Good fantasy novels with female protagonists?
September 1, 2012 1:07 AM   Subscribe

Try as I might, I can only think of one fantasy novel that I've ever (*ever*) read that had a girl as the main character. Can you suggest some for my 8yo daughter?

So as not to leave you hanging, the one novel I read was Terry Pratchett's "Equal Rites".

Miss 8 is reading at a very high level -- has gone through all Harry Potter books, is now reading Great Expectations, voluntarily, but what she really loves is a good fantasy book. The main problem is that it's really, really hard to find any which have a female main character; it's all "stable buy becomes ultra-powerful wizard, saves world" stuff, which is fine and all, but usually only contain female characters as incidental bits of trophy-fluff. As a good Dad, this is not a message I want my daughter to internalise.

What vaguely age-appropriate fantasy novels with strong female characters exist? Bonus points where the female character is not merely part of a group of ragtag orphans who save the world, unless they're all girls.
posted by nonspecialist to Writing & Language (88 answers total) 99 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Tamora Pierce! Tamora Pierce! ALL strong female characters, varying ways and whys and wherefores. Some with loving famlies, some orphans, some with jerk families. I love love love her work.
posted by geek anachronism at 1:12 AM on September 1, 2012 [28 favorites]

"The Golden Compass" has a girl as a main character but it's probably too old for your 8 year old.

"Narnia" has several girls as main characters, although you could argue they get shunted off into doing girly things while the boys have the rousing adventures.

Thin pickings I'm afraid.
posted by outlier at 1:12 AM on September 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: The Secret Garden, The Phantom Tollbooth, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankenweiler, and some - not all - of The Chronicles of Narnia come immediately to mind; I'm sure there are many more, but these are wonderful books for an imaginative 8 year old.

Make sure you don't accidentally get her a copy of Nancy Friday's My Secret Garden when you're shopping for The Secret Garden. Not the same book at all.
posted by Protocols of the Elders of Sockpuppetry at 1:14 AM on September 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

The Secret Garden ?

I was reading well above my pay grade at your daughter's age, and I still love SF (fantasy, not so much) and that is my only remembered recommendation.

Everything else I read at that age which was "fantasy" with a female heroine was too adult.

I loved the Narnia books, but only The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe features girls - it gets all masculine for the rest of the series.
posted by jbenben at 1:15 AM on September 1, 2012

Best answer: A Wrinkle in Time!
posted by cairdeas at 1:16 AM on September 1, 2012 [25 favorites]

Are you looking for female protagonists, or "girls"?

Pratchett's Discworld has a subset of witches where the main protagonists are female, but not exactly "girls". (i.e. not a peer of your daughter)
posted by Meep! Eek! at 1:17 AM on September 1, 2012

Best answer: Pratchett's Discworld also has the Tiffany Aching series, who is a girl in all senses of the word.
posted by wayland at 1:19 AM on September 1, 2012 [13 favorites]

Seconding Tiffany Aching! The Wee Free Men might actually be my favorite Pratchett book, ever.
posted by Skybly at 1:20 AM on September 1, 2012 [5 favorites]

'Howl's Moving Castle' (the book) is about a young woman.

Seconding the Tiffany Aching suggestion, too.
posted by BinaryApe at 1:21 AM on September 1, 2012 [3 favorites]

Definitely not high fantasy, sorry, but -- Blackout and All Clear by Connie Willis. A few main characters, but the most endearing ones were the strong women.
posted by peeet at 1:28 AM on September 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: The Harper Hall trilogy (Dragonsong, etc.) by Anne McCaffrey. I loved the crap out of those when I was 10ish.
posted by charmedimsure at 1:46 AM on September 1, 2012 [12 favorites]

Best answer: Definitely agree with His Dark Materials (Northern Lights/The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, The Amber Spyglass) by Philip Pullman. I first read the series when I was 10 and although most of the subtlety went over my head about religion/sex etc, I still immensely enjoyed the story at that age - Lyra is a strong and inspiring female lead and undergoes a lot of growth over the three books. I can't recommend the series enough; it definitely made a mark on my childhood!

There's also Momo by Michael Ende, which is about an orphan girl saving the world from time-thieves, and I remember being engrossed by the imaginative-ness of that world as a kid.

Sabriel by Garth Nix is also a young female lead and I remember enjoying it around age 11, though can't recall much of the storyline now.
posted by pikeandshield at 1:49 AM on September 1, 2012 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Seconding the Tamora Pierce recommendation!

Monica Furlong is another author to look at, specifically the books "Juniper" and "Wise Child." I loved those when I was about 10.
posted by Amethyst, Princess of Gemworld at 1:49 AM on September 1, 2012 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Oooooh and Robin McKinley, The Hero and the Crown and The Blue Sword (but especially The Hero and the Crown). I want to go back in time and be nine again and read those for the first time.

