I saw Star Wars for the first time when I was four years old. Sure, I thought Princess Leia was awesome. But the character I identified with most was Luke Skywalker. I left the theater certain the Force was strong with me, that I could train to be a Jedi and wield a lightsaber just like Luke. Later, I wanted to be Apollo from Battlestar Galactica—so I could fly a Colonial Viper. In the ensuing years, I wanted by turns to be the Kwisatz Haderach, one of the Three Investigators, Alec Ramsay of The Black Stallion series, and a blue dragon rider (because: Blue. Dragon.).
But I never wanted to be a boy.
I grew up in a cloistered, conservative culture that adhered to strict gender roles. So it’s easy to understand why the “girl dressed as a boy” trope resonated so much. In a world that didn’t want to give people like me adventures or significance, books with cross-dressing girls were treasures. Those fierce, fictional females had the respect and freedom I yearned for. Some of them knew deep down that they were girls, no matter what they wore. Others questioned and explored their gender identity.
Years later, the trope still resonates, and here are five of my favorite books that feature cross-dressing heroines. Some do an outstanding job of tackling complex gender issues. Others are just plain fun. All are worth reading.
A Clash of Kings, by George R. R. Martin
I’ll go ahead and get this one out of the way. For all two of you who haven’t read it already (or watched the HBO series), book 2 of Martin’s megaselling epic opens with Arya Stark fleeing King’s Landing disguised as a boy. I can’t say anything that hasn’t already been said, except that Arya is my favorite, and if she doesn’t survive the series, I will be Very Upset.
Alanna: The First Adventure, by Tamora Pierce
Alanna longs to be a knight, even though women aren’t allowed to be warriors in the world of Tortall. No problem—she’s got some trousers, and she’s not afraid to use them. This is a classic of young adult literature, the kind of book that is read and reread by children until the pages are ripped and the spine is in tatters.
Eon, by Alison Goodman
Eon has trained for years to be a Dragoneye—an apprentice to one of the twelve great dragons of good fortune. But he has a secret: He’s really Eona, a sixteen-year-old girl, and if she is discovered, it will mean certain and immediate death. This young adult novel is violent, complex, and dark, and it could just as easily be marketed to adult audiences.
Mission Child, by Maureen F. McHugh
When her home is invaded, Janna sets off across the planet. Disguised as a boy for protection, she ekes out a meager survival. This is a smart, sociological sci-fi read, in the vein of Margaret Atwood or Ursula K. Le Guin. I was riveted from beginning to end.
Leviathan, by Scott Westerfeld
It’s “Clankers” versus “Darwinists” in this steampunk/alternate history adventure. Deryn believes she was born to fly. As World War I looms, she masquerades as a boy so she can join the British Air Service. If you think living airships and giant robots are awesome, then 1) Be my friend, and 2) Read this book.
Rae Carson is the New York Times–bestselling author of the Girl of Fire and Thorns fantasy trilogy. Her next book, Walk on Earth a Stranger, features a girl with a magical secret, who disguises herself as a boy and flees west during the California Gold Rush.