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Meredith Sutphin
Children's Literature – Dr. Sturm
Literature Review Paper

True Heroines: Female Empowerment in Children's Fantasy Literature

Fantasy books seem to be a unique genre; frequently, both children and young adults list fantasy

books among their favorites, across grade-levels and gender lines. 41% of third- through fifth-graders

listed fantasy books as their “most favorite” books in a 1997 study (Boraks, N., Hoffman, A., & Bauer,

D.), while a 1998 study in New Zealand revealed that fantasy books were consistently listed in the top

five favorite genres of both male and female students between the ages of thirteen and fifteen

(Goodyear, C.). The popularity of fantasy books has been capitalized upon by Hollywood in recent

years with new productions of popular titles, including Narnia, The Golden Compass, and the Harry

Potter series, with children, pre-adolescents and young adults as their target audiences. Clearly, fantasy

stories have an engaging quality for many young people in today's culture. And, significantly, fantasy

has a dedicated following of females: a graph of genre preferences of children in grades four through

six shows that almost 80% of females pick up fantasy books as their first choices in reading material

(Todd, K., 1998). When girls open fantasy books, whom do they see to represent themselves in the

worlds they discover, and, perhaps more importantly, what do the worlds and characters they encounter

teach them about themselves?

A look at the traditional stories that could be considered predecessors of modern fantasy

literature shows that women in stories of the fantastical have come a long way. Fairy tales, one of the

earliest forms of fantasy to which children are introduced often emphasize women's surface

characteristics, even though many tales have women as their main characters; titles such as “Sleeping

Beauty,” “Beauty and the Beast,” and “Snow White,” could be said to show girls that outer appearance

is the characteristic for which memorable female characters are named. But children can understand
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the abstract nature of symbolism; a recorded classroom session analyzed by Charles Temple (1993)

shows that second- and third- graders see beauty as more than a surface characteristic. The students

who discussed a reading of “Beauty and the Beast” clearly articulated that they understood the main

character's beauty as a symbol for her good, kind nature, while the stepsisters' ugliness represented their

ugly personalities (p. 92). However, the goals that these female characters pursue are perhaps more

telling of the limits of “traditional” stories. Susan Lehr (2001) summarizes the fate of many women in

children's literature succinctly: “many traditional books for girls end up with girls turning into women,

defined as leaving family and friends behind, abandoning assertive behaviors, staying indoors, giving

up one's vocation, finding a man, and becoming his wife, which is . . . often historically accurate. This

is also common of “traditional” female heroines in children's fantasy who give up their own sense of

agency once they find their man” (p. 15). It seems obvious that a female main character does not an

empowering heroine make, and the older body of fantasy literature does not seem to provide many

good examples for readers who see this distinction.

However, many of the newer pieces of fantasy literature for children and young adults provide

models of heroines who are resilient, strong, self-determined, and independent. Some of the notable

examples cited in articles are Cynthia Voigt's Kingdom series, Robin McKinley's The Hero and the

Crown, and Tamora Pierce's Song of the Lioness quartet. The female characters in these books live

lives that provide alternative visions of success for the girls who read about them. These books each

show a heroine “rising above a system that keeps her down – triumphing over it, reversing

expectations” in a way that can be understood as reactionary to the “traditional” fantasy books that

came before (Tolmie, J., 2006, p. 147). Tamora Pierce (1993) herself focuses on the empowering

nature of a convention of fantasy literature, the championing of an underdog, in her article “Fantasy:

Why Kids Read It, Why Kids Need It.” She emphasizes the lure that underdog characters have for

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In the real world, kids have little say. This is a given; it is the nature of childhood. In

fantasy, however short, fat, unbeautiful, weak, dreamy, or unlearned individuals may be,

they find a realm in which those things are negated by strength. The catch--there is

always a catch--is that empowerment brings trials. (p. 51)

Two of Pierce's own heroines, Alanna and Kel, struggle to follow their dreams of becoming knights, a

title rooted in one of the most patriarchal systems imaginable, both in the realms of history and fantasy.