...and Dealing With Dragons and other assorted Patricia Wrede in the same series. They are written for middle readers, not quite YA, and are totally entertaining with a good female lead.
posted by charmedimsure at 1:51 AM on September 1, 2012 [14 favorites]

The Old Kingdom (Abhorsen) trilogy is fantastic, with strong female protagonists. Possibly a little old for her, but not more so than the final couple of Potter books.
posted by arha at 1:51 AM on September 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Seconding the Madeline L'Engle recommendation. The Time Quartet is excellent, and focuses on a strong female protagonist.

I recently ran into "A face like glass" by Francis Harding, which features a girl protagonist who is around 10 when the book starts.
posted by MFZ at 1:55 AM on September 1, 2012

Best answer: It's kind of non-standard fantasy - alternative historical timeline that definitely ramps up in the weirdness/fantasy as the series progresses - but I read Joan Aiken's Wolves Chronicles up through book 7 or so as a kid and they were some of my favorites. The protagonist is usually a tomboyish girl of about 8-12 named Dido but sometimes her more femme female cousin takes the lead. The Stolen Lake was my favorite.

The 'fantasy/sci-fi' elements are kind of high-brow, though, and it actually took me years to unravel some of the background elements of the alternative timeline - the Stuarts held onto the English monarchy well into the early 1800s? 'Hanoverian spies'? No American Revolution? Roman (not Latin) America? but I am pretty sure my love of history these days is rooted in reading these as a kid. Until you get far enough they read just like a less-complicated Dickens for kids.

When she's a bit older - like the age you'd let her watch Buffy or the like - introduce her to The Rook! Read this recently and wasn't expecting to love it but oh man did I. Not really YA but nothing really that questionable in terms of sexuality in it, but there is some freaky supernatural violence and a bit of language. Like all the best parts of X-files and X-men mashed up with The Avengers or something. Female protagonist and lots of good supporting female characters.
posted by par court at 1:55 AM on September 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Seconding Howl's Moving Castle and Dianna Wynne Jones's books in general, Fire and Hemlock in particular is great.
posted by brilliantmistake at 1:57 AM on September 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: The Wizard of Oz, The Secret Garden, 5 Children and It, The Phoenix and the Carpet (really any E Nesbit), Ronia, the Robbers Daughter, Pippi Longstocking, The Golden Compass, The Princess and the Unicorn, the Anne McCaffrey Unicorn girl books, The Unicorn Girl by LeGette, Journey to the River Sea, The Good Master, Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, Matilda, Anna Lavinia books, The Princess and the Goblin and that's just off the top of my head.

I think that if you look beyond very recent (1980s) US fantasy books you'll find that the protagonists are as often female as not. I grew up reading the above and a lot of female British authors, first read Pratchett as a teen and thought his stuff was laughably sexist as a data point.

Also a pro tip: if in doubt pick a children's book with a horse on the cover. Probably a female protagonist.
posted by fshgrl at 2:03 AM on September 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: NZ author Maurice Gee wrote a brilliant series called The Halfmen of O and a standalone novel called The World Around the Corner, both with female heroines and both fantasy related. The WATC in particular is probably just right, age-wise.

All seem a little hard to track down except through, where secondhand copies seem relatively cheap.
posted by pink_gorilla at 2:12 AM on September 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: i remember enjoying The Girl with the Silver Eyes. it's not super fantastical fantasy but is nicely told.
posted by quiteliterally at 2:25 AM on September 1, 2012 [10 favorites]

Best answer: I don't know if this might be too young for her, but Jennifer Murdley's Toad is a favorite of mine. I have not read Coville's Unicorn Chronicles but from reading the Amazon description I see they also feature a female protagonist.
posted by janepanic at 2:30 AM on September 1, 2012

Best answer: NZ author Maurice Gee wrote a brilliant series called The Halfmen of O

Oh hell yes, get those, read them yourself too! Also, Under the Mountain by the same author has two main characters, twins, one female and one male. I remember reading Under The Mountain at a younger age than the halfmen series.

Jasper Fforde has started a series of YA fantasy starting with The Last Dagonslayer and starring a female lead. She's very dry which I liked (no fluffy princess anything). I don't know exactly how children's reading breaks down by age but remember it being very simplistic writing and fairly straight forward plot compared to his other (still light) work so it should be in the ballpark.
posted by shelleycat at 3:31 AM on September 1, 2012

Sounds like your daughter is still a bit too young for Justine Larbalestier's Magic or Madness trilogy, but it's a doozy. You may enjoy reading it yourself before deciding when to give her access.
posted by kandinski at 3:35 AM on September 1, 2012

Best answer: MOMO!

