Consider your classroom library. If you ask students to participate in independent reading, have you considered what they reach for most often? A frequently overlooked feature of a typical classroom library is representation. According to a study done in Canada’s York University, as of 2021, male protagonists still dominate children’s literature, despite growing numbers of female protagonists in recent years. Male heroes tend to be the norm for everyone, while their female counterparts are reserved only for girls. Why is that?

As we consider this question, we can often point to publishing companies. According to children’s author Shannon Hale, books with a female hero are often regarded by parents, librarians, and educators as “only for girls.” These books tend to be dubbed “girl books” and have covers splattered with stereotypical images: pink and purple pastels, flowers and beaches, glitz and glitter. It’s no secret that they are specifically marketed to girls for economic gain. Publishers assume that these books will interest only girls and that only girls will relate to these stories, which discourages parents and librarians from recommending them to boys.

So, how do we get investment in “girl books” from boys who have been told the stories are too “girly” to be appreciated? Here are three reasons to encourage everyone to pick up a book with a female protagonist.

Reason 1: “Girl Books” Promote Themes Anyone Can Relate to

Society often encourages boys to stick with “boy things” such as action and adventure, but female protagonists provide the same experience and excitement. Katniss Everdeen certainly stands her ground against oppression as well as Harry Potter does. We learn resilience to adversity and the courage to stand up to oppressors from both, so why choose one over the other based on gender? When we focus more on the common humanity protagonists share, rather than on their gender, we expose children to many perspectives, experiences, and life lessons that they will carry with them for years.

Boys need to see that everyone endures similar human experiences­—love, loss, friendship, bravery, adversity, success, and finding purpose; those journeys will resonate with everyone, no matter their gender.

Reason 2: “Girl Books” Help Fight Stereotypes

Despite stereotypical marketing by publishers, students may learn literally not to judge a book by its cover. Male students will discover that just because Matilda, by Roald Dahl, has flowers on the outside, the character’s successes come from her love of learning and her resilience in the face of selfish and greedy people, which is relatable to everyone. 

By reading only “boy” books, boys are excluding a different perspective and missing out on finding connections and empathy with the females in their lives. Linh Cinder is anything but a damsel in distress, Anne of Green Gables thrives on her active imagination and wit, and the March sisters endure the hardships of growing up during wartime. These traits aren’t exclusive to women, and exposing boys to these strong figures will open their eyes to how inaccurate female stereotypes can be.

Reason 3: “Girl Books” Are Simply Entertaining

Anyone can enjoy the adventures of a female hero, whether the hero is storming a castle with dragons, fighting a dystopian society, navigating complex family issues, falling in love, or exploring her dreams. As authors place their female characters in more diverse situations, hopefully, diversity in the readers who enjoy them will follow. It’s crucial for boys to feel comfortable rooting for a successful female character, as I’m sure they root for the females in their own lives.

The idea that “girl books” focus only on romance and relationships is untrue; like any other book “type,” these books range in genre, subject matter, tone, etc. Modern young adult novels that have fascinating, engaging stories starring female protagonists include The Hunger Games, Divergent, The Book Thief, All the Light We Cannot See, Shadow and Bone, and The Golden Compass, to name a few.

As we celebrate Women’s History Month, celebrate strong female characters with your students. Consider holding the conversation about why these exciting books are marketed only to girls. Have students redesign the book covers to market them to all readers, and help your students see that “girl books” are for everyone.

What are some of your favorite books with female protagonists? How would you create investment in female heroes with your whole class?