My favorite book to recommend to readers of a certain age, or those shopping for them, is Patricia Wrede’s Dealing with Dragons. It’s a perfect rec for middle grade readers with an interest in fantasy who have already consumed the “big” titles at that level — Warriors, The Unwanteds, Land of Stories, Percy Jackson — but who might not be ready for full-on YA yet. It’s great because, despite being an award-winner with a special place in the hearts of many, it is an older book, and so it doesn’t have the marketing splash that the big series do. But I read it as a kid, and it stuck with me, so I absolutely love recommending it to others.
The protagonist, feeling constrained by the expectations their life defines for them, embarks first on a quest of self-betterment. They learn all sorts of useful skills from the palace staff, everything from fighting to cooking to Latin, because they don’t just want to sit around and be waited on all the time. But when their parents try to force them into a life they think is too small, too tedious, too ordinary, they run away and decide to become the “official captive” of a dragon. They then end up having to figure out how to defeat a wizard who’s trying to steal the dragons’ magic and poison them. And that’s just the first book — the rest of the series has more tricks and twists, surprising rescues, and dashing feats of heroism.
Did you notice that I used a gender-neutral pronoun throughout that description? That’s because the protagonist is a girl, Cimorene — and that fact alone puts parents off buying this book for their sons. Never mind the fact that this is, at heart, an adventure story. Parents frequently take one look at the cover, as I’m pressing this book I’m telling them is amazing into their hands, and dismiss it. “But isn’t this a girl book?” they ask me.
Your sons can read a book with a female protagonist. It won’t hurt them. I promise.
In fact, evidence suggests it’ll be really good for them. It’ll teach them to empathize with the girls and women in their lives. It’ll help them see that it’s not just boys who are the center of stories. It’ll help normalize female protagonists for them, so that female-led stories can stop being rarities for us to cling to and can instead be just stories, like male-led stories have always been.
So please, stop asking me, “But isn’t this a girl book?”, because I die a little inside every time you do.