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What's a Girl to Do? Nine Great Children’s Books with Female Protagonists

The books that we read as children play a huge part in shaping our expectations of the world. For many, the realisation that we haven’t read enough children’s books with female protagonists doesn’t hit home until we start shopping for books for a niece, younger cousin, or even a daughter. Obviously, there are some classic children’s books with young women as their main characters, but we’d like to move a little further afield than children’s classics like Matilda, Anne of Green Gables, or The Secret Garden.

For those who’d like to pass on some children’s books that feature girls getting themselves into adventures and out of close scrapes, then we hope that the following list gives you exactly the kind of positive messages you’d hope for from a collection of children’s books.

A Wrinkle in Time

On the surface, A Wrinkle in Time might seem like a tough recommendation for children. It introduces readers to concepts like non-euclidean geometries and space-time-folding, and the story proceeds at a swift pace that never quite gives you a chance to catch your breath, but it also features an excellent protagonist in the form of 13-year-old Meg Murry. Meg is of that brand of children’s book protagonists who are eminently capable and self-possessed, but who suffer for being stubborn and immature.

The book itself is utterly charming, and L’Engle’s style, which communicates complex concepts quickly and without dwelling, is excellent. There’s also a movie coming out soon, which always gives added impetus.

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Dealing with Dragons

Patricia C. Wrede’s Dealing with Dragons is generally considered more “young adult” than “children’s fiction,” but we’d feel confident recommending it here all the same. The book’s protagonist, Princess Cimorene, is disheartened by the strictures of courtly life and takes it upon herself to learn a host of less-than-princessly skills, including fencing and magic. When she learns that she is to be forced into an arranged marriage, she absconds and soon finds herself in the company of dragons. In a fun shakeup of the typical fairytale arrangement, Cimorene volunteers to be the dragons’ captive princess, and befriends Kazul, a female dragon elder.

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Pirates!

Celia Rees’ Pirates is set at the beginning of the 18th century and tells the story of Nancy Kington and Minerva Sharpe. Nancy is the daughter of a wealthy merchant who has recently fallen on hard times, while Minerva is a slave working a plantation. With the family’s fortune in dire straits, Nancy is effectively sold to a man called “The Brazilian.” The two girls become fast friends and eventually take matters into their own hands, fleeing the estate and styling themselves as corsairs.

Obviously, piracy brings troubles all its own, but the book is filled with a spirit of high adventure. Pirates is also better researched than many other children’s books, so there’s plenty of incidental education on offer.

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The Golden Compass

While the rest of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy tends to veer a little more “young adult,” the first book remains an children’s classic. The book tells the story of Lyra, a young girl swept up in an adventure in a parallel world in which humans are constantly accompanied by spirit/animal companions called “dæmons.” The book follows Lyra’s quest to discover the fate of her friend, Roger, and her uncle, Lord Asriel, both of whom have disappeared into the far north. It’s an excellent story of a young girl taking matters into her own hands in the face of enormous odds.

If we’re lucky, those of us recommending the book to children now will help to undo some of the damage done by the shambles that was the 2007 film adaptation.

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Nobody's Princess

Esther Friesner’s Nobody’s Princess is the first in a series of books that focuses on unraveling mythical or legendary stories and finding agency in some of the female characters in those situations. In this case, the book offers a fresh look at the story of Helen of Troy, but from the point of view of a young Helen herself. It’s a fun approach that livens up what might otherwise feel like an old story, as well as introducing readers to a series of other classical mythological figures. Perhaps not one for Greek myth purists, but certainly something to engender an interest at a young age.

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The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

We generally tend to think of C. S. Lewis’ fantasy classics as being about a family of children as a collective, but there’s a healthy argument to be made that the protagonist of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is actually Lucy Pevensie. After all, it is Lucy who first discovers the magical wardrobe that and takes the first faltering steps in Narnia. It is also Lucy who leads the other children back into the fantasy kingdom. Despite being the youngest of the siblings, Lucy acts very much as the pathfinder of the book, establishing the way for the other children to reach Narnia.

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Howl's Moving Castle

While many will already be familiar with Studio Ghibli’s animated adaptation of Howl’s Moving Castle, the original novel offers a fantastic experience for both children and adults. As in the movie, Sophie Hatter is cursed to a premature old age by the Witch of the Wastes, but then taken in by infamous wizard, Howl. Sophie’s resoluteness and positivity in the face of adversity contrast well with Howl’s fecklessness and self-absorption, serving as the foundation for a dynamic that gives both characters space to breathe and have fun. There is fantastic sense of black humour to the proceedings.

The book has more time to play with its setting and explore the nuances of its different characters, making it a delight for those who have already seen and enjoyed the movie.

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The Abhorsen Trilogy 3 Volume Boxed Set

Sabriel is the first book of Garth Nix’s Abhorsen trilogy. The book is set in a fantasy world in which two countries, Ancelstierre and the Old Kingdom, are separated by a physical wall. The first book tells the story of a girl named Sabriel, who inherits the office of Abhorsen from her father, and must take responsibility for dispatching the restless dead. She takes up the trappings of the office, a set of bells and a sword, and embarks on a mission of vital importance.

This is politically relevant if only to introduce your children to the idea of having a big wall between two countries, and the ways in which that might not necessarily work out.

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Malory Towers Collection 1

The typical English boarding school story is very much a male-centric affair, but Blyton takes the structure to a girl’s school without reducing it all to frills and giggles. The books’ protagonist, Darrell Rivers, is athletic, strong, and loyal. Her best friend Alicia Jones is smart and sarcastic. They play pranks and neglect their homework, and swim and play tennis and lacrosse. They also befriend the meek and stand up to bullies. In general, it’s a series that celebrates a host of noble qualities without ever portraying its characters as perfect heroes or villains.

There’s also a follow-up series by Pamela Cox if you end up with a hunger for more Malory Towers.

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Obviously, we all grew up with different books, and our favourites could differ hugely from yours. If there are any children's books with female protagonists that you feel are belong on the list, please drop us a recommendation in the comments. It'd be a shame to miss them.

American actress, author, fashion designer, dancer, producer, and singer. Became interested in pursuing a career in the entertainment industry.

2 Comments

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Rick Pyrrh
Island of the Blue Dolphins is an even better recommendation than a lot of what's on this list! It would add a Native American perspective, which is something that a lot of children might not otherwise get an opportunity to read. Great addition!

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