Today, I’m going to be talking about strong female protagonists as well as supplying you with a few resources, but before I do so: an anecdote. This way, you can see why I have chosen this topic in particular.
Picture a fine Saturday. Sun shining. Hound dog napping. Tomatoes weighing heavy on their stems in the garden. Birds chirping. I’m telling you, it was off to a great start. But things went awry quickly. I had some errands to run, one of which included spinning by the library to drop off a few books. Passing the computers in the main area, I noticed two girls playing a game. I’d peg them as sisters. One 7ish and one 10, probably. I did a double take as the pink fashion game they were playing stared out at me from the monitor. The curvey cartoon model stood in her panties and what looked an awful lot like a push up bra as the two girls debated lipstick shade and eyelash length. It wasn’t exactly the paper dolls of my youth. “Go outside! Read a book!” I wanted to yell. But my internal voice was all Keep on walking, Moulton, you’re not their mom.
Still, I jotted the website down real fast and google-searched it when I got home. The game was one from www.girlsgogames.com. I perused the site briefly and even played one of the popular games: “nerdy girl makeover.” The game tag line proclaimed: “Scrub and pluck this bookish babe, then browse the make-up, hair, and accessory options to makeover her entire appearance. You won’t believe the before and after pics…”
And I didn’t believe them, let me tell you! This was one of many makeover games, which actually appeared to me to be a lot healthier than the “Mall Kissing game” and “Bieber Kissing game.”
Feeling a bit disillusioned I clicked out of the website. My phone buzzed, reminding me that I was attending a shower the same afternoon. I threw on some shoes, made sure I looked decent, secured the ribbon on the gift bag and headed out. When I arrived, I dropped the gift, scooped some pretzels from a snack bowl, was handed a mug of iced cappuccino and grabbed a seat. I wasn’t at the shower long before the conversation went to books. Please keep in mind I said books, not literature. To my despair, a copy of Snooki’s book had been pulled from the shelf, (meaning it was actually bought and placed their prior to this), then set on the table. I busted out laughing, thinking maybe it was part of a funny shower game that was about to take place. Turns out…. not so much. And this is where it gets ugly.
“Great book, right?” I said, sarcastically.
To my horror, earnest eyes stared back at me. Yes, the answer was, yes all around. The “ghost writer was ok” and it’s just “a light read, you know, something to lighten up with after a long day at the office.”
WHAT? I thought as the cup of cappuccino in my hand tipped and spilled some of its contents over my knuckles. Were they being serious? From their looks it appeared I was the crazy one. So I inquired, wondering if maybe I had wrong perceptions of the merits of this work. “So she’s on some tv show, right?” I said.
“Yeah, Jersey Shore. It’s a reality tv show.”
From there, the conversation disintegrated into something about Jersey Shore and Sixteen and Pregnant as light things to watch at the end of a long day. I stared from one working professional to another. I could agree with the sentiment of wanting to unwind with something light, and shared that I liked 30 Rock and, right now, was enjoying Parks and Rec(They both have strong female protagonists, just sayin’). One person next to me actually said that they liked Parks and Rec, too. Delighted that I had a comrade, I gushed that I thought Parks and Rec was a great study in character development.
As soon as the words “character development” were out of my mouth I knew I’d really screwed up. Not the right crowd, Moulton, I thought to myself as one person walked away from me. My friend from work gave me a pity smile across the crowd.
“Erin writes books,” she said, as if this explained everything.
“Really? What kind?” asked the woman nearest me.
“Oh, books for kids. My first novel is a middle grade. You know, 8-12 years old,” I said.
“Like Twilight?” she said.
Was this real life? I pinched myself.
I looked at her and she looked at me and I thought, C’mon, now, don’t judge. Open your mind.
“Not exactly,” I said, “a little younger age group, and the girls in my story go off on an adventure in the mountains of Vermont, facing rapids, poachers, the elements and rough terrain. No vampires. No romance.”
“Neat,” she said, nodding. “I love books.” She then reached across the table and pulled Snooki’s book over to her.
At that point, I ran—okay, I walked, but on the inside I was running–for the door. I headed home. I drove into the garage and huffed up the stairs.
“Babe!?” I shouted through the house, then remembered that hubby was away to VT. Not that I had really forgotten, but in my frenzy I forgot for a just a second. Naturally, I went to the next step, exclaiming to the hound that the world was in peril. He looked up from his bed, groaned, as he is accustomed to do, and laid his head back down. I dropped into my computer chair. Took a deep breath, paused, and turned toward my bookshelf.
“Ladies, what is going on?” I said, locking my eyes on the braid-framed face of Anne Shirley of Anne of Green Gables. “Are the positive female figures gone?”
I stared from one bookshelf to another, looking for some positive female characters. Some smart, fun, true grit, dirty nails, determined gals. And just as Gurdon’s “mother of three” found nothing bright in the YA section at Barnes & Noble, I found nothing strong amidst the bindings in my bookshelf.
Ha! Just kidding. Sorry, I couldn’t resist. Rest assured, just as there is great YA, there are some great female gals kickin’ it in literature. We simply must seek them out and get educated. And share it. Celebrate it. So, I opened this document and I scanned my bookshelf. Favorites of my youth stared back at me:
Lyddie by Katherine Paterson (Lyddie faces a bear at the top and just gets better from there!)
Little House on the Prairie By Laura Ingalls Wilder (Laura is determined and sure of herself, also one of the best students in school!)
The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley (Aerin slays dragons! Need I say more?)
I mulled a bit. Such old titles. What about the girls in recent literature? I looked over my shelf of middle grade literature that is currently rocking. Big sigh of relief. Right off the bat I saw strong females at their best!
One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia (Delphine looks after her sisters and takes charge as they navigate a new place and a tough relationship with her distanced mother, while also attending a summer camp sponsored by the black panthers.)
Sources of Light by Margaret McMullan(Sam uses her camera to observe social change in her community of Jackson Mississippi in 1962.)
Words in the Dust by Trent Reedy (Zulaikha, a young afghan girl with a cleft lip, struggles to find worth. She is quiet, but brave spirited, sneaking to a professor’s house to learn to read even though she knows it could jeopardize her life as it did her mother’s.)
But wait. What if these are only on my bookshelf? I wondered. What if no one else is noticing them? What if the Snooki-loving moms let their kids makeover the nerds on girlsgogames and then at the age of 10 they read Twilight and (face hits desk) —what if they never meet the likes of Anne Shirley or Lyddie or Delphine?
Well, here are some links for you and your daughters so we can avoid that little chain of events. There is a lot of great information amongst them so please bookmark and share!
The Amelia Bloomer Project honors strong, powerful girls and the books that inspire them(look halfway down the page for Middle Grade titles).
The Women’s National Book Association has a great list of books for 21st century girls. (Scroll to Intermediate titles for the middle grade readers!) A lot of my favorites and classics are on this list!
Spunk and Determination: Real and Imagined is a list by our own Mixed Up Member, Tracy Abell
Gender Equal.com has a list of Brave Girl titles, split up by age level, and includes some stellar non-fiction titles.
Education Oasis includes selections from teachers and librarians.
Goosebottom Books describes itself as Books for Thinking Girls. I’m intrigued by their Thinking Girl’s Treasury of Dastardly Dames series!.
HerInteractive has online mystery games, including Nancy Drew Mysteries.
New Moon Girls is an online community and magazine where girls create and share poetry, artwork, videos, chat together, and learn.
Whyville incorporates creating your own character and chatting with friends while also playing thinking games.
Zoey’s Room is an award winning online community for middle school girls that focuses on creativity, engineering and math.
Josie True is a fun and educational adventure game. Josie looks for her teacher in 1920s Chicago and meets Bessie Coleman, the first African American woman to earn her pilot’s license! They then go to Paris to catch thieves, see an airshow, and all kinds of other adventurous things!
Hardy Girls Healthy Women (HGHW) is a nonprofit organization dedicated to the health and well being of girls and women. It has great resources, conversation, seminars and trainings! And also has a good children’s lit booklist.
Media Awareness Network (MNet) is home to one of the world’s most comprehensive collections of media literacy and digital literacy resources. It has some great articles on perceptions of women and girls in the media.
All right, that’s only a start! I know there is much more and please feel free to add to this list in the comments section. On a final note, even though my dismal Saturday of fashion games and Snooki and Twilight did not celebrate strong girls, that does not mean that they are not here, being represented. I urge you to find the books with the strong female protagonists, so that they might hook the readers that would otherwise be using their Saturday to peruse eye shadow and lipstick via all the online fashion games. Find and share the books with the strong female heros, so they might inspire the next generation, and so the authors of the future will have characters that stand up tall with Lyddie and Anne and Laura. And, hopefully many, many others.
Erin E. Moulton graduated with an MFA in Writing for Children from the Vermont College of Fine Arts in 2007. She is the author of Flutter: The Story of Four Sisters and One Incredible Journey(Philomel 2011), and Tracing Stars, forthcoming from Philomel/Penguin in 2012. Erin is co-founder of the Kinship Writers Association. You can visit her online at www.erinemoulton.com or on Facebook as Erin E. Moulton (Author)