Ronia, The Robber's Daughter!
posted by travelwithcats at 3:36 AM on September 1, 2012

In a few years she can read Elizabeth Moon's Paksenarrion novels. I loved them as a kid.
posted by Area Man at 4:11 AM on September 1, 2012

Best answer: Many of the classic Dragonriders of Pern novels by Anne McCaffrey (including the first and third of the original trilogy) have female main characters. They're classified as science fiction, but they really read as fantasy to me. And they were published with the specific hope of attracting more female readers to the juvenile/YA SF/F genre.
posted by drlith at 5:09 AM on September 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Susan Cooper's The Dark Is Rising series had a group of kids as main characters for at least the first book (Over Sea and Under Stone; for whatever reason The Dark Is Rising was second). I vaguely recall a character called Will, so you might want to read the backs to see if the female characters stick around.
posted by hoyland at 5:12 AM on September 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I don't remember it especially well, I just remember loving it when I was seven, and the main character is definitely a girl...Half Magic.
posted by phunniemee at 5:16 AM on September 1, 2012

Best answer: Sherwood Smith's Crown Duel and Court Duel.
posted by Area Man at 5:18 AM on September 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Seconding Garth Nix's Abhorsen series for both of you. The Abhorsen is basically a necromancer on the side of good, putting undead things back into death.
posted by fings at 5:24 AM on September 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Awesome! So many great helpful answers, I can't mark just one as best. Thanks so much, and feel free to keep adding more (I'll check in and update the best answer tally as time goes on)
posted by nonspecialist at 5:34 AM on September 1, 2012

I'm going to chime in and say that, for my money, Connie Willis' books and the Pern books are too "old" for eight (and I say that as a guy who was a precocious reader).
posted by sonic meat machine at 6:06 AM on September 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Brandon Mull's Fablehaven series has a great sister/brother pair as protagonists -- it's middle grade so perfect for an 8 year old, but the books are long and complex a la Harry Potter.
posted by alicat at 6:08 AM on September 1, 2012

Best answer: Un Lun Dun by China Mieville has a 12 year old girl as a main character. At over 500 pages, it might be a bit much for your 8 year old right now, but my 8 year old has started it and seems to like the first couple of chapters.
posted by Apoch at 6:24 AM on September 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: China Mieville's Un Lun Dun is a funny, whimsical fantasy book for middle grade readers (with a girl protagonist).

I also want to nth the Robin McKinley recommendation - The Hero and the Crown is amazing, and so are many of her other books (I also really loved Beauty), but a couple of her books have darker themes that I would steer your daughter away from at the moment (e.g. Deerskin, which is meant for an adult audience and includes a disturbing rape). So read the reviews/description of her other books before buying them all for your daughter, is all I'm saying.

Margaret Mahy is another New Zealand author who's written some fun YA - some of her stuff is out of print but still readily available. The Changeover might be a place to start (do not be fooled by the "supernatural romance" bit on the cover - this is a YA book mostly about a girl rescuing her baby brother, though there is an age-appropriate romantic subplot).
posted by unsub at 6:32 AM on September 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I love, love The Ordinary Princess by M. M. Kaye.
posted by mmmbacon at 6:38 AM on September 1, 2012 [3 favorites]

Best answer: You might find the website at A Mighty Girl really useful! They bill themselves as "the world's largest collection of books and movies for smart, confident, and courageous girls." Their book listings can be filtered by genre and age group, as well as price and award winners. They came to my attention because they recently featured A Wrinkle In Time (one of my favorite books as a kid), on their list of Top Read Aloud Books starring Mighty Girls.
posted by vytae at 6:44 AM on September 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

It's a bit "horsey girl" for me the first of the Mercedes Lackey Valdemar series will be appropriate in a couple of years (the one starting with Arrows of the Queen). Read them first yourself as there's some difficult business in the last one. I also like the Paksennarion books with the same caveat for age-appropriateness.

And nthing the Hero and the Crown and the Pullman trilogy.
posted by immlass at 6:46 AM on September 1, 2012

Best answer: Check out the Enchanted Forest Chronicles. There are four books: Dealing with Dragons, Searching for Dragons, Calling on Dragons, and Talking to Dragons. The protagonist is a very strong, brave, and smart character. They are very appropriate for an 8 year old as well.
posted by afton at 6:54 AM on September 1, 2012 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Oh, there's also The Egypt Game - which is not true fantasy, but is about kids fascinated by archaeology, and delving into an alien culture.

And Lloyd Alexander (of The Chronicles of Prydain fame) also wrote the Vesper Holly series, which is an Indiana Jones-like historical adventure series starring a sixteen-year-old girl. The Illyrian Adventure is the first.
posted by unsub at 6:59 AM on September 1, 2012

Best answer: Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine might be a good one. Levine has other good books too.