The challenges and hardships they face and overcome are difficulties with which modern girls can

empathize through symbol, and though girls have begun to find equal places in classrooms and on

sports fields, mentally seeing a story through another girl's eyes can be a reaffirming experience.

Underdog heroines fit within the conventions of the genre in a way that opens up new avenues to

engage girls in stories that encourage them to dream and reach for their own achievements. These

examples of fantasy literature provide another voice for girls to hear, show them that finding Prince

Charming does not have to be the ultimate goal of a woman's life, whether she lives in America or “a

far-away land.”

However, Alanna, Kel, and other heroines who struggle to overcome the limitations placed

upon them raise questions about the dichotomy between the dreams the lady knights attain and the

system of male power that remains affirmed by those dreams; as Jane Tolmie (2006) asks, “is this a

message that overturns expectations about culture or paradoxically provides a backwards affirmation of

an undesirable general condition?” (p. 151). This question of dichotomy applies to fantasy books set

outside of historically oppressive times in women's history; the popularity of the Harry Potter books

have led some feminist writers to critique J.K. Rowling for not giving women greater equality in her

wizarding world (Thompson, D., 2001, p. 43). The character of Hermione Granger is a particular focus

of critique; by contrasting Hermione's (somewhat slavish) dedication to her studies with Harry and

Ron's easy-going approach to homework, Deborah Thompson points out that the boys do not have to
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try in order to pass their classes, but Hermione has to scramble to keep up her grades and is portrayed

as a killjoy for doing so (p. 43). E.E. Heilman sees Hermione's position in the trio of main characters

as a subordinate one: “Hermione is primarily an enabler of Harry's and Ron's adventures rather than an

adventurer in her own right” (qtd. in Mayes-Elma, R., 2006, p. 9). Hermione, unlike Alanna, is not

trying to enter a world belonging only to men; however, her presence as an empowering heroine is

called into question by critics who see her as yet another female who tries to shine in a world which is

set up to laud the efforts of men over those of women. Professor McGonagall, one of the other

prominent females in the series, shares the trait of pride in intellect that characterizes Hermione.

Ruthann Mayes-Elma explains in depth how their intelligence limits them in ways that men in

Rowling's books are not limited, and insists that intelligence is not an empowering trait for women in

the Harry Potter books:

A rather insidious aspect of patriarchy is of course convincing the oppressed that they do

indeed have some power and control and simultaneously restricting this power so as to

prevent true equality . . . While Hermione and Professor McGonagall do enact their

agency and become empowered through their intelligence, they still are not allowed to

fully transcend male oppression or to critique their own oppression and the institutions

that support it. Rather, they are granted “partial power that serves to support the

oppressiveness of the patriarchal institutional system. (p. 93)

For Mayes-Elma, Thompson, and Tolmie, truly empowering literature for girls must break free from

traditional paradigms. Heroines can never be equal to heroes until they are no longer struggling against

systems which do not impair their male counterparts in the same ways.

There is still another trend in children's fantasy literature of books that do tell heroines' stories

outside of patriarchal structures and worlds. Tolmie, writing about heroines in fantasy books set in

medieval worlds, laments the limits in place in stories where women struggle for equality: “it seems the
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fantasy heroine must be content, for a while yet, to have patriarchy itself as her adventure” (p. 157).

But some fantasy books for children break the molds that have, for so long, seemed to define fantasy

literature. Dierdre Baker (2006) examines these fantasies from a unique angle: geography. Working

from Dianne Wynne Jones' The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, a parody book describing the conventions

of geography in fantasy literature, she examines the ways that popular books in the genre stay within

the boxed-in, one-size-fits-all maps (complete with ominously named mountain ranges, squiggly-lined

rivers, and inherent allegory) (p. 239). Books that break away from this tradition often offer refreshing

female perspectives that are not simply those of women in men's worlds: ingenuity in geography and

the treatment of gender seem, for Baker, to go hand in hand. In particular, she notes the works of

Ursula LeGuin, Dianne Wynn Jones, and Terry Pratchett as examples of books that provide new worlds

for girls, both geographically and ideologically.

