What if the “best books” were not always centered on male protagonists?

Today we have a guest post from Meg of Planning the Day. Meg responds to Nicholas Kristof’s list of best children books, a list that featured mostly male writers/protagonists. Granted, Kristof’s list was much more diverse than Publishers Weekly Best of 2009 book list that was male/white biased in the extreme. He included some books I would count among “bests” — Charlotte’s Web, Harry Potter, Anne of Green Gables. Yet, he, as Meg points out, has chosen a list where ONLY ONE GIRL is front and center. In keeping with the call at She Writes to speak out against the still male dominated world of publishing/writing, Meg offers us a more diverse, less penis-privileged list in what follows:

“I usually enjoy the writing of Nicholas Kristof, the New York times columnist who often uses his space to bring attention to the ongoing genocide in Darfur and the plight of trafficked women in Southeast Asia. So I was excited when I saw that his column this week was a list of the best children’s books; I expected selections that would inspire social-consciousness and empathy among their readers.

What I did not expect is that nearly every book would feature male (and when he is a person, white) protagonist. Out of thirteen suggestions, only one is based on the story of a young girl. Who is the lucky lady? Anne of Green Gables, “one of the strongest and most memorable girls in literature.” And not one of them centers around the story of a person of color.

Some of his other suggestions have great girls in supporting roles: Charlotte’s Web, with beloved Charlotte and Fern as Wilbur’s best protectors and friends, topped the list. The Harry Potter series was also recommended, which features such strong women as Hermione Granger and Ginny Weasley.

So what’s the problem with his suggestions? There’s nothing wrong with any book in particular on his list, but it fails to offer characters that young girls or children of color can immediately relate to. There is something special about picking up a book and connecting immediately with its main character by seeing yourself in that person. While it is not out of the question for girls or children of color to relate to a white boy protagonist, it would be great for children to see themselves, with all of their historical particularities, represented in their books.

Kristof invited his readers to comment on his article with their own additions, so I’ve made my own list to add to his. Not all of them feature girls or people of color, but I hope that they represent a more diverse set of characters:

  1. “Island of the Blue Dolphins” by Scott O’Dell. I vividly remember buying this from our school’s book fair when I was in fourth grade, and then retreating into my room for three days to read, emerging only for meals. This book is based on the true story of a 12-year old Native American girl, Karana, who survived alone on an island for 18 years.
  2. “Tuck Everlasting” by Natalie Babbitt. I was enchanted by Winnie when my mom read this story to me in first grade.
  3. “Number the Stars” and “The Giver” by Lois Lowry. These are two of my absolute favorites from elementary school. I read them countless times between third and fifth grade, and remembering them now makes me want to check them out of the library again. Number the Stars is the story of Danish girl whose family helped her best friend escape from the Nazis in Denmark. And The Giver… just read it, it’s great.
  4. “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry” by Mildred D. Taylor is the story of Cassie, a black girl growing up in a segregated and oppressive southern community in the 1930s.
  5. “Walk Two Moons” by Sharon Creech. Native American Salamanca Tree Hiddle travels across the country with her grandparents, trying to find her disappeared mother. I don’t remember much about this book except that I loved it.
  6. “From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler” by E. L. Konigsburg. This book-on-tape kept us kids silent for countless car trips, as we listened to the adventures of Claudia and Jamie, two kids who secretly live in the Metropolitan Museum of Art while they try to solve the mystery of the new statue.”

(Please add your suggestions in comments!)

12 thoughts on “What if the “best books” were not always centered on male protagonists?”

  1. I think male-privilege would be a better word than penis-privileged, as having a penis doesn’t always entail privilege.

    ahem, anyway, awesome kids fantasy series: The Enchanted Forest Chronicles by Patricia C. Wrede

    1. I get your point — penis-privilege is meant in a tongue-in-cheek way rather than a literal way. And, I am fond of alliteration. But, I recognize that having a penis doesn’t always result in privilege…
      I just saw a book by Wrede and wondered about her — glad to here she is good. I will check her out!
      Thanks for commenting!

      1. Woo, sorry to keep cluttering this comment thread but I didn’t see an email address.

        I recognize that it was meant tongue in cheek, but I still feel that such jokes make some trans people feel alienated and excluded (me included).

        Kinda like if some guy said “there aren’t any women on the internet” or any joke that assumes the whole world is straight. It’s assuming that anyone with a penis is a guy, thus the joke hinges on the nonexistence of trans people to make sense.

        If you’re still not convinced, well, the only other thing I have to say is maybe read over this comment thread of people responding to a similar joke

        Thanks for listening.

      2. Oshaberi,
        Point taken. I know I too often find myself talking or writing as if the world is made up of the binary our heteronormative/patriarchal world holds up – that of male/female. I need to remember to trouble my own thinking on this and to use language that doesn’t reinforce this paradigm. I am sorry that my wording made you feel alienated and excluded. Indeed, the joke “hinges on the nonexistence of trans people to make sense.” I will revert to using male privilege in my wording and endeavor to be more trans-aware in my writing.
        My sincere apologies!

    1. Thanks for the link Jon. Looks like all the books were for very young kids — too bad as children age the choices tend to become less multicultural…

  2. It’s fairly new but I liked Starhawk’s Last Wild Witch. There’s no strong protagonist, but the kids are clearly the heroes of the story and they come in all colors and shapes and sizes.

  3. I love your additions, they are all wonderful books. As far as sci-fi/fantasy YA with female protagonists, I recommend Garth Nix’s “Sabriel” series, as well as Neil Gaiman’s “Coraline.”

    Also, ALL of Scott O’Dell’s books are downright amazing. I especially loved “Sing Down the Moon” and “Zia.”

    I also liked Scholastic’s “Dear America” series, which are all historical fiction with female protagonists. In the same vein is the “Royal Diaries” series, which features princesses from all over the world. Loooved those books. They aren’t CLASSICS for sure, but exemplify a wide range of experiences, backgrounds, and definitely got me into history at a young age.

  4. A great series of books with a female hero is the Alanna series by Tamora Pierce. She wrote other books outside of this series as well.

    A really good book aimed at about 3rd grade kids is Stories Julian Tells by Ann Cameron. It centers around and African-American family. There are several sequels as well.

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