Many Jane Yolen books have female protagonists.
posted by JuliaJellicoe at 7:11 AM on September 1, 2012 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Alice in Wonderland.

Terry Pratchets Tiffany Aching Novels as have previously been suggested are so good as a 44 year old woman I wait each new release bated breath.
posted by wwax at 7:19 AM on September 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: ALL of the OZ books! The main characters of The Scarecrow of Oz are also the ones of The Sea Fairies and Sky Island.

Baum's MIL (of whom he was very fond) was a colleague of Susan B Anthony.
posted by brujita at 7:20 AM on September 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Rachel Hartman's Seraphina is the best YA fantasy I've read this year. Possibly in the last few years. It features a female protagonist who is also half-dragon and also a music mistress without really having any combat ability, which is sort of a fun change. I cannot recommend this book highly enough

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland In A Ship Of Her Own Making is great if she likes stuff with that old-school fantasy feel.

Last Dragonslayer
is great but might be a little over her head, content-wise. It's sort of bizarre in an amusing, Hitchhiker's Guide sort of way.

Also seconding the Tamora Pierce suggestion (I'd start with Circle of Magic and The Circle Opens) and Abhorsen Chronicles/The Old Kingdom. (Tamora Pierce, as an added bonus, also has people of color and queer characters.)
posted by NoraReed at 7:43 AM on September 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Meredith Ann Pierce - Dark Angel Trilogy! Seconding anything by Tamora Pierce and Harper Hall Trilogy. Though if she gets into Anne McCaffrey, others of her books can be a little explicit for an 8 year old.
posted by amileighs at 7:44 AM on September 1, 2012

Best answer: Ronia, the Robbers Daughter- YES YES YES I read this about 10 times when I was in elementary school! Still one of my favorites. Also seconding Ella Enchanted, it's a great subversion of fairytale tropes (nothing like the subsequent movie).

One I haven't seen mentioned, but which was (and still is) one of my all-time favorite books: The Moorchild. It's the changeling myth, from the POV of the changeling. Lots of great stuff about learning to deal with being different from everyone around you.
posted by showbiz_liz at 7:52 AM on September 1, 2012

Best answer: This is a huge sub-genera which is only becoming more popular.

Diane Duane's Young Wizards series (there are other characters, some male, who get first person scenes sometimes, but the main character is definitely Nita).

Most of Tanith Lee's book. I would probably start with The Claidi Journals and then move on to Piratica.

I recently read Princess Academy which wasn't as fluffy as I was fearing (it's still fluffy, but I would let kids read it, it has the benefit of being just out and popular so hopefully some of her friends will also read it).

Nthing: McKinley, Wrede, Pratchett, Nesbit, ZK Snyder, DW Jones, Eager.

The Harper Hall series also has a sex scene in the third book. I read most of McCaffery's books at a young age and I turned out OK, but they're pretty cringe-inducing to re-read as an adult now that I know what's really happening.
posted by anaelith at 7:53 AM on September 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: One I remember reading many times as a kid was The Farthest-Away Mountain by Lynne Reid Banks.
posted by celerity at 7:53 AM on September 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

Another recommendation for the Tiffany Aching books.

Patricia McKillip has quite a few novels with female protagonists, but maybe above her reading/maturity level right now.
posted by curious nu at 8:12 AM on September 1, 2012

Best answer: Andre Norton's "Seven Spells to Sunday" was one of my favorites. She was an excellent writer who also wrote some other fantasy/magical books for children with female characters, but also wrote for adults, so be sure you know what you are getting. As others have said the E. Nesbit books are great -- and out of copywrite so free for your ebook reader. I read Ruth Chew's "The Witch's Buttons" and other witches books over and over as a child. As an adult I find them a little more simple than I remembered, so I must have added a lot of detail with my imagination. "Active Enzyme Lemon-Freshened Junior High School Witch" by Wallace Hildick was also a favorite if you can find it.

I'm not sure that this is relevant, but it never occurred to me as a child to care if the main character of a book was a boy or a girl. If I could put myself in the shoes (so to speak) of a dragon, a boy wasn't a stretch.
posted by SandiBeech at 8:43 AM on September 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: It's a little hard to find nowadays, but Drujienna's Harp by Ellen Kindt McKenzie was probably my favorite book at that age. The main character is Tha, a brave and determined little girl about your daughter's age, who has to rescue her kid brother after he gets himself whisked away to another world (stupid kid brothers, amirite?) She encounters eerie landscapes and strange prophecies, and has to make the ultimate choice between preservation and destruction. Not at all your run-of-the-mill YA fantasy story.
posted by Quietgal at 8:53 AM on September 1, 2012

The Mary Poppins books.
posted by brujita at 9:16 AM on September 1, 2012

Best answer: The Deed of Paksenarrion is exactly what you want.
posted by selfmedicating at 10:02 AM on September 1, 2012

Best answer: I was obsessed with Zilpha Keatley Snyder's books when I was her age. Most of them have female protagonists and have an element of magic/fantasy. Really, they're all fantastic, but off the top of my head I'd recommend The Velvet Room and Season of Ponies to start with.
posted by radioamy at 10:12 AM on September 1, 2012 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Seconding the Enchanted Chronicles books. I still go back to Cimorene's adventures whenever I'm having a bad day. Patricia C. Wrede has other books your daughter might like, too (I liked the first Frontier Magic book but haven't caught up on the others).

