to read a fantasy novel about a girl like me was if I wrote it myself, and that's why I started writing Toren the Teller’s Tale when I was sixteen years old.
Nowadays, girls have plenty of wonderful, smart, strong and brave fantasy heroines to look up to. Without further ado, here are ten of my daughter’s favorites. (Although I agree with many of her choices, my list would have looked a little different.) This is by no means a complete list, but I wanted to limit it to ten, so I apologize to all the great fantasy novelists--Gail Carson Levine, Tamora Pierce, and many more--who didn't make this list. Each of these books is the first in a series, so if you like the first, you'll probably love the rest too. While most are good for readers age nine and up, the last two are better for ages twelve and up.
List of 10 Recommended Fantasy & Science Fiction Novels for Girls
1. Akiko on the Planet Smoo by Mark Crilley—a group of aliens take a fourth grade girl on an intergalactic adventure to rescue a prince from kidnappers.
2. The Everyday Witch: A Tale of Magic and High Adventure! by Sandra Forrester—Beatrice Bailey is about to turn twelve, when means she will get her official classification as a witch. But she first needs to pass a test.
3. Molly Moon's Incredible Book of Hypnotism by Georgia Byng—a young girl living in an awful orphanage discovers a book on hypnotism and her own incredible power.
4. Dragon Slippers by Jessica Day George—a plucky orphan girl befriends a dragon and gets a mysterious pair of blue slippers that might destroy the kingdom.
5. Theodosia and the Serpents of Chaos by R. L. LaFevers—eleven-year-old Theodosia, who spends a lot of time in 1906 in London’s Museum of Legends and Antiquities , discovers an ancient curse that leads her on a grand adventure.
6. Dealing with Dragons: The Enchanted Forest Chronicles, Book One by Patricia C. Wrede—daring and adventurous Princess Cimorene would rather deal with dragons than marry a prince.
7. The Sisters Grimm: The Fairy-Tale Detectives by Michael Buckley—after the disappearance of their parents, two girls discover that they must take on the family responsibility of being fairy-tale detectives.
8. Fablehaven by Brandon Mull—Kendra’s and Seth’s grandfather is the guardian of Fablehaven, a magical place where fairies and other magical beings live hidden away from most human eyes, and now it’s up to the brother and sister to save Fablehaven and their grandfather.
9. Scepter of the Ancients (Skulduggery Pleasant) by Derek Landy—a young girl teams up with a walking, talking skeleton to solve her uncle’s murder and stop whoever is trying to kill her next.
10. The Bar Code Tattoo by Suzanne Weyn—a high-school student becomes an outcast and has to run for her life when she refuses to get a bar code tattoo like everyone else.