There are times when I really feel that modern girls are being ripped off in their YA. I grew up reading old WWII era Stories for Girls inherited from my grandmother and mother and let me tell you, restrictive gender roles and all, they let girls do more stuff than most of the current crop. And a lot of them were written around Girls Finding Their Calling rather than Girls Finding Their True Love.
In ‘A Friend for Frances’, Frances has to deal with the realities of being from a poor farming family and convince her parents to spend extra money on letting her go to a good school. She succeeds! She finds a best friend, learns about working hard to achieve your dreams, and ends the book a) all set to pursue her dream of gardening as a career and b) going to Holland to see the tulips because flowers are kind of her life. The only dudes involved in the story are her father, her brother, her best friend’s semi-present father and the Curmudgeon With A Heart Of Gold who gives her an after-school job.
In ‘Nancy Calls The Tune’, Nancy is a gifted musician and trained organist who takes a job in a church to free up the male organist to enlist and Do His Duty. Nancy and her housemate get jobs, work hard, Nancy helps maintain morale for the whole village and meets a nice man who respects her work-ethic and the housemate coerces a pilot into taking her over the channel to rescue her sister who is trapped Behind Enemy Lines. Some of the Patriotic Yay War Boo Cowardice stuff is pretty on the nose, but it still had a lot of Girls Doing Things.
In the entirety of the Swallows and Amazons series the girls were absolutely as competent as the boys when it came to sailing, exploring, and Making Up Cool Shit, and significantly more competent in the areas of cooking, supervising younger siblings, and making fires that wouldn’t go right out. It’s stated repeatedly in text that Susan, the ‘domestic one’, is the only reason they’re allowed to do most of it because she’s the one the parents can count on to make sure that Meals, Bedtime And Basic First Aid are applied at appropriate times. The assorted parents make it very clear to all the kids that John and Nancy may be the ships’ captains but SUSAN IS IN CHARGE IF YOU DISOBEY HER YOU WILL NEVER CAMP AGAIN.
‘The Daring Of Daryl’ features Daryl who is just SO EXCITED TO GO TO BOARDING SCHOOL THAT SHE RIDES A TRAINED BULL TO THE STATION RATHER THAN MISS THE TRAIN. An actual bull. Usual school story hijinks ensue, but I remember the book fondly to this day for Daryl’s almost Australian eagerness to embrace personal danger and sports. Again, very few dudes.
It’s a bit older, but ‘Rilla of Ingleside’ is to this day one of the only WWI novels not only centered around almost exclusively female characters, but about girls who were at home, trying to cope with rationing and fundraising and answering the phone when any call might be to inform them of a death in the family. Rilla, a slightly spoiled teenager when the story opens, pulls her socks up and grimly soldiers on throughout. She raises money, knits socks, tries to keep her parents spirits up as their sons enlist one after another, somehow holds the family together when one of her brothers dies, and - with nobody blinking an eye - at fifteen adopts a war baby whose mother has died and whose father is overseas and takes care of it until the father comes back. There is a romance, but given that he’s also at war most of the time you don’t see much of him.
‘Dragon Island’ featured three girls who were shipwrecked (if I remember right) on an island with a significant komodo dragon population. They survived and didn’t get eaten and were generally plucky and good at problem-solving. They fished, scavenged, built shelters, all the good stuff. No romance unless you shipped the girls and let me tell you I did.
And there were innumerable Girl’s Own Stories and Girl’s Annuals and Girls Own Adventures in which girls scaled cliffs, captured spies, raised money for charities, thwarted evil capitalists trying to take the family farm, rode horses, saved injured animals, learned instruments, bested bullies, befriended strangers, went to sea, hiked up mountains, found treasure, put on shows, won scholarships, helped old people, won academic prizes, put out fires, and generally MADE FRIENDS WITH GIRLS AND DID ALL THE THINGS.
And every time I pick up a modern YA there’s at least one boy mentioned on the cover and Is It True Love and I just really miss the days when plucky, independent girls named Kate or Debbie or Susan or Abigail or Samantha were allowed to wear sensible shoes and pursue wildly varying hobbies and careers and solve their own problems that did not center around boys. Boys frequently did not even intrude on the narrative except as Annoying Brothers or Helpful Stable Hands.
I grew up reading stories in which heroines were expected to be plucky, tough, resourceful, independent, good at problem solving, unafraid of hard work and good human beings. My daughter is growing up reading stories about girls who fall in love and maybe, like, do some other stuff. I do not like this trend.
TLDR: I am old people and stories for girls were better in my day because there weren’t so many dang boys in them and also girls were allowed to do more things.
These were our founders: imperfect men in a less than imperfect nation, grasping at opportunities. That they did good for their country is understood, and worth celebration; that they were jealous, resentful, self-protective, and covetous politicians should be no less a part of their collective biography. What separates history from myth is that history takes in the whole picture, whereas myth averts our eyes from the truth when it turns men into heroes and gods.