A book called Girls Only! How to Survive Anything, published by Scholastic, has recently come under fire for being, as one Amazon commenter put it, "unbelievably sexist." That commenter, A.M., continues, "While the Boys Only counterpart to this book provides all kinds of interesting tips to actually surviving real dangers, like "How to Survive a Snakebite" and "How to Survive a Whiteout," the Girls Only book offers such tantalizing survival tips as "How to Teach Your Cat to Sit," "How to Pick the Perfect Sunglasses," and "How to Spot a Frenemy." Pretty bad, yes.
Update: Credit where credit is due! Jackie Parker, a teen librarian in Seattle, is the one who called out the series initially on her blog, Interactive Reader. She wrote in her post recounting the boy and girl chapter titles, "If any of you are planning to go back in time, note that this girl would have preferred (and still does) the boy version of survival. I just don't think 'How to Handle Sudden Stardom' quite counts."
Since we're particularly tuned into this sort of inequity on the Internet, there have been a wave of angry online responses and blog posts about the books. Responding to the commentary, Scholastic issued the following statement:
Many readers have expressed concerns about our How to Survive Anything titles, and we want to thank you for your passionate responses. The two titles have had very limited distribution to date, and no further copies will be made available.
In response to that have come the inevitable comments that that's not enough, that the publisher should do more, that this isn't a real apology, and so on. And you know what, sexism should be called out and prevented; we should note these problems and work to fix them; and we should confront those who perpetuate the problems. But often when we confront sexism or any other "ism," especially on the Internet, we simply rail at whoever we can find to lay blame on and, sometimes, our outrage becomes as wrong-headed as the issue itself. In the outrage-and-shaming of whoever we deem the perpetrator, we forget to talk about what good they may have done, or what good exists. There are, in fact, many books featuring role models for girls (and boys, too!) that we should be praising. We asked a number of book-lovers and publishing houses what they felt were the most pro-girl reads on their shelves and in their stockrooms. Consider this your badass addendum to our previous compendium, "The Greatest Girl Characters of Young Adult Literature."
We started with Scholastic themselves, querying the company's trade publicity team for their pro-girl favorites. Among them were, of course, the Harry Potter series ("Hermione Granger is smart, brave, and clever") as well as The Hunger Games trilogy. You had us at "Katniss Everdeen." Also, Cleopatra's Moon by Vicky Alvear, a book in which "Cleopatra and Mark Anthony’s only daughter, Cleopatra Selene, must choose between accepting defeat and submitting to Roman rule over her country, or fighting those who killed her parents and reclaim what power she might have left." And The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater, which tells the story of Puck Connolly, the first girl to enter a competition in which riders attempt to keep hold of their water horses long enough to make it to the finish line—some of those riders live, and some do not. We also heard another nostalgic favorite, Ann Martin's The Baby-Sitters Club. Those girls were successful entrepreneurs!
Y.A. book author Kate Milford, who wrote The Boneshaker and The Broken Lands, offered up a list of old and new reads. "A Wrinkle in Time, of course [we second this!]; The Westing Game (Turtle is awesome), The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, Howl's Moving Castle, Scott Westerfeld's Leviathan series, Icefall. The Chaos Walking series has a tremendous heroine," she says, and manages to be empowering to both boys and girls: "I think it really is a hard thing to celebrate both a male character and a female character on their own terms without requiring them to give up the things that make them different." Finally, "Zoe's Tale, by John Scalzi...best teenage voice ever."
Macmillan's team listed three awesome sounding girl-power reads:
Enclave by Ann Aguirre. "New York City has been decimated by war and plague, and most of civilization has migrated to underground enclaves, where life expectancy is no more than the early twenties. When Deuce turns 15, she takes on her role as a Huntress, and is paired with Fade, a teenage Hunter who lived Topside as a young boy. When she and Fade discover that the neighboring enclave has been decimated by the tunnel monsters—or Freaks—who seem to be growing more organized, the elders refuse to listen to warnings. And when Deuce and Fade are exiled from the enclave, the girl born in darkness must survive in daylight, in the ruins of a city whose population has dwindled to a few dangerous gangs."
Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo. "Alina Starkov is an orphan and a refugee. Sickly and scrawny, she’s never expected much from life. But when on a mission into the Shadow Fold, a swath of near-impenetrable darkness that has torn her country in two, all seems lost until Alina reveals a dormant power that not even she knew existed.... With darkness looming and an entire kingdom depending on her mastery of her untamed power, Alina will have to confront the secrets of the Grisha—and the secrets of her heart."
Struck by Jennifer Bosworth. "One month after a major earthquake has leveled Los Angeles, 17-year-old Mia Price faces a cult convinced that her unique history of lightning strikes is the key to their apocalyptic vision. But there is another group that seeks Mia’s help in stopping the Followers. And neither side is willing to lose her. Then Mia meets a boy who will do everything he can to protect her, or so it seems. When the two factions collide, Mia discovers the lightning scars she hides reveal a staggering power. But that means she must choose saving the world over the possibility of love."
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt recommended Dairy Queen by Catherine Gilbert Murdock, about "a quiet, hard-working girl who keeps her family’s Wisconsin dairy farm running decides to try out for her high school football team, surprising everyone—especially her crush, who plays quarterback for the rival team"; Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers, about a girl trained as an assassin by a mysterious order of nuns in 15th-century Brittany; and A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly, set in 1906, in which, "Mattie is torn between her love of words and her desire to attend Barnard College in New York City, and her sense of obligation to care for her father and three sisters now that her mother is gone."
Bloomsbury mentioned a book out in August, Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas, which they describe as an "epic Y.A. fantasy in the vein of Game of Thrones, with a kick-ass girl assassin heroine." Even cooler, the author started writing it 10 years ago when she was 16, on an online forum. Also from Bloomsbury, Princess Academy: Palace of Stone (Shannon Hale's sequel to the best-selling Princess Academy), which features girls becoming the highest-educated in their village and making real changes to government.
Penguin recommended the Nightshade series by Andrea Cremer (Nightshade, Wolfsbane and Bloodrose), about "Calla Tor, the alpha female of a shape shifting wolf pack, who decides it’s up to her to lead her pack in a revolt against the Keepers who enslave them." A few other titles they mentioned were Bitterblue, of a young queen "left to piece together her kingdom after her father’s terrible reign." (This is the sequel to Kristin Cashore’s Graceling and companion to Fire.) Richelle Mead’s Bloodlines series, in which "tough, brainy alchemist Sydney Sage is sworn to protect the Moroi princess Jill Dragomir." Ally Condie's Matched trilogy featuring Cassia, a heroine torn between two worlds. Marie Lu’s Legend featuring June, "a genius who graduated from top of her class and joined the prestigious ranks of the military only to find that the way of life she swore to defend was built on lies. She is smart, dedicated to her family and her cause, a spy who infiltrates enemy lines and then vows to expose the truth even though it may destroy her."
Also from Penguin, in realistic Y.A. there's the main character of Between Shades of Gray (no, not that one) by Ruta Sepetys, in which Lina, 15, is "a Lithuanian girl living an ordinary life—until Soviet officers invade her home and tear her family apart." And, says Marshall, "Hazel Grace, John Green’s first ever female narrator [from the novel The Fault in Our Stars] is one of the bravest and wittiest teens I’ve had the pleasure to ‘meet.'"
When you want to feel good about girl power in books, pick up one of these—not that.