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Fearless Heroines

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In a storybook world densely populated by swooning princesses and girls who shriek at ghoulish sights, these young readers are in search of an elusive character: a heroine. They want a girl who can stand up to a fire-breathing dragon, a girl who yearns to explore haunted houses.

A new generation of bookworms say they want to read about young women who challenge the adult world, who take risks, who match male characters’ sense of daring and verve--and often they just can’t find them.

“Boys are so much better than girls in books,” said Stephanie Mayse, 11, an avid reader from Redondo Beach. “The boys get to do everything. There’s not a lot of books with the girls as heroes--it’s hard to find books like that.”

A new exhibit at the Los Angeles Central Library, however, aims to quench these burgeoning literary thirsts. At “Brave Little Girls"--a project curated by the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington and on display at the downtown library until March 31--throngs of 10- and 11-year-olds are finding valiant heroines and a host of books with fearless, funny and unflinching girls.

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The 58 books and their accompanying illustrations offer a striking alternative to the norm and to a new wave of pulpy preteen paperbacks centered on quick thrills and romantic adventures that critics say have dominated the children’s literature market.

“The idea behind the [stories] that our culture has singled out is the idea of woman as passively waiting--that when our prince comes along, everything will be great,” said Mitzi Myers, a professor of children’s literature at UCLA. “Kids get this message and it really narrows down the possibilities of what life is all about. It’s a very, very disturbing trend.”

One group of young readers who visited the exhibit with their Girl Scout troop said they have noticed the limited range of roles girls play in the books they read. “Usually books with boys are more exciting, because the boys can do more stuff,” said Chantelle Gamboa, 11, a sixth-grader in Redondo Beach. “Usually, the girl is like, ‘Oh, help me! Help me!’ ”

Self-professed bookworm Britni Billera, 11, said that reading curled up in her bed at night is one of her greatest pleasures--blissful reverie that can be shattered by the intrusion of another prissy protagonist.

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“When I’m reading and the men tell the women that they can’t do things or they need help, I think, ‘Why doesn’t she do it anyways by herself?’ ” said the Redondo Beach sixth-grader. I get so upset I don’t want to read it anymore.”

Curators of “Brave Little Girls” said the exhibit tries to combat that image by profiling characters like Tatterhood, a girl who fights off hobgoblins with a wooden spoon. Or young Mirette, who walks a tightrope and saves a high-wire master, and Princess Izumi, who rejects a nobleman’s marriage proposal to study caterpillars and other creatures. And, of course, there’s spirited Anne Shirley of Green Gables, “Little Women’s” rebellious Jo and the plucky Pippi Longstocking.

These strong feminine images do more than just please young readers, they teach life lessons, Myers said.

“Storytelling is a basic way of creating a self, of thinking through problems,” Myers said. “It’s a kind of laboratory of possibilities where you can try on different people. When you get into their minds, you learn motivations, you learn alternatives--you don’t just see the outside. For a time, you temporarily become that person.”

The exhibit was swarmed with visitors for six months in Washington and instead of closing as planned, the display was brought to Los Angeles by local authors and will remain here through March before traveling to San Francisco and Denver.

Sunday, more than 100 girls wandered through the library rotunda, pressing their faces up against the glass cases and studying images of young heroines.

But after a few minutes of looking at the books on display, many of the young girls had gravitated to a bookshelf in the library’s teenage section packed with copies of the Fear Street books by R.L. Stine, the same author who wrote the ubiquitous Goosebumps series.

These paperbacks--along with Francine Pascal’s Sweet Valley High series and Ann Martin’s Baby-Sitters Club books--have dominated the children’s paperback bestseller list in the last several years. Stine’s Fear Street books have taken off, with 80 titles and 41 million copies in print.

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Some critics complain that the formulaic plots of these phenomenally successful books resemble watered-down soap operas.

“I don’t believe they particularly encourage kids to read,” said Tom Engelhardt, a New York-based media critic who compared reading the books to watching television.

But publishers maintain that these books are not hurting young girls. “Reading is a good thing, even if they’re reading the cereal box,” said Nancy Pines, vice president of Pocket Books’ Books for Young Readers, which publishes the Fear Street series. “They’re having fun reading, and that’s the message I want to get across.”

Despite the debate about the direction of children’s publishing, all agree that encouraging children to open more books is their ultimate goal. Wasserman said the “Brave Little Girls” exhibit is designed to do just that: show girls the range of books that cast young women in strong roles and inspire them to read more.

And for some youngsters, this collection of fearless heroines offers examples of the model they say they are looking for: “I like a book where a girl doesn’t have to rely on her boyfriend to save her,” Chantelle said. “I like it when she saves herself.”


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