Oh, and maybe The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle?
posted by inging at 10:19 AM on September 1, 2012

Best answer: Jane Yolen's b Sister Light, Sister Dark and Midori Snyder's Queen's Quarter Trilogy are both YA fantasy I loved as a young teen.

My daughter recommends Neil Gaiman's Coraline and Diana Wynne Jones' Howl's Moving Castle

Adding my vote to His Dark Materials, Oz, Alice in Wonderland, and A Wrinkle in Time.
posted by Requiax at 10:44 AM on September 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Sister Light, Sister Dark has a sequel, White Jenna. It has an appendix that includes the musical notation for all the songs sung in the two books, which is cool.
posted by smirkette at 10:48 AM on September 1, 2012

Best answer: I would add a caution about the Dragonriders of Pern books: They have some pretty troubling sexual politics. There's definitely an element of the Harlequin about the portrayal of sex and romance. (The "alpha" archetype, the glamorization of rough, non-consensual sex, etc.) When I first read them, I wasn't mature enough to realize how problematic they were and I loved the heck out of them, but looking back it's not a series I would give to a daughter. Also, the basic set-up of the dragonriding culture is such that men who have sex with men must exist, but are relegated to second-class status.

Paul Park's "Princess of Roumania" series is one that I found initially really interesting. The main protagonist and the main villain are both female, and it's YA. The villain is actually more interesting than the protagonist; she's a multi-dimensional character who is not like a wicked stepmother at all. A caveat: I haven't read the entire series yet.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 10:58 AM on September 1, 2012

Best answer: Mistress Masham's Repose by T.H. White and The Borrowers were among the books I read several times as a kid. The Tombs of Atuan is part of the Earthsea Trilogy, which I pulled off my parent's shelves and read when I was about nine (and many times since). It has a strong female protagonist.
posted by oneirodynia at 11:52 AM on September 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt.
posted by kirst27 at 12:12 PM on September 1, 2012

Best answer: There are a ton of YA authors doing delightfully smart girl-centric fantasy, but it's aimed at an older audience and contains some mature content. You'd need the screen the novels, but I'd take a look at works by the following authors. (Listed from least to most sexy.)

• Sarah Beth Durst - Into the Wild and Out of the Wild. Middle grade novels about a girl whose mother is unfortunately Rapunzel. Funny, super girl-centric, age appropriate.
• Aprilynne Pike - Wings. A girl who won't eat meat has a flower grow out of her back and realizes she is plant-based, and actually some sort of faerie royalty. The writer is Mormon, so the content (if memory serves me correctly) is pretty tame.
• Justine Larbalestier - How to Ditch Your Fairy. In which a fairy is a sort of super-power. Like the main character has a parking fairy, but she hates riding in cars. You might also look into her Magic or Madness trio.
• Scott Westerfeld - The Uglies series. By Larbalestier's husband, this takes place in a dystopian future where everyone is "ugly" until they turn thirteen, at which point they get an operation that makes them "pretty." Female protagonist. Big concepts, but not particularly sexy. Some violence.
• Maryrose Wood - Why I Let My Hair Grow Out. Another girl who is a faerie princess, but with great comedy. Leprechauns, cheerleading unicorns, a guest spot by Anderson Cooper. Wood also writes for younger audiences, though I think her faerie series is probably okay for any age.
• Carrie Jones - Need trilogy. A half-faerie princess whose friends are all werewolves. I am not making this up. I cannot remember how age-appropriate Jones's work would be, but worth browsing at the bookstore. Other important faery writers I'll mention, whose works are a bit old for your daughter but definitely female-centric, are Holly Black and Melissa Marr.
• Libba Bray - Gemma Doyle trilogy. Victorian England + magical world accessible only by female guardians, but with sex, drugs and violence. Might want to wait a few years on this one, but it's pretty much required reading.
• Diana Peterfreund - Rampant, to be a trilogy. A band of chosen girls, teenagers all, must slay evil unicorns while living in an Italian nunnery. I'd recommend it heartily as a READ RIGHT NOW if not for the fact that the power to defeat unicorns is one a girl loses if she loses her virginity. So of course the whole series is about gender and sex and sexuality, which is great, except maybe not for a girl who is eight.

