Realistic Girls and Fantastic Boys? Middle Grade Fantasy, Realistic Fiction, and the Great Gender Divide

One of the very first books my now eight year old daughter loved was called Ruby Bridges Goes to School. Even before she could read well, she would return again and again to this slim volume, turning the pages reverently, frowning at the hateful expressions of pro-segregation racists, smiling as she contemplated the bravery of this ‘real little girl.’

At the time, I thought that perhaps it was the similarity of their ages. Ruby was an entering first grader, as was my daughter. She was a girl of color, also like my child. But Ruby lived in such a different time, and struggled against such overt, violent racism. What did my daughter find so compelling about this book, that she preferred it to most others – including bookshelves full of fairy tales and princess stories?

Now, a few years and any number of books later, my big reader eight year old still gravitates to fiction and nonfiction exploring the lives of ‘real little girls.’ Unlike her older brother, who launched quickly from early chapter books into fantasy series like Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, Artemis Fowl, Septimus Heap, and the like, my daughter craves stories about realistic girl protagonists. I was at first a bit flabbergasted at her lack of attraction for fantasy – a genre her mother and brother both adore. In fact, my current middle grade novel is a fantasy adventure based on Indian folk-tales, and starring, you guessed it, a middle grade girl protagonist. So why doesn’t my daughter enjoy the genre I so love?

As a parent, pediatrician, and feminist activist, I’ve always struggled against the notion that there even is such a thing as a ‘girl book’ or a ‘boy book.’ In fact, my beliefs had been seemingly verified out by my son, who as readily consumes male protagonist fantasy as he does more ‘realistic’ stories with girl main characters such as the Ramona books or Little House on the Prairie series.

Yet, there is clearly a message being sent. And it’s through the eyes of my daughter that I am finally able to see it. With the notable exception of Harry Potter’s Hermione (whom my daughter loves), there are few central female characters in middle grade fantasy novels. If literature is a mirror – an opportunity to show children a reflection of their own lives and their own experiences (or approximations of their own lives and own experiences), then what is happening for my daughter is obvious. While she was able to see herself even in the struggles of a girl who lived in such a different time, like Ruby Bridges, she is unable to see herself in most of the the fantasy novels that populate the bookshelves in her house.

Even the names of each of her brother’s favorite series send out the message loud and clear – fantasy is a boy’s genre. Or at least a genre dominated by boy protagonists. And it’s certainly not because women aren’t writing fantasy. As this blog entitled Finding Female in Middle Grade Fantasy notes:

“Even fantasy books written by women have mostly male protagonists: Rowan of Rin by Emily Rhodda, Dragon Rider by Cornelia Funke, The Spiderwick Chronicles by Holly Black, Septimus Heap by Angie Sage, and The Unnamables by Ellen Booream. And among those books with females heroines, most are paired alongside boy heroes, such as A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snickett, Fablehaven by Brandon Mull, Rick Riordan’s The Kane Chronicles, and of course, Rowling’s Harry Potter.”

Fantasy as a genre has perhaps been considered a vehicle to ‘get boys to read.’ Yet, without getting embroiled into a debate about whether the ‘reluctant boy reader’ notion is a myth, we as writers, publishers, parents and teachers have got to ask ourselves: what are the consequences of boxing female protagonists out of fantasy?

The problem can be examined from multiple angles. While both male and female authors are writing fantasy about primarily male protagonists, female protagonists dominate realistic fiction. Just consider, while both my son and daughter began their reading careers with The Magic Treehouse series (historical time travel fantasies with a boy and girl protagonist), my son soon graduated to The Time Warp TrioThe Bailey School Kids, and then rapidly to the fantasy series named above. My daughter, on the other hand, seemed to skip like a pebble against a lake from one to the other series of realistic novels with girl protagonists.

In approximate order, these books included: Ivy and Bean, Judy Moody, Amber Brown, Clementine... see a pattern? Each of these (wonderfully written) series were named for their girl protagonists. Even her most recent literary love affair – with Rebecca, Kit, Kanani, Lanie, McKenna – and all the other heroines of the American Girl series — follows this pattern.

Which has gotten me wondering (and worrying!): is the gendering of realistic vs. fantasy middle grade fiction simply playing into archaic gender roles? Ie. that girls should care about things like home life and friendships, while boys should be training to use magic, fight dragons, be secret agents, or discover treasure? Is our literature itself encouraging domesticity and relationships in female readers and imagination, bravery, and problem solving in boy readers?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m certainly not trying to suggest that friendship and home life aren’t important — for both boys and girls. Or that realistic fiction can’t model problem solving or other important skills. Or even that there aren’t some fantastic realistic fiction about boy protagonists (just think of Andrew Clemets’ great school stories). But rather, what worries me is that the predominance of fantasy books with boy protagonists and realistic books with girl protagonists is a troubling gender divide.

So in writing this blog, I’m making myself a pledge. To try to at least introduce my realistic fiction-loving daughter to some girl protagonist middle grade fantasy, a partial list below. (Some more great suggestions here and here). I’m thinking some of these fantasy heroines just may match up to the bravery of Ruby Bridges, the zaniness of Clementine or the pluck of American girl Kit Kittredge. The goal isn’t to steer my daughter away from realistic stories, but rather, open up for her the possibility of reading in multiple genres. Some of the books I’ve been thinking about include:

The Worst Witch Series by Jill Murphy

The Tiffany Aching Series by Terry Pratchett

The Enchanted Forest Chronicles by Patricia C. Wrede

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairy Land in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente

The Girl Who Could Fly by Victoria Forester

In the comments below, please suggest your favorite girl protagonist middle grade fantasy to add to the list!

