Finding Science Fiction and Fantasy for Female Readers


Arts & Culture

“Why don’t you write anything fun? You know, like about an alternate universe or time travel or something?”

That’s my twelve-year-old daughter, an obsessive reader who plows through four or five books a week, disappointed that her novelist mom hasn’t invented a tweenage dystopia like the ones she devours daily. For her, like for so many readers her age, reading means plunging into the supernatural, fantasy, science fiction, some wild imagined world where new rules apply. I watched endless alternate universes with daring heroines pile up on my daughter’s nightstand, baffled by how different her tastes were from mine at her age—until I finally understood one very obvious answer to her question. My daughter’s fascination with nonrealistic literature began a few years ago with one of my own childhood favorites: Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, first published in 1962. And that was where the wrinkle between my daughter’s time and mine began.

A Wrinkle in Time is about a girl who traverses five dimensions to rescue her physicist father, who’s being held hostage in another solar system by (wait for it) an evil intergalactic brain. En route, she crosses a two-dimensional world, stops in an Elysian field filled with centaur-pegasi, and recuperates on a planet populated by blind healing beasts. In the sequel, A Wind in the Door, she saves her little brother from terminal illness by traveling into his cells, likely making this to be the world’s only novel set primarily inside a mitochondrion. It’s awesome, if you’re ten years old and into that kind of thing.

I was very much into that kind of thing. Those books rocketed me out of the Ramona Quimby–infested literary world of my 1980s childhood, shattering the tedious triad of school/friends/parents’ divorce—the subjects of the vast majority of “young-adult” books I encountered. L’Engle introduced me to the simple breathtaking fact that other possibilities existed. After I finished every book she ever wrote, I went to the library looking for more stories like hers. I learned that these books were called fantasy, so I went home with The Hobbit, ready for more of what my daughter calls “fun.”

I dragged myself through hundreds of pages, meeting dwarf after wizard after elf after orc—a cast of thousands, none of whom were female, though I didn’t notice that then. I only noticed that there was something alienating about the book (and not involving aliens, which I might have enjoyed), something that made me not want to continue. I concluded that I just didn’t like orcs. But then it kept happening. I tried Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, whose title promised as much multidimensional fun as L’Engle, with the bonus of humor. But after meeting the only woman in the entire aforementioned galaxy—who is also, somehow, the only character in the book you don’t care about at all—I got bored and gave up. I figured I just wasn’t into space jokes. Then I tried Ender’s Game, then Dune, then a bunch of Kurt Vonnegut novels. I kept getting bored, kept giving up. As I got older, I clocked more time with fellow nerds, including my teammates on my school’s Quiz Bowl team, where I was the only girl. These kids were smart readers, so I asked them for recommendations. Read Isaac Asimov, they raved. So I read Asimov, or rather I tried. I made it halfway through The Gods Themselves before that old feeling welled up again. I was beginning to understand it was not actually boredom but something else. Was the book off-putting because I didn’t like science fiction? Or was it because of the description of a planet with three genders, where the one referred to as “she” was the literally squishy one that could only think in emotions? Or the pages about how life in zero gravity was especially wonderful for women—you know, because of their young-looking, free-floating breasts? At the time, it was hard to say. These books were just not for me. Since science fiction and fantasy were evidently not for me, I never made it to writers like Ursula K. LeGuin, or the others whose visions might have shaped mine.

The absence of great female characters in imaginative literature is a problem that goes all the way back to Homer’s Odyssey—in which Odysseus has twenty years of adventures while his wife, Penelope, spends twenty years sitting at a loom. But in literature for young people (itself a historically recent phenomenon), that absence has an even greater impact, because those books shape future writers’ imaginations. It would be easy to look at the discrepancies between realistic child-focused classics like The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Little Women and blame them on reality: of course nineteenth-century boys could get away with exploring islands and graveyards while the girls were stuck indoors. But even when the stories were fantastical, the writers’ imaginations didn’t stretch much beyond what was “appropriate” for girls. Take Peter Pan, a book that shaped generations of writing for children. The lead female character could have easily been a heroine, but, instead, Wendy spends her time in Neverland doing laundry for the Lost Boys. This children’s paradise is actually a boys’ paradise, entirely devoid of Lost Girls. Even Alice in Alice in Wonderland and Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz would rather be back in Kansas or Cambridge than enacting daring rescues. Despite their curiosity about the alternate universes where they find themselves, their goal in these books is just to go home. There are exceptions, of course, like the girls in Chronicles of Narnia who are every bit their brothers’ equals. But exceptions are just that: abnormal, like the one girl on the Quiz Bowl team. Too many readers like me never made it past the wardrobe door.

Something enormous has happened in the years between my childhood and my daughter’s—a shift that might have started somewhere around The Golden Compass series, or with novels by Tamora Pierce and Francesca Lia Block or dozens of other books I had grown too old to read, and then accelerated with the runaway success of the Twilight and Hunger Games series. A young-adult landscape emerged where science fiction and fantasy was no longer targeted only at boys, and girls were no longer expected to read only stories about empathetic middle-school friends. This phenomenon is complex, an elaborate give-and-take between the changing roles of women and the rising demand for stories of the fantastic, and I don’t pretend to understand the many social and commercial forces that brought it into being. But I can’t help but notice the vast difference between my daughter’s bookshelf and mine—the many magical books waiting for her when she finished A Wrinkle in Time, hungry for more—and rue the imagined worlds I missed by being born too soon.

This shift is perhaps best illustrated by the career of the YA national treasure Lois Lowry. Lowry is best known today for The Giver quintet, a group of novels published between 1993 and 2012, about a conformist society denuded of all variety, choice, and emotion—and the brave young people who learn its secrets and fight back. It’s one of the earliest and best YA dystopia tales, and by the second book, it features terrific female leads. As a child in the 1980s, I loved Lowry’s work, which consisted of dozens of YA novels. But at that time, her books were exclusively realistic. My favorites were her Anastasia series, about a twelve-year-old girl. Not a twelve-year-old girl rebelling against a futuristic society or slaying a dragon. A twelve-year-old girl who goes to sixth grade.

Writers aren’t supposed to believe that there are limits to the imagination. We’re meant to think of ourselves as unfettered by ordinary conventions, gifted with an ability to see the world not only for what it is but for what it could be—and free to envision any world we want, drawn only by the power of the story. The idea that even our most intergalactic brains cannot see past our social constraints, that even girls in Neverland are doing the wash, is soul-shaking. I’m grateful to the writers my age and older on my daughter’s shelves who were able to imagine worlds beyond those limits. It took me five novels and twenty years to write something my daughter would call “fun,” an otherwise entirely realistic story about a woman who can’t die. Immortal characters are a staple of science fiction and fantasy, but I had never noticed how few of those characters were women, much less fertile women who might have daughters of their own, until I looked at my daughter’s bookshelf and wondered what might have been.

Last month, I took my daughter and three sons to see the latest Star Wars movie—a franchise that in my childhood had no female characters except Princess Leia; Carrie Fisher had to wait until her own computer-generated immortality to run the rebellion with powerful women at her side. During the trailers, we saw a preview that my daughter and I both instantly recognized before the title card: A Wrinkle in Time. We turned to each other and said, simultaneously, “I can’t wait!”

I’ve been waiting a lot longer than my daughter, of course. But for her, that excitement was devoid of anything beyond the story. She was simply thrilled, as any child ought to be, about diving back into the world of one of her favorite books.


Dara Horn’s fifth novel, Eternal Life, will publish next week.