Strong Girls and Brave Women: Athena Tuition’s Alternative Reading List

Reading lists can be an incredibly useful resource; they can offer a signposted track towards exam-prep success, indicating exactly what some of the top private schools are expecting children of various ages to be reading. They can reassure parents that their children are reading the ‘right’ sort of books to make a good impression, and can introduce children to books that they may not otherwise have read. However, as indicated by a report in this Guardian article from earlier this year, these reading lists may often be unbalanced, and there are growing concerns amongst parents that young girls do not have the same access to strong female protagonists and book characters as they do to strong male protagonists.

Saner’s article highlights an alarming study wherein over 25% of children’s books from a study of 5,000 had no female characters. Fiction-based gender imbalances can have a damaging effect on young children: when girls struggle to find strong characters who are girls or women, but can easily find an abundance of books featuring male spies, pirates, heroes, detectives, warriors, and so on, there can be a growing sense of unimportance amongst girls.

Where are the heroines? Where are the brave, young girls, whose actions change the world for the better? They are out there! For many, the issue is simply not knowing where to start, or where to look. That’s where we step in! We have worked to compile our own reading list, aimed towards ages 9-12, filled to the brim with strong female characters. So if you’ve received a reading list (or if you have become disheartened by the choices on offer), have a look through our list below. Swashbuckling heroines await…

1. Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls – Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo

Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls

About: What began as a crowdfunded campaign to educate children about extraordinary women from the past, who have been unfairly glossed over in history books, has evolved into an internationally acclaimed bestseller. Featuring 100 stories about 100 women, and illustrated by sixty female artists from all over the world, this book is a great way to dip a toe into the forgotten lives of world-changing women.

2. Anne of Green Gables – Lucy Maud Montgomery

Anne of Green Gables

Originally published in 1908, Anne of Green Gables is a beautifully-written foray into the imaginative world of orphaned Anne Shirley. Fiercely headstrong, passionate, likeable, and completely unashamed to be herself, Anne is a true role-model for young girls.

Choice quotation: “Oh, it’s delightful to have ambitions. I’m so glad I have such a lot. And there never seems to be any end to them – that’s the best of it. Just as soon as you attain to one ambition you see another one glittering higher up still. It does make life so interesting.”

3. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone – J.K. Rowling

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

You’d be hard-pressed to find a book series with such a wide variety of interesting, three-dimensional women. Whether it’s Hermione Granger’s logic and intelligence, Minerva McGonagall’s bravery and integrity, Luna Lovegood’s will to be herself despite mockery, or Molly Weasley’s family values, there truly is a female character for all occasions.

Choice quotation: “Books! And cleverness! There are more important things! – Friendship, and bravery!”

4. Coraline – Neil Gaiman


Gaiman’s titular character finds herself longing for something more: parents who do the unexpected, vibrant food, bold clothing. Almost as soon as she longs for it, she finds herself in a different world, where everything looks the same but is – at first – better. But Coraline’s other Mother and other Father want to trap her in this alternate world, along with other children they have trapped. It is up to Coraline to use her logic, bravery, and tenacity to rescue herself and the other children before it is too late. This is a bracing, tense novel featuring a curious and determined female protagonist.

Choice quotation: “Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”

5. Northern Lights (The Golden Compass) – Philip Pullman

Northern Lights

Orphaned Lyra Belacqua lives in a universe full of magic, but when children start to go missing from Jordan College, Lyra finds herself caught in a dangerous hunt for her friend. The chase takes her across London, and to lands of witches and ice bears. This breathtaking and sweeping novel is sure to captivate even the most reluctant of readers.

Choice quotation: “You cannot change what you are, only what you do.”

6. The Girl Who Drank the Moon – Kelly Barnhill

The Girl Who Drank the Moon

It is tradition for the society of the Protectorate to leave a baby as an offering to the mysterious witch who lives in the forest. However, the witch that the community is so scared of is actually the kind and caring Xan (who shares her home with a swamp monster and a tiny dragon). Xan rescues every abandoned child, and delivers them to safety. However, one year she accidentally feeds a baby – Luna – moonlight, filling her full of dangerous magic. When Luna’s magic begins to emerge, she must learn to harness it and, of course, save the day!

Choice quotation: “It was a fine thing indeed, Luna thought, being eleven. She loved the symmetry of it, and the lack of symmetry. Eleven was a number that was visually even, but functionally not – it looked one way and behaved in quite another. Just like most eleven-year-olds, or so she assumed.”

7. The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making – Cathrynne Valente

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making

September is twelve, and finds her fairly ordinary life disrupted by a Green Wind who invites her on an adventure, insisting that September is needed in Fairyland to rescue the town from the unpredictable Marquess. This beautifully illustrated book questions the idea of good and evil, and is a wild and unforgettable journey through a very different Fairyland.

Choice quotation: “It is well known that reading quickens the growth of a heart like nothing else.”

8. Matilda – Roald Dahl


Dahl’s tale of this intelligent bookworm, who uses her superpowers to better her own life and battle the injustices she is dealt by her parents and the fearsome Miss. Trunchbull, has been coveted by parents and children alike for nearly thirty years. Matilda’s bravery and keen intellect are inspiring, and this book is sure to capture the hearts of fellow bookworms for generations to come.

Choice quotation: “So Matilda’s strong young mind continued to grow, nurtured by the voices of all those authors who had sent their books out into the world like ships on the sea. These books gave Matilda a hopeful and comforting message: You are not alone.”

9. Rumpelstiltskin and Other Grimm Tales – Carol Ann Duffy

Rumpelstiltskin and Other Grimm Tales

Carol Ann Duffy is a famed feminist poet, and was the first female Scottish Poet Laureate in the role’s history. In this collection of familiar tales, Duffy retells some of the most famous stories by the Brothers Grimm such as Snow White and Cinderella, but carefully prunes away much of the sweetness to reveal darker tales which are far closer to the originals. With dark wit, and a wonderful turn of phrase, this collection is a great way to get your fairytale fix – without the excess of happy endings.

10. The Story of My Life – Helen Keller

The Story of My Life

Helen Keller’s autobiography explores her life growing up deaf, blind, and mute after a serious illness when she was only one. Originally published in 1902, Keller writes in moving detail about how she overcame seemingly impossible barriers to learn how to read, write, speak, and live a happy life. Keller’s autobiography is an inspiring read, and highlights the importance of tenacity and courage.

Choice quotation: “Literature is my Utopia. Here I am not disenfranchised. No barrier of the senses shuts me out from the sweet, gracious discourses of my book friends. They talk to me without embarrassment or awkwardness.”

For a more comprehensive list of our supplementary-reading-list recommendations, please get in touch with us and we can send more titles across. Have we missed off your favourite book? Let us know!

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