12 May Some Thoughts on Books for Girls
Ages ago, when I was an English teacher at what was then Central Jr. High, the rule of thumb for our department was that you never chose a book for the class which featured a girl protagonist. The theory: boys would not read about a girl, but girls would always read about a boy. So the classes got to know Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, Travis of Old Yeller, Jim of Treasure Island, Gene and Finny of A Separate Peace, Ralph and Jack of Lord of the Flies, Jody of The Red Pony, and so on and so on. The girls didn’t complain. The plots were interesting; the themes were universal. Did they ever wonder why all the protagonists were boys?
Decades later, when I was head of the Putnam Indian Field School, one of the moms, a lawyer and writer named Saira Rao decided to address the lack of realistic depictions of young girls in books. She and a friend formed a company called In This Together Media, whose aim was to search for and publish books that featured spirited, intelligent, normal heroines who were neither totally girly nor totally tomboyish.
In This Together Media began publishing the Soccer Sisters books by former player and journalist Andrea Montalbano. These books are great for girls aged about 8 to 12. They deal not only with soccer and teamwork, but also of the real life peer pressures and decisions girls face all the time. Another series published by ITTM features a girl called Kat McGee. Kat started out thinking of herself as the average child in a family of total stars. Each of the four books of the series features an important holiday (Christmas, Halloween, Thanksgiving, 4th of July), which is threatened until Kat’s ingenuity saves the day. All four books have received positive reviews from parents who enjoy exposing their children to a role model who is intelligent, inventive and courageous, while also being female.
Because I have a just-turned-8 granddaughter who soaks up books, I have recently become acquainted with some titles for 7–9 year-olds, which not only feature a smart, plucky girl as the main character, but are also fun reads. The Piper Green series by Ellen Potter has such a heroine. Piper lives on a small island and takes a lobster boat every day to another island for school. Piper is honest and outspoken, with strong feelings. She can get into trouble for some of her actions, but she is always willing to consider the point of view of another child and make amends when she is wrong. As a former English teacher, I like that when an adult in the book uses a big word, Piper always explains its meaning clearly to her readers. The titles are Piper Green and the Fairy Tree, Piper Green and the Fairy Tree: Too Much Good Luck, and Piper Green and the Fairy Tree: the Sea Pony, which will be available in August 2016.
Finally, the Princess in Black series by Shannon and Dean Hale is aimed at 6-8 year olds who are good readers. The Princess is a secret super-hero, who has to change from a pink princess gown to her black costume in a broom closet at the most inopportune times, and then dash off to rescue a boy goatherd whose flock is beset by monsters. Any young girl will love reading these stories: The Princess in Black, The Princess in Black and the Perfect Princess Party, and The Princess in Black and the Hungry Bunny Hordes. They are clever, and bring to life a protagonist who is able to instantly turn from frilly princess to super heroine when the need arises, and talk her way past anyone who gets suspicious about her secret activities.
The times are a-changing, and it is wonderful to find a host of books featuring smart and spunky realistic girls of all ages, taking charge and solving problems. The real breakthrough will come when at least one of these books about a girl is assigned to a class of both genders — hopefully that will happen soon.
Marianne Riess is the former head of the Putnam Indian Field School in Greenwich, CT. She has 40 years of experience in working with young children.