When I was that age, I read all of the L.M. Montgomery books (not fantasy, but in the far enough past that it was like visiting another world), Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, all of Laura Ingalls Wilder's novels (same reasoning as with Montgomery), all of Narnia (The Magician's Nephew is the most girl-centric and might be a good starting point), and of course Frances Hodgson Burnett. The Secret Garden isn't really fantasy, but it's still a great book, as is A Little Princess. Oh, and there are these crazy books you'll never ever find, which I read when I was eight, called, The Secret of the Unicorn Queen. They were hilariously bad, about a girl named Sheila who accidentally walks through a doorway into another world. Stranded with only the contents of her backpack -- chewing gum, a can of orange soda, a Walkman -- she is able to convince the unicorn princess and her crew of woman warriors that she is a sorcerer. I'd recommend them, but I doubt your daughter would know what a Walkman is, and she would probably want to know why anyone would drink orange soda.
posted by brina at 12:50 PM on September 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: To mention a few that I think haven't been mentioned yet: Arrows of the Queen by Mercedes Lackey (there are two sequels and several other series, many of which have female protagonists) and The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula le Guin. Both are aimed at readers older than eight (Lackey's protagonist is thirteen when the series starts) but if your daughter has read all the Harry Potter books she might enjoy them.
posted by rjs at 1:00 PM on September 1, 2012 [4 favorites]

It isn't YA, but Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson is a great read with a female lead.
posted by backwards guitar at 1:04 PM on September 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

Hero and the Crown. The Practical Princess.
posted by amanda at 1:11 PM on September 1, 2012

Best answer: I haven't seen it mentioned yet, and I'm surprised, as I had the E. Nesbit and many of the other older / unusual fantasy children's books as a kid that have been mentioned, but one of L. Frank Baum's somewhat "forgotten" classics that I literally read to rags at about your daughter's age, was Queen Xixi of Ix, which happily I see is still in print with all its lovely Art Nouveau line drawing illustrations intact.

Those drawings in that book informed much of my early interest in illustration and the graphic arts, btw.
posted by lonefrontranger at 3:07 PM on September 1, 2012

Clive Barker's Abarat is pitched at young adults and definitely has a female lead character.
posted by merocet at 3:11 PM on September 1, 2012

I remember really liking the Young Wizardry series by Diane Duane, which combines elements of fantasy and sci-fi and features female protagonists.
posted by lunalaguna at 3:18 PM on September 1, 2012 [3 favorites]

I'd add a caution on Mercedes Lackey - she uses the rape tropes a LOT. Like very single villain is a rapist to varying degrees of torture, a lot of the characters have rape in their back story and there is usually at least one gang rape in each series (either back story or 'on screen' so to speak).

She isn't terribly graphic with the rape but there is no way in hell I would give them to an 8 year old. The concept makes me shudder.
posted by geek anachronism at 3:21 PM on September 1, 2012

Best answer: There are a ton of newer middle grade fantasies with girl protagonists. Even though your daughter is at a high reading level, it sounds like she might still enjoy reading books with age-appropriate protagonists. Why not? She has the rest of her life to get around to Pern's dubious sexual politics.

The Fablehaven series incorporates a lot of the mythical creature fun from Harry Potter, with two siblings on a global quest to, you know, track down things and open/seal doors. There's a lot of detail given to regional legends as they travel from place to place, so it's a fun one.

Frances Hardinge crafts absolutely amazing fantasies, with, yes, girl main characters. Her books are also incredibly intelligent.

Diana Wynne Jones' Howl's Moving Castle would be pretty high on my list, and her books are also extremely intelligent.

Other fun newer stuff, let's see.

Laini Taylor's got a spunky/dreamy little series called the Fairies of Dreamdark, with a very fiesty and not-at-all-glittery fairy heroine. The first one is called Blackbringer.

Patricia Wrede's Enchanted Forest Chronicles have mostly girl main characters, as does her new series, Frontier Magic, which is a less humorous magical world, sort of Little House on the Prarie meets...magic.

In a similar vein (American fantasy), Colin Meloy and Carson Ellis have a very lovely and also gritty middle grade fantasy series set in Portland, the Wildwood Chronicles. Again, two main characters, a girl and a boy, but the girl is definitely the bold one and the instigator.

Terry Pratchett's Tiffany Aching books are actually for younger audiences; the main character is a young girl who studies under one of the witches from Equal Rites.

