A New Chapter for Girls Trend Points to Strong Heroines for Today's Young Readers

Article excerpt

IT WAS a moment of make-believe punctuated by reality.

My 4-year-old daughter, playing princess, demanded that the prince (me), slay the dragon (daddy). As prince, the modern but tired mom urged the short, energetic one: "You slay the dragon."

With her response, my heart sank. "Princesses don't slay dragons." Where had we gone wrong? We'd read hundreds of books to her, but had there been too much "Sleeping Beauty" and not enough "Amazing Grace"? Yes, her fascination with dolls, brides, rainbows, unicorns and all shades of pink are age-appropriate and all that, yet her firm opinion about princesses was disappointing. Parents who fear that their children's bookshelves don't harbor enough strong, independent heroines will find a mini-trend this spring: books and magazines to inspire girls. Two books are catalogs of literature: "Great Books for Girls: More Than 600 Books to Inspire Today's Girls and Tomorrow's Women" (420 pages, Ballantine, $12.95; paperback), by Kathleen Odean; and "Let's Hear It for the Girls: 375 Great Books for Readers 2-14" (224 pages, Penguin, $10.95; paperback), by Erica Bauermeister and Holly Smith. A third resource is called "The Mother-Daughter Book Club: How Ten Busy Mothers and Daughters Came Together to Talk, Laugh and Learn Through Their Love of Reading," by Shireen Dodson (296 pages, HarperPerennial, $12.95; paperback). (For more on magazines, see accompanying story.) This growing interest in girls' literature is applauded by experts, but may not be as simple as it seems, touching as it does on issues related to boys and reading, whether parents should censor traditional material, and talking about books with children. In her introduction to "Great Books for Girls," Odean says she looked for books with girls and women who "are creative, capable, articulate and intelligent. They solve problems, face challenges, resolve conflicts and go on journeys. These girls are not waiting to be rescued; they are doing the rescuing." Like Odean, Bauermeister and Smith summarize stories of such dynamos as Nellie, a picky eater who won't eat peas but, in her imagination, pulls a python toward a waiting hot dog bun; Clara, a slave who makes a quilt that eventually serves as a map to help her run away; and Beetle, an orphan in the Middle Ages who is found sleeping in a dung heap and becomes a midwife's apprentice. There is an overlap of about 100 titles, so between them the guides' authors offer more than 800 heroines. Some of the females are four-legged (especially in the picture books), but any one of them sounds more mobile than a supine princess, more interesting than a youngster obsessed with little ponies or young hunks. Smith, of Seattle, said in a telephone interview that when she and Bauermeister were promoting an earlier collaboration, "500 Great Books by Women," a frequent question was "When are you going to do one for children?" Odean's book came out first, however, and received national media attention earlier this year. At The Library, Ltd. in Clayton, children's department manager and buyer Cindy Russell said, "We have sold just tons of `Great Books for Girls.' We did a display of `Great Books' plus some of the books featured in it, and it was a big hit, especially with moms." Lynn Oris, community relations manager for local Barnes & Noble stores, said both guidebooks have been very popular. At Storybook Castle, a children's bookstore on Olive Boulevard, owner Jan Sandweiss said she did not carry the guidebooks but confirmed buyers' interest: "People do ask for books for girls. There are a lot of people who are very concerned about how girls are treated in stories." Although there are a lot more books these days featuring strong girls, and book reps are promoting "girl" books, boy heroes still dominate the children's market, Sandweiss said. Smith, the co-author of "Let's Hear It for the Girls," emphasizes that her book's subtitle says for "readers ages 2-14. …