Sayantani DasGupta is a lover of fantasy, but also of traditionally ‘domestic’ stories. Her ideal fantasy-realistic fiction might be a Jane Austen inspired remake of Lord of the Rings. Hey, you never know. It could happen.


  1. Watersmeet and The Centaur’s Daughter by Ellen Jensen Abbott – and there’s a third in the trilogy coming out in the next year. Awesome fantasy for ages 12 and up!

  2. The Lily Quench series (Natalie Jane Prior)
    Alex and the Ironic Gentleman (although the sequel has a boy, this one does not)
    The Sisters Grimm
    Olivia Kidney

    I really do think girls are well represented in fantasy–at all age levels. My daughter has no problems finding heroines to cheer on.

    Thinking of great ‘realistic’ fiction for boys is harder. Boys like to focus on events — be them funny, wry, athletic or adventurous.

  3. My daughter just recently mentioned liking Annie, the protagonist’s little sister in the My Side of the Mountain sequel, because she “can do real things.” I think there is something about basic competency that is appealing to her. Doing, making, having access to materials, knowing how things work. She did like Sophie (in the Howl books) , but doesn’t like fantasy as much as a rule – I wonder (for her) if it comes down to confrontation and working out power dynamics. My son is attracted to fantasy because he can identify being strong and powerful (Percy Jackson, Aragorn or Gandalf), but she is much more about relationships (how people get along).

  4. Thanks for all the great comments and thoughts! I’m realizing I should have also asked folks to list their favorite boy protagonist realistic fiction along with their girl protagonist fantasy! Such a wealth of knowledge here!

  5. Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin
    The Witches Guide to Cooking with Children by Keith McGowan
    Hero’s Guide to Saving Your Kingdom by Christopher Healy
    A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle
    Here’s a great one that is a little of both:
    The Great Unexpected by Sharon Creech Has a lovely magical realism twist to the tightly twisting plot.

    Love your post. I have two daughters. The oldest loved action adventure fantasy series and read some realistic fiction. My middle loves Newbery winners which is much more realistic fiction than fantasy.

  6. All three of Deva Fagan’s books have girl protagonists! And did anyone mention Robin McKinley? As others have said, it doesn’t get better than Diana Wynne Jones (especially the Howl books) and Pratchett’s Tiffany Aching series and the Theodosia books.

    Blushingly, I will just mention that my last book, SMALL PERSONS WITH WINGS, has a girl protagonist. Back to a boy for the one that’s coming out in August (TEXTING THE UNDERWORLD), only because the supernatural sidekick is a banshee (a girl) and there’s a little boy-meets-girl involved. The one I’m drafting now alternates between a boy and a girl, although I have to say the boy’s tale dominates so far–again, because of the circumstances of the story.

    Good for you to make us think about this and justify our choices!

  7. One that I didn’t see mentioned, that both my own boys loved, were Tuesdayds at the Castle, by Jessica Day George. And there’s Keeper of Lost Cities, by Shannon Messenger, another with a girl front and center, that was a huge hit with my nine year old.

  8. Two with great heroines that I didn’t see mentioned, that both my own boys loved, were Tuesdayds at the Castle, by Jessica Day George, and Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, by Grace Lin. And there’s Keeper of Lost Cities, by Shannon Messenger, another with a girl front and center, that was a huge hit with my nine year old.

  9. Two Princesses of Bamarre by Gail Carson Levine (really most of her books)
    most of Vivian Vande Velde, especially Magic can be Murder and Dragon’s Bait
    Dragon Adventures series and Tuesdays at the Castle by Jessica Day George
    Dusssie by Nancy Springer (again, several of hers have female protags)
    some of the books in the Squire’s Tales series by Gerald Morris (those that have a female in the title)
    Zahrah the Windseeker and Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor
    Just Ella and sequel by Margaret Peterson Haddix
    Donna Jo Napoli is more YA, but I think some might be appropriate for MG as well
    Beauty by Robin McKinley
    Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin
    the Dragon Chronicles by Susan Fletcher
    Virginia Hamilton has a few folktale collections with female protags
    Peaceweaver by Rebecca Barnhouse
    Darkbeast by Morgan Keyes

  10. Fantastic recs, many thanks! About these princess-fantasy tales: I love Shannon Hale, but I have often wondered if my daughter’s craving for stories about ‘real little girls’ is a bit of a subconscious princess backlash. At a very young age, when she was enjoying, as society told her, lots of stories about princesses, she LOVED the story of Ruby Bridges. A little girl of color in the real world – decidedly NOT a princess, but a girl who lived in the world my daughter lives in. Clementine, Ivy &Bean, even the American girl protagonists, are also decidedly NOT princesses. Even thought sales don’t seem to support it, is equating girl fantasy to princesses creating a psychological ‘princess overload’? Something I’ve been thinking about (as I shop around a story about an ordinary girl who realizes she’s… yup, a princess…)

  11. I second the Shannon Hale recommendation, especially for a girl who already enjoys stories about girls and their friendships/interpersonal relationships, as Hale’s books have fantasy settings but are really stories about relationships that, for the most part, could very well play out in non-fantasy settings–those might be a great place to start because they bridge the genres well. Plus, they’re terrific.

  12. I also recommend books by Patricia C. Wrede and Shannon Hale. “A Posse of Princesses” by Sherwood Smith was also very good despite the terrible title.

  13. Tamora Peirce’s “Song of the Lioness” & “Beka Cooper” series both are fantasy with strong female protagonists.

  14. Pretty much everything by Tamora Pierce. 🙂 She’s written 20 or so fantasy books, all with strong female leads. Love her!

  15. Spindlers