May 17, 2011

Where Have All the Strong Girls Gone?

A study of children's literature from 1900-2000 reveals what savvy readers have known for some time: there aren't many positive female characters in kid lit (we're talking about stories for young readers, 4-8 years old). The result, according to the study's authors: "The disproportionate numbers of males in central roles may encourage children to accept the invisibility of women and girls and to believe they are less important than men and boys". 

Do you agree? Can you prove them wrong?

Classic stories with brave and clever girls do exist—Jane Yolen has a great collection—but they tend to revolve around older characters (Island of the Blue Dolphins, The Witch of Blackbird Pond, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, The Enchanted Forest Chronicles, etc.). 

So where are all the strong girls for beginning readers? With rare exceptions, you won't find them in traditional fairy and folk tales, what with wicked witches and damsels in distress waiting for knights in shining armor. You can search online and come up with a few lists, but the pickings are slim in classic picture books.

Has it changed in the twenty-first century? Doesn't look like it. You'll still find the majority of feisty females in MG and YA lit. At the younger end of the reading spectrum, there's Ladybug Girl, who makes her own fun; Fancy Nancy, who likes to dress up; Olivia, an energetic piglet; and Dora the Explorer, a cartoon character.

There must be more. What have I missed? What would you recommend?

To read the article, go to: To read the full study by Janice McCabe, et al, go to:

Books cited: Joan Aiken, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase; Avi, The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle; Beverly Cleary, Ramona Quinby; Jacky David, Ladybug Girl; Ian Falconer, Olivia; Jane O'Connor, Fancy Nancy; Scott O'Dell, Island of the Blue Dolphins; Elizabeth George Speare, The Witch of Blackbird Pond; Patricia Wrede, The Enchanted Forest Chronicles (love these!); Jane Yolen, Not One Damsel in Distress.


  1. Hmmm... I don't know that many books younger than MG. But we need to make sure our kids get a balance of books about a balance of characters!

  2. Jemi: can think of lots of early books with male characters—Horrible Harry, Henry and Mudge, Frog and Toad to name a few—so it's distressing that none come to mind for girls. But it's certainly in line with the study's contention that girls will read about boy characters much more willingly than boys will read about girl characters. Yes, we need balance!

  3. That's a pretty interesting point, and it makes me want to write a story for that age group with a strong female lead. I have a very strong female in my middle grade novel - but, it's a middle grade novel!

  4. Melissa: Me, too. I've got strong MG and YA leads and now I feel like I should be developing a pint-size adventuress. But it's a totally different market and picture books are hard sells. Sounds like a challenge! ;-)

  5. Funny you bring this up. I have a 3+ year old great niece (does that make sense). She has a HUGE imagination and is always role-playing. I was thinking about writing a picture book with her as the main character, and of course, it would be she who solves all the problems, leaving the boys in the dust!

  6. Never thought of this before for the younger set. I wonder if the publishers are even aware of it. Good post!

  7. Catherine: I'm sure they are, as a lack of strong girls in kid lit has been mentioned many times. Guess it's up to us writers to change things by writing irresistible books! ;-)

  8. I'm highly aware of the strong female MG and YA MC's since that's what I mostly read, but I'm not knowledgeable about current kidlit.

    Perhaps after reading this, publishers will aggressively seek books that have positive female characters for their lists.

  9. Medeia: Yes, it would be nice to have more balance. Even if the females were animal characters, which are very popular with beginning readers.

  10. My girls have loved the American Girls books, which all focus on very strong, determined girls. They also put out a series for very beginning readers called the Hopscotch School series, which each focus on one girl in the class who has a particular talent or interest (ballet, soccer, painting, etc).

    My oldest loved the Clarice Bean books, Ivy and Bean books, and the Katie Kazoo series when she was 7 and 8. Also, the Magic Treehouse series features a brother and sister, and the sister is definitely the more adventurous, risk-taking and determined of the two.

    When she was very little, Angelina Ballerina and Eloise were big. Fancy Nancy is getting big now, too, although my girls have grown out of that stage.

    The funny thing is, the really early readers do revolve around male characters - I think precisely because girls don't mind reading about boy animals but boys mind reading about girls - but as the books get closer to YA - they become much more girl-centric. Maybe because girls tend to read more at that age than boys? I just know it's much harder to find good books my son will read now and my daughter is swimming in them.

    Very interesting topic!

  11. Heidi: Thanks for the heads up on these books. I almost mentioned the Magic Tree House series, but since it was brother and sister, it didn't quite fit the "MC is a girl" mold.

    You know, some people argue that boys not wanting to read about girls is a cliche, but I say it's still very true. Girls are much more broad-minded (no pun intended). ;-)


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