For some, the question of whether female fantasy characters must live outside of a patriarchal

paradigm to be truly empowering for readers is answered simply by defining what it means to be a

heroine. Both book characters and children must live in the worlds in which they are born;

empowerment can be derived from the values that steer the female characters in their tales. T. A.

Barron (2001) defines a heroine as a female who lives from her authentic inner self, and he advocates

that this quality is what holds empowerment for girls:

How can our young women possibly discover the heroes in themselves if they are

continuously told that they are what they buy or wear or look like, rather than what they

do and say and strive to become? How can they come to know how much their choices

matter – indeed, how much they themselves matter – if they are constantly told that

superficial qualities are more important than lasting ones? . . . A hero cares about ideas

and goals and sacred qualities – not the color of her shoes or hair or car. (p. 31)

In this understanding, the title of “heroine” is, in a way, taken from a usage in which it is a title under
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contention; a heroine does not have to be defined by the world in which she lives or the dreams she

pursues. Instead, a heroine can be any female character who knows her own will and aligns her will

with something good. This definition of a heroine may, perhaps, be the most empowering definition of

all, for no matter what dreams girl readers have or what challenges they face, they, too, can be learn to

be heroines by following the examples of characters who are true to themselves.

Fantasy literature provides a continuum of role models for girls, from the Beauty of fairy tales

who ends her story by settling down with her Beast-turned-Prince to Tiffany Aching of Terry

Pratchett's Wee Free Men, who has her suspicions of the values promoted in The Goode Childe's Book

of Fairie Tales (including the reasoning that “shoe size is a good way of choosing a wife”) (qtd. in

Baker, D, 2006, p. 248). Perhaps it is this full spectrum of heroines that gives fantasy literature such

power for girls rather than any one subtype of character or paradigm within the genre; perhaps the

genre's empowering qualities are rooted in the myriad of possibilities found within.
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Baker, D. F. (2006). What we found on our journey through fantasyland. Children's Literature in

Education, 37(3), 237-251. Retrieved November 7, 2007, from Academic Search Premier


Barron, T. A. (2001). The unquenchable source: finding a heroic girl inside a man. In S. Lehr (Ed.),

Beauty, brains, and brawn: the construction of gender in children's literature. (pp. 30-35).

Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Boraks, N., Hoffman, A., and Bauer, D. (1997). Children's book preferences: patterns, particulars, and

possible implications. Reading Psychology, 18, 309-41. (From class handout, 10/7/07)

Goodyear, C. (1998). Popularity of various fiction book genres among high school students in

Auckland. <> (From class

handout, 10/7/07)

Lehr, S. (2001). The hidden curriculum: are we teaching young girls to wait for the prince? In S. Lehr

(Ed.), Beauty, brains, and brawn: the construction of gender in children's literature. (pp. 1-20.)

Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Mayes-Elma, R. (2006). Females and Harry Potter: not all that empowering. New York: Rowman &

Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

Pierce, T. (1993). Fantasy: why kids read it, why kids need it. School Library Journal, 39(10), 50-51.

Retrieved November 7, 2007, from Academic Search Premier (9310127803).

Temple, C. (1993). “What if Beauty had been Ugly?”: reading against the grain of gender bias in

children's books. Language Arts, 70, 89-93.

Thompson, D. (2001). Deconstructing Harry: casting a critical eye on the witches and wizards of

Hogwarts. In S. Lehr (Ed.), Beauty, brains, and brawn: the construction of gender in children's

literature. (pp. 42-55). Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

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Todd, K. (1998). Three researchers report on libraries and youth at ALA conference. Journal of Youth

Services in Libraries, 2(1), 102-104. (From class handout, 11/27/07)