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I’m on a mission to find children’s books that are feminist in their orientation but not backward-looking. Lots of current feminist children’s books are about my generation’s heroes: Shirley Chisholm, Naomi Wolf, Gloria Steinem, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Hillary Clinton. These are the women that, to those of us hailing from generation-ex, were the foremothers of our own third wave feminism.
Yes, RBG is my hero, and she’s even more my hero when I know the obstacles she faced and the barriers she busted through. I find strength in the victories that other women have fought, and I am inspired to continue my own feminist journey with the knowledge that I’m standing on the shoulders of women who saw a different world was possible for themselves and set about to making it.
Yet, for my Girl, I’m looking for the books that don’t celebrate the victories of the past but reflect the current world we live in. Her generation of girls are already living so much further outside of the boundaries of sexism than I grew up with. We need books that exemplify that.
Feminist Children’s Books for the Next Generation
Penguin Young Reader’s The Little Book of Little Activists is a great example of the next generation of girls and young women leading the way. The Girl has enjoyed her fair share of political protests this year where she blows bubbles, rides her bike with her friends, or practices her newfound writing skills on a protest sign. At these actions, the children are always the most inspirational. The way they gravitate to the purpose behind the protest is a reminder that they are both the reason we are there fighting for a better future and also the leaders who will bring their own perspective to our world in short order. This book is full of inspiring images of girls making their voices heard.
Loryn Brantz’s Feminist Baby is a sweet board book that my Girl has memorized. Feminist baby doesn’t wear pants and she does what she wants. We all love that.
Kelly DiPucchio’s Grace for President is just the kind of feminist children’s book I love. It does acknowledge the realities of sexism when Grace hears that a woman has never been president. Grace decides to be the first female president and runs for her school election. With wonderful illustrations and a good introduction to the electoral system, Grace for President is a perfect response to the realities we face. Instead of accepting it as fact, Grace shows courage and endeavors to change her world by being herself. She dares to see herself outside the limits given to her, and she does it with inspiration for all girls everywhere.
Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time is one of the most iconic and well-loved adventure stories of all time. We have an awkward girl who loves math, a scientist single mother, and a darkness taking over the earth that only Meg and her friends can save. My favorite part of this story is that the only way to save the day is for Meg to be herself, faults and all. She uses her intuition, trust in herself, and her friendships to ultimately set the world on the right path.
Andrea Beatty’s Ada Twist, Scientist and Rosie Revere, Engineer are both wonderful books for toddlers! My Girl loves the antics of Ada, who (just like The Girl) has a myriad of inventions and scientific experiments going on at all times. Her unique proclivity for solving problems leads to all sorts of hazards, and her lovely family is unbelievably encouraging and accepting of the way that Ada thinks, works, and learns. My Girl loves the illustrations (especially Ada’s expansive wall drawings of solutions to her experiments) and her plucky sense of her own mind and her own passions. A true gem!
Marlo Thomas’ Free to Be, You and Me is a classic. I had the original version on vinyl record, and I played the heck out of those records, so much so that I can recite from memory the story of Princess Atalanta who loved to build and fix things, but rejected marriage to live her own life. Or the song It’s All Right to Cry which gave boys the freedom to express their emotions or William Wants a Doll which happily challenges stereotypes for boys. If you want to get a good sense of what it was all about in the 70’s, here’s the opening sequence, proclaiming “In this land every girl grows to be her own woman.” Or here’s a precious video of Roberta Flack and Michael Jackson singing When We Grow Up. “I don’t care if you’re pretty at all, and I don’t care if I never get tall. I like what I look like and you’re nice small, we don’t have to change at all.”
In 1972, it was progressive for a daughter to reject her father giving away her hand in marriage. Now, I cringe a little that my daughter has to even hear that there was a time when she would have been given away without her permission. The Girl said “Is that man going to kidnap Atalanta?” And I was like “Yes. It was a shitty time.” So, there are some downsides to this book/album, but if you’re nostalgic for your own childhood and can sing every lyric, you’ll still enjoy it. Your child can re-live your own childhood with this new re-imagined version.
Malala Yousafzai’s Malala’s Magic Pencil is so beautiful. Throughout the book, Malala recounts her childhood in Pakistan and describes her quest for making the world a better place. About her attack, she only says “My voice became so powerful that the dangerous men tried to silence me. But they failed.” This incredible story shows the power of