Zita the Spacegirl

by Ben Hatke

First Second, 2010

184 pages

Quick–how many female fictional space adventurers can you think of? Now what if I ask you to limit it to characters intended for a child audience? If you can come up with more than Princess Leia, I’m seriously impressed.

For my part, I can only think of males: Buzz Lightyear, Buck Rogers, Marvin the Martian. Space adventurers are astronauts, and astronauts are boys, at least in the world of children’s entertainment. And it’s not just about characters–space toys and costumes are marketed to boys, not girls.

What’s problematic about this? I’ll let Amelia Earhart tell you. Not long after her 1928 solo flight across the Atlantic (the first completed by a woman), Earhart wrote, “There are no heroines following the shining paths of romantic adventure, as do the heroes of boys’ books. . . . Of course girls have been reading so-called ‘boys’ books’ ever since there were such. But consider what it means to do so. Instead of closing the covers with shining eyes and the happy thought, ‘That might happen to me someday!’ the girl, turning the final page, can only sigh regretfully, ‘Oh, dear, that can never happen to me–because I’m not a boy!’.”

In other words, if we want little girls to feel free to become astronauts (or any other kind of explorer or adventurer), we need to show them from a young age that it’s a viable option. And, of course, books are one way to do that.

Enter Zita the Spacegirl, a graphic novel whose eponymous heroine becomes a space traveler in order to rescue her friend Joseph. When Joseph is kidnapped by an alien, Zita follows the trail to a strange city on a strange planet. With the help of some friendly creatures–and despite the hindrance of some unfriendly ones–she figures out where Joseph has been taken and sets off to rescue him.

Along the way, she picks up some followers: a mouse the size of a baby elephant, a golem-like giant named Strong-Strong, and two robots. Yes, it does begin to feel like The Wizard of Oz after a certain point–but in a good, clever-reboot kind of way.

And that’s one thing I like about this book–nothing feels conventional. The characters are fresh (battle robot One is hilariously belligerent and over-confident), Zita encounters unexpected situations, and the resolution is surprising and clever. I also love the art. It’s perfect for young kids: detailed and expressive enough to stretch them, but not so cluttered or complicated that they give up in frustration.

As for what makes the book inspiring, well, that’s kind of hard to pin down. I think it starts with the mere fact that the lead character is a girl, not a boy. Girls who read this book can have that “I can do it, too!” experience that Earhart so wistfully craved for herself and the girls of her time. They can think, “I can rescue someone. I can have adventures. I can explore!”

There’s also the fact that Zita is a deliberate adventurer. When Joseph first disappears through the space-portal, she’s shocked and confused. As any kid likely would, she runs off in terror and bursts into tears. But after a little while, she purposefully pulls herself together, dries her tears, and heads off to help her friend. Later, when she faces betrayal and other difficult situations, she’s realistically upset but always comes back around to making a smart, intentional choice

It’s a nice counterpoint to the squealy, bubble-headed, I’m-just-along-for-the-ride female characters who so often appear in kids’ entertainment. And it’s a great model for girls who struggle with strong emotions. Zita shows that grief, fear, and confusion are all normal and nothing to be ashamed of–but they don’t have to define who a girl is or what she does. Instead, if she’s smart and determined (and having loyal friends doesn’t hurt), she can pull herself together and continue the adventure.

Zita the Spacegirl is the first book in an ongoing series whose second number, Legends of Zita the Spacegirl, was published last year.

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