Libba Bray is great, but yeah, I'd wait a few years. It's not that your daughter couldn't read it right now, but the Gemma Doyle trilogy has such a relevant message for teen girls, and it'd be a shame to skim over that.
posted by redsparkler at 4:10 PM on September 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: There's also some good YA fantasy in the comics & manga category, which are often quite intelligent and/or entertaining: Akiko and Amulet (US) both star girls; Fushigi Yuugi (might have some PG-13 scenes), Magic Knight Rayearth, Aqua, Aria, Cardcaptor Sakura, Shrine of the Morning Mist, Kamichu!, Someday's Dreamers (might be PG, can't remember), and the manga versions of Nausicaa, Laputa, Totoro, Kiki's Delivery Service, and The Cat Returns all feature girls, as do dozens of other manga which I haven't read, like Fairy Navigator Runa, Chikyu Misaki, and The Big Adventures of Majoko.

I was a voracious reader as a kid but I also loved art, so if these had been available to me, I would have really enjoyed them. Just preview a new title before handing it over: publishers and bookstores have no clue whatsoever about age-appropriateness. (Savvy teen/YA librarians are your best bet.)

I'm pretty sure that girls remain among the main characters in The Dark is Rising, but the main protagonist may be a boy. I recommend the series, though.

I really enjoyed the Wizard of Oz series at that age! There are a bunch of books in the original series. See if you can find the ones with the beautiful b&w illustrations. They're not swords & sorcery fantasy, but they include enough crazy fantasy ideas that I loved them. The main character is Dorothy or another girl in most of them.

(P. S. I think The Deed of Paksenarrion is too advanced for an 8-year-old, and I started raiding the adult stacks when I was in 3rd grade.)
posted by wintersweet at 5:20 PM on September 1, 2012

Response by poster: So I'm going kind of off the deep end on "best answers" here because there are so many -- my reasoning is that I'll mark as best answer the first positive suggestion of each title or author (or combination) to set them apart from answers which either name authors or books and declare them as age-inappropriate, or which have been already suggested; hopefully this will make it easier for others coming later to put together a quick list.

Actually, that's not a bad idea ... I think I'll summarise the best answers so far, in one place; stay tuned.
posted by nonspecialist at 7:46 PM on September 1, 2012

I've just started reading The Search for WondLa with my seven year old. She reads some, I read some. There is apparently some sort of web-tie-in, which made me suspicious of the whole enterprise for some reason, but it's been going well so far.
posted by lex mercatoria at 7:51 PM on September 1, 2012

And if you don't want to stick to books, the entire Avatar animated series has excellent female co-leads in Katara and Toph (and many other female amazing types) is funny, is definitely ok for an 8 year old, and is highly entertaining. All out on DVD now.
posted by emjaybee at 7:57 PM on September 1, 2012

Best answer: I'm going to add The Twelve Kingdoms books by Fuyumi Ono. Book 1 and Book 3 have strong, interesting teenage female protagonists, and the other two are great (even though they don't have a female MC). The fantasy world the books are set in are based on ancient China and are lush and detailed.

I second Tamora Pierce (especially the Lioness Rampant Quartet - Alanna was my hero as a preteen), the Young Wizards books, the Enchanted Forest chronicles, anything by Sherwood Smith and Robin McKinley, Zilpha Keatley Snyder (especially the Green Sky books) and The Ordinary Princess. For Mercedes Lackey, I also rec By The Sword and the Tarma and Kethry books (though maybe in a few years on those).
posted by anthy at 8:33 PM on September 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Whoops, I meant book 4 above!

I also rec Pamela F. Service (particularly The Winter of Magic's Return books, especially if she likes Arthurian legend), many books by Vivian Vande Velde (A Hidden Magic, A Well-Timed Enchantment), The Dragon's Milk series by Susan Fletcher, and The False Princess by Eilis O'Neal.
posted by anthy at 8:52 PM on September 1, 2012

So You Want To Be A Wizard, the first book in the excellent Young Wizards series - about a group of NYC youngsters who enter into world of science-like magic and using plastic in lieu of Eye Of Newt, it just got a revised millennium edition to update references for young readers, and while the first book has a male-female friendship as the two protagonists (although the girl is much more central to the narrative) the further books are about her relationship to her sister, her mother, outer space cat aliens, and the like. It was my favorite fantasy book growing up.
posted by The Whelk at 8:59 PM on September 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

and 2nding Patricia Wrede's Enchanted Forest Chronicles , they cracked me up as a kid, the stuck up Unicorn, the three step sisters who all like and admire each other much to the annoyance of the court, the enchanted frying pan.....ahhh all great.
posted by The Whelk at 9:00 PM on September 1, 2012

Response by poster: Hoo boy! I've been collating like mad and I've created three lists based on your answers:
  1. Authors/titles which were universally positively recommended
  2. Authors/titles which had problematic elements, usually sexual in nature (rape/homophobic tropes etc)
  3. Other posts and sites with answers like those given in this one
Many, many thanks again to all those who responded! The lists are CSV; multiple titles separated by '/' characters,

