The Children's Book Garden

Reading and weeding through the best and worst of children's literature

The Heroine Challenge November 5, 2009

“Pink, pink, pink,” my daughter tells me. “I want EVERYTHING pink: The sky, the ocean, the grass, food…”




Disney-Princesses1Bows, dresses, tights, skirts, “clip-clop” shoes.

Barbie dolls, Tinker Bell, Disney.

In an age where the marketers frequently host sleepovers with preteens to gauge their product interests, where frozen peas display Dora the Explorer and the 3T section of clothes at Kmart have bedazzled jeans and crop tops I wouldn’t let my teenager wear let alone my preschooler, it’s no surprise that the book industry has been stuffed to overflowing with a surfeit of Tacky Crap Books for girls that hype all the elements of being “feminine” that I’ve listed above – pink, glitter, lace, wings, crowns, ballet shoes adorn big-eyed ding-dongs whose sole goal in life is to acquire pink, useless clothing, grow impossibly long hair, and get married to a prince. And maybe, if they have any energy left, they get a pony. (Not to ride it, of course; just to brush its hair.)

And I’m not just criticizing the way the heroines are presented – most of these books don’t even try to deliver a good story. No interesting language or word play, no challenging ideas, often these movie-based “books” are just summaries the director’s secretary typed up for some random interoffice memo that the publisher attached to some copied images from the movie. Yet, they utterly fascinate my daughter – before I ditched them, she would hold them as if they were sacred totems – maybe the extra-large eyes on Ariel the mermaid hypnotized her?

Dora-the-explorer-large(A digression: Dora the Explorer’s big eyes are frankly frightening, as are those on Bratz dolls. I’m afraid some marketer somewhere dug up some psycholanalytical information about the addictive quality of big eyes and found some manipulative gold in this design… and notice that there’s a new “tween” Dora – who has grown her hair… disturbing… my daughter already tells me that girls have tweendoralong hair and dresses…as if having short hair and pants would change her sex?)

So a concerned and thoughtful parent faces the challenge of culling through the stacks and finding books the daughter will appreciate with heroines who have more in their heads than accessorizing and who look somewhat normal and whose expression of girlhood doesn’t revolve around enhancing her attractiveness to dull-witted royal dudes.

Thankfully, savvy authors with flair and sense do exist.

Some of my top favorite girl heroines  include:

  • Madeline
  • Fancy Nancy
  • Olivia
  • Angelina Ballerina
  • Annie (and Snowball)
  • Ella the Elephant
  • Stella (and Sam)
  • Lola (and Charlie)
  • DW (from the Arthur series)

Who are your favorites?


7 Responses to “The Heroine Challenge”

  1. Mary Beth Says:

    Ditto on the big eyes — Didn’t you know that’s what women do? They cast spells with their big, empty eyes since they have no brain to work with.

    In terms of heroines, I think I want to find more that aren’t famous, because the celebrity component seems to go hand in hand with the weird marketing and weird gender stuff. thoughts??

    PS – I have a commentary on Angelina Ballerina!

  2. snowbrice Says:

    I have a few favorites:

    1. Lily (and the Purple Plastic Purse) – Kevin Henkes
    2. Chrysanthemum – also Kevin Henkes
    3. Laura Ingalls and Caroline (Ma) Ingalls
    4. Miss Rumphius
    5. Charlotte – Charlotte’s Web

    I must say that I actually like Dora. When the show started, there were really no other characters out their that looked like my daughters. Dora is smart and adventurous. The big eye thing is kind of weird, though. I am also a bit disturbed that there i now a pre-teen Dora (I refuse to use the term “tween”).

  3. ARRIANNA Says:

    i love dora plz reply

  4. srinija Says:


  5. queenechinops Says:

    I have just stumbled upon this provocative blog entry about the heroines we hold before today’s young women. I was fortunate to have gone to a private college for women in the 1970’s, learning a thing or more about culture, grace, self respect and being a (beautiful) young woman in this generation. I am about to have the pleasure of “having” a granddaughter. I am eager to re-explore the materials available in this wide world and will be watching and reading your feed with great interest. Thank you for sharing!

  6. David Wernette Says:

    Thank you for the suggestions! As the father of two young girls, I am horrified and depressed by what I see being shoved in their faces on t.v., in stores, in catalogs, etc. I found it practically impossible to find a girl-centric item at Toys-R-Us that did not have some kind of trashy cartoon- or TV character tie-in pasted all over it. Our culture seems to target girls especially at a young age with the message that any want, need, or void can be filled with NEW STUFF, or the attention of that most mythical of beasts – Prince Super-romantically-rich-and-handsome. My girls will know how to change their own oil, earn and manage their own income and, hopefully, use some critical thinking skills. My son, on the other hand, will know how to sew on a button, clean a bathroom, and, hopefully USE SOME CRITICAL THINKING SKILLS. Giving birth and breast-feeding are the only gender-specific tasks I can think of. Thoughts?

  7. Cassilynn Says:

    I came kinda late to this thread, but AHMEN! When my daughter was born almost ten years ago, her father’s mother unleashed an unholy hell upon us that was the Disney Princess collection. Each time I let her go spend time with this woman, she loads her up with more cheap glitter infused stuff that I toss straight into the trash. I’ve gotten lucky that Bug would rather stomp through the woods in her pink (can’t kill it all) cowgirl boots, than moon over Prince Charming (BTW, check out the Fables graphic novel for a hilarious turn on that old cad). I found you looking up female storybook characters since my daughter is going to the library today for an event and it was suggested they dress up as one. She was Pippy for Halloween last year, so we needed a new idea! Pippy is still on of my favorite characters, as is any Astrid Lindgren character. As for other favorite characters, Olivia, Coraline (book), Little Women, The Ann of Green Gables series, and to be honest, most of the books my daughter likes the best have characters that are animals. She’s particularly interested in the Warriors series about a group of cats.

    As to what David wrote, I think you are about right with gender specific tasks. I cannot think of any other…just wish I could get my husband to occasionally take out the trash. I had my Grandfather teach me about car maintenance when I first got my license and I think my Dad was one of the best cooks I knew, (well, next to Granny). Your right with kids learning critical thinking skills, but I am a nurse and we love that phrase. The main thing I want to instill in my daughter and my in utero son is self reliability, to be able to think things through and take care of a situation on your own, knowing that help is available if you need it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s