Last month, we read a great article by Deborah Weisgall entitled The Mother of All Girls’ Books , which extolled the virtues (and “secret subversiveness” of Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel Little Women. “It was Alcott’s genius,” Weisgall writes, “to fill the didactic frame of a girls’ book with her ambition — with disturbing ideas, anger, and frustration as well as her father’s inspiring and impossible striving for moral perfection, to which her mother provided a humane antidote.” Though she makes no overt claim in the article, it’s clear that for Weisgall, Little Women is the epitome of what a book for girls should be: vivid and captivating, intense but relatable, full of wisdom, and just good literature. Of course, we agree.
But Weisgall’s article got us to thinking about what really makes a book great for young girls. It’s a nebulous thing. Whether a certain book is about girls shouldn’t matter all that much — in my experience, there seems to be a strange phenomenon where young boys don’t like reading books about girls, but girls read about either sex with equal interest — though passing the Bechdel test (which Little Women does) has never hurt a piece of literature yet. Obviously, women should be portrayed respectfully, though in 2012 I expect this from pretty much all fiction (the characters don’t necessarily have to be treated respectfully at all times by the other characters, of course — just by the author), but what else?
As a young girl who grew up to be your humble Flavorpill literary editor, I read everything I could get my hands on, but was a fantasy geek at heart, with a healthy amount of ’70s sci-fi thrown in at my father’s behest. I loved The Enchanted Forest Chronicles by Patricia C. Wrede for its irreverent leading lady (who would much rather cook cherries jubilee for a dragon and study Latin than be a proper princess) and oh-so-meta fairy tale twists, The Chronicles of Prydain books by Lloyd Alexander for their one-eyebrow-cocked adventures and (I now realize) adaptation of classic Welsh myth, Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time for its weird universe and child prodigies, and Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series for its sheer beauty and inventiveness. And so many more, of course.
But the trend I notice, at least in these four, is that the books that I loved as a kid and that have stuck with me weren’t simply great adventure stories or novels with strong female characters (though: yes), but books that asked me to think, books that challenged what I knew about storytelling, my world, and myself. So perhaps that’s one of the things that makes a book great for young girls. Or, now that I think about it, for pretty much anyone.
We want to know: What book would you crown as the all-time best book for girls, and why? Leave us your ultimate young lady reading list in the comments.