Recommended Authors/books Mixed Reviews

Authors who have received mixed reviews, mainly due to problematic mixing of sexual concepts or troubling sexual politics:
  • Mercedes Lackey, Arrows of the Queen, rjs though geek anachronism warns of rape tropes used liberally
  • Anne McCaffrey, Dragonriders of Pern series, drlith though many others warn that later books can be explicit and include some problematic sexual politics
  • Elizabeth Moon, The Deed of Paksenarrion, selfmedicating although wintersweet raises concerns about age-appropriateness.
Similar Posts

Other posts like this one, and good sites to find similar information:
posted by nonspecialist at 9:50 PM on September 1, 2012 [23 favorites]

I forgot to add that as much as I love the Tiffany Aching books the latest one opens with some really heavy duty themes. I found them intensely upsetting and as much as mefi loves the 'kids gloss over what they don't understand' trope I don't agree that you can rely on that - I was a terribly precocious reader and I read many a thing that really viscerally upset me because I knew what was happening, understood that the character was raped, or tortured, or whatever, but lacked the emotional maturity to process it properly. If I could have decompressed with someone I trusted that would have been a different story but I'd effectively been set loose in the library and had little to no guidance.

Not to mention the deleterious effects of all of my non-technical sexual education coming from adult fiction.

And as always, the children's librarian in me must add, please read with your daughter and make sure she can talk to you about what she's read - and if she comes to you with an issue please don't start with "well, why were you reading it/who gave that to you/stop reading that stuff". Flick through the books as well - a lot of those recs are for teen (or older) characters and there are any number of themes and scenes I know *I* would have an issue trying to explain to an 8 year old who can read it and understand it, but emotionally is not at that level of maturity.
posted by geek anachronism at 11:31 PM on September 1, 2012

Please cross The Twelve Kingdoms off your list for now? I'm flipping through the first book, and I'd forgotten how violent some of the demon fighting scenes were. And how the main character narrowly escapes being sold to a brothel by a friendly lady that she trusts unadvisedly (it's not really explained what a brothel is exactly, but - not at all appropriate for her age). I think these are best for teenagers and above.

The rest of the books I recommended/seconded should be just fine, though.
posted by anthy at 11:50 PM on September 1, 2012

It's young adult fiction rather than fantasy, but Cynthia Voigt created one of my all-time favorite fictional people in Dicey Tillerman. She's smart and tough and cranky and totally fierce about taking care of her family. She's 13 in the first book, called Homecoming. The second book is called Dicey's Song.

Also, Katherine Paterson's The Great Gilly Hopkins is amazing. It's about a girl who gets shuffled around in foster care because she's so deliberately awful to everybody, and about what happens when she lands in a particular foster family. That summary makes it sound saccharin but it's not at all. And when your kiddo is a teenager, Paterson's book, Jacob Have I Loved is also totally amazing (its title is a reference to Jacob and Esau in the bible, but it's not a religious book).
posted by colfax at 12:22 AM on September 2, 2012 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks for the updates geek anachronism and anthy; and for the additions colfax. Keep 'em coming, I can post an updated list later on if it's worthwhile.
posted by nonspecialist at 3:10 AM on September 2, 2012

I believe all but the first two of the six Earthsea books by Ursula Le Guin have a female main character.
posted by pynchonesque at 10:20 PM on September 2, 2012

nonspecialist: "What vaguely age-appropriate fantasy novels with strong female characters exist?"

Well, Patrica Wrede was going to be my contribution to this thread, but I've been solidly beaten to that punch. So... it's a bit of a stretch, but the Prydain Chronicles, by Llyod Alexander,do feature one Princess Eilonwy. Admittedly, this falls under the heading "ragtag group of orphans", and she's hardly the main character. But hey, if Narian makes the cut...
posted by pwnguin at 11:42 PM on September 2, 2012

I'd suggest Isobelle Carmody's Obernewtyn "trilogy" (currently at 6 books total, the final one is due out this autumn).

It's more 'psychics save the world' than 'magic saves the world' but it explores some pretty interesting questions about society, outsiders and religion. I've been reading it since I was probably a little older than your daughter (I've grown up with it) and am now 27 and it's still one of my favourite series.

The main character starts out as a 14yr old girl who, her parents having been murdered by the state, is sent to an orphanage. She's generally a bit wet to start with, but grows into a badass through the series - after all, she's going to save the world. She is flawed and interesting and a great leader.

There are other good female role models in the series, too - and also good male ones.
posted by citands at 5:36 AM on September 3, 2012

I remember loving "The Ancient One" when I was a kid growing up in Oregon (like the main character), but I confess I don't remember too much about it now.
posted by soonertbone at 4:43 PM on September 3, 2012

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