In the late 1800s, children’s literature split into two overall genres: boys’ books and girls’ books. Although girls’ literature continues to be published today, the recognition of female protagonists is often overlooked. In a world full of Mowglis (from The Jungle Book) and Harry Potters, it’s hard for girl characters to get the recognition they deserve. However, though these novels may not receive attention from critics the way boys’ books often do (they are more likely to be critically acclaimed), girls’ literature has been incredibly influential in shaping girl culture overall.
These novels are considered to be classic pieces of girls’ fiction and the issues they touch on helped put the culture of girls and women on the map as an important issue in literature. These novels changed the genre with their forefront issues of gender, socio-economic class systems, body-image and eating disorder acknowledgment, racial discrimination and minority representation, sexual abuse recovery, and the abandonment of young girls by their families and in their educations … simply because they weren’t boys.
Even if sentimental novels or ghost stories aren’t your thing, there will be some story that you will identify with. Perhaps though, identification of yourself in a character is the most important part of girls’ literature and its role in our lives today. Women, no matter what age, can see themselves in these protagonists – and that is why these novels are still around, despite not being critically acclaimed for hundreds of years. And that’s even more reason why every girl (or woman!) should add these to her must-read list:
1. The Wide, Wide World by Susan Warner: Not only is this the first main girl character in girls’ literature, The Wide, Wide World was the first American bestselling novel and it came out in 1850. You’ve probably never heard of it though, even though it was one of the first novels to ever sell over a million copies. Although the female protagonist Ellen Montgomery is wishy-washy and full of tears, the story is worth your time because the sentimentalism of this novel will suck you in. People always say you need to understand the past to know the future – and this is the founding past of girls’ literature. Without Ellen Montgomery, who knows where characters such as Jo from Little Women and even Blair Waldorf from Gossip Girl would be.
2. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott: This is the go-to book for girls’ literature. Alcott’s story features a sisterly bond between the March girls: Meg, Jo, Amy, and Beth. While this may be on nearly every high school’s required reading lists causing America Literature students to roll their eyes, Little Women manages to be one of the most beloved and frequently studied girls’ novels of all time – despite its 1868 publishing date. Every time I read this novel, I find something new to fall in love with. And not only will the story give you something to hold onto, Alcott’s writing celebrates her influences, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson’s work, making this novel a multi-layered literature feast of goodness!
3. Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm by Kate Douglas Wiggins: Published in 1903, Rebecca’s personality is dazzling. She writes poetry, makes her mean and nasty aunts fall in love with her, and manages to find happiness – even though her family had to send her away. Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm is a simple story, but an overall rewarding read! Rebecca pulled at my heartstrings, but still managed to make me laugh.
4. Pollyanna by Eleanor H. Porter: How often do you hear the term “don’t be a Pollyanna” or “I don’t mean to be a Pollyanna”? It stems from this little lady from the 1913 novel. Pollyanna plays a game, wherever she goes – entitled “the Glad Game.” Despite rolling my eyes at the “Glad Game,” Pollyanna’s one of the most talked about girls’ literature characters of all time, even today. So, are you a Pollyanna or not?
5. Nancy Drew by “Caroline Keene”: A product of a publishing company, the Nancy Drew series has been written by a ghost writer ever since the beginning. Since her debut in 1930, Nancy has become one of the most well-known female protagonists. Nancy solves mysteries and constantly seeks out adventure, all while managing to be the epitome of a girly girl. While some love her and others hate her, Nancy remains timeless with new novels and revised editions hitting the shelves ever since her original debut. Most recently, Nancy Drew turned into a major Hollywood production in the 2007 film with Emma Roberts playing Nancy – giving a new batch of young girls a look at this iconic character.
6. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith: This novel came out in 1943. You will fall in love with Francie Nolan as an 11-year-old in Brooklyn, and you will end your story with a 17 year old Francie – still making you smile and want to fight for your own dreams. The novel highlights a tree that grows and flourishes even in the worst of circumstances – just like Francie. But despite the hardships in Francie’s life, you never doubt her ability to grow and succeed. This may be one of the most underrated novels of the 20th century.
7. Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh: Harriet is one of the most self-centered girl characters of all-time, but her insights – even a child – are amazing. This novel a lot of influence on Harriet’s coming-to-terms with her own self, all through the form of a diary and “spying.” Published in 1964, this novel was revolutionary for the genre of girls’ literature. Today, Harriet is still a memorable character with a Hollywood film remake released in 1996 and a 2010 Disney TV movie featuring a blog, instead of a spy journal. If I had to recommend one single girls’ book, Harriet the Spy would be my top pick because although Harriet can be a brat, the progression of her character from the beginning of the novel to the end will change you, as much as it changed her.
8. Sweet Whispers, Brother Rush by Virginia Hamilton: Tree, the young protagonist in this 1982 novel, will catch your attention – even through her family’s hardships will break your heart. In the 200-something pages, Tree sees a ghost, yearns for her mother, and loses her best friend and brother, Dabney. Although the story is sad, Hamilton pulls readers in with this unique piece of fiction. The genre of girls’ literature does not have enough minority representation, but Sweet Whispers, Brother Rush manages to fill a gap and finds a place in reader’s hearts.
9. Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson: Published in 1999, Speak has become one of the most talked-about girls’ books within the last ten years. Melinda, the main character, is raped – but she doesn’t tell anyone until the end of the novel. Although readers will scream “Tell!” as they turn the pages of this novel, there is something hopeful and interesting about Melinda’s high school insecurity. According to RAINN (the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network), 1 in 6 women will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime – making Melinda’s struggle important to understand.
10. The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants by Anne Brashares: Who doesn’t know The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants? The first novel came out in 2001, and since then two movies have been made along with the release of three other Sisterhood novels. Carmen, Lena, Bee, and Tibby have a committed bond and friendship to each other, and their personal journeys make coming-of-age seem worthwhile. In a world of Gossip Girl novels, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants puts the focus on girls and their potential – instead of undermining their beliefs and futures.
What’s your favorite girls’ book?
Celebrate National Author’s Day with one of these 10 picks or click here for even more must-reads.