Kathleen Odean bears no ill will toward literary damsels (or dames) in distress. Not as long as they use their own wits and intelligence not beauty, please to solve problems they encounter.
Sounds fair enough. But when the elementary school librarian wanted to read books featuring such females to her students, she had a hard time finding them.
So Odean put together “Great Books for Girls: More Than 600 Books to Inspire Today’s Girls and Tomorrow’s Women” (Ballentine; $12.95). It’s one of several recent publications that helps parents locate strong female heroines in children’s literature. Another is “Let’s Hear It for the Girls: 375 Great Books for Readers 2-14” (Penguin, $10.95). “Just Girls,” a catalog that comes out five times a year, offers readers a selection of books they can order.
“The truth is, both older and newer books about girls tend to focus on relationships - friendships, school stories, problems with a best friend or a sibling,” “Great Books” author Odean says from her Rhode Island home. “That’s fine, but it’s not what I was looking for. Finding ones where a girl has a quest or does something physically active was harder to find.”
Betsy Winters understands that. She spent two years seeking a novel about a girl tennis or golf player for her daughter, Christine Lewis. Now in sixth grade, Christine chooses most of her own books. But her mom still likes to know what she’s reading.
“I try to peruse the books,” says Winters, an avid reader like her daughter. “I want to make sure this isn’t one where Daddy and Brother went out to hunt for rocks while Mom and Sally spread the picnic cloth and put out food. Let’s see if we can avoid that, and Sally bringing a boyfriend along, too. Puh-leese.”
Kelly Brack, another Dallas mom, carefully chooses what she’ll read to her 4-year-old daughter and 5-year-old son. She and the children like Thomas the Tank Engine. But Annie and Clarabel, the only females, are not engines. They’re merely part of the train.
“It’s not something I beat over their heads,” Brack says. “But when it comes up, I’ll say … ‘Do you think Annie could be a tank engine, too?’ Sometimes they’ll want to hush me up, and that’s OK. I try to give them chances to think about it, though.”
As a girl, Brack loved reading Nancy Drew mysteries. She hopes her daughter will find someone similar to identify with. The girl sleuth embodies what Brack wanted when she was 10 years old and still strives for at age 37.
“She was intelligent and had deductive reasoning,” she says. “She was aggressive and assertive. She was polite, and I know that sounds like a mother, but I want that for my daughter.”
Actually, Brack says she isn’t “gender specific” with her children. She wants her son as well as her daughter to read books that present girls and women in such positive roles. After all, she says, “Males play a big role in women shaping their self-perception.”
Odean’s book doesn’t mention boys in the title. But they, too, could benefit from reading the books it recommends, she says.
“I want to reach as many kids as possible,” she says. “What I’m looking to give them are images of girls and women they’re less likely to see in TV and the movies, images that show them brave and strong and smart and capable. And that some girls will take this as inspiration, and some boys will change how they think of girls.”
Houston author Joan Lowery Nixon always casts strong teenage girls in her books for young adults. But she receives a lot of letters from boys who relate to the characters, too. About one heroine, a boy wrote, “Every time something happened to Jennifer, I felt it was happening to me.”
“My girls are all self-sufficient,” says Lowery, whose books now number well over 100. “They may be scared to death, but they … make their own decisions and do them. Some may get good grades, some don’t. But they’re still smart. They may not even know where they’re going, but they’ve figured out the best way to get there.”
Jennifer, the heroine the boy’s letter referred to, tends to be impulsive. But she still forges ahead because she has courage, Lowery says.
“This is an example to kids now. What I’m trying to say is, ‘You have courage, too. You can handle this.’ If any of them met Prince Charming and he was in trouble, they’d save him, too.”
Over the last 15 years or so, a lot of books featuring strong girl characters have been published, she says. The problem has been finding them.
Jane Shay found that out when she started looking for books to read her then-3-year-old daughter. She realized boys solving mysteries and having adventures filled the pages of books she was reading. She attributed that to having two older boys. But when Shay went to the library, “Whoa! Was I in for a surprise,” she says.
“The more I got into it, I realized this was quite a significant problem,” she says from her Bethesda, Md., home. “All the studies about how girls lose self-esteem at age 13 point to the fact there’s a great paucity of stories about strong girls. They’re certainly not out there in proportion to boys.”
So two years ago, she started her “Just Girls” catalog (phone number: 800-465-5445). Every issue features descriptions of books around a certain theme, including “Pioneering Girls,” “Girls in the Civil War” and “Legendary Girls”.
“There are lots of topics I’d love to do, but there aren’t enough books yet,” she says. “I hope we get more. But the truth is, we have to support them economically. Like many things, this gets driven by economics.”
Sometimes she gets frustrated that there aren’t more books featuring strong females. But she’s just as likely to be encouraged. A recent book section of The New York Times featured two: “Happily Ever After” by Anna Quindlen (Viking; $13.99) and “Rumpelstiltskin’s Daughter” by Diane Stanley (Morrow Junior Books; $15).
“This is one thing a parent can do to make a difference for their girls,” Shay says. “The global gender equity issues will take years to fix. But here’s something every parent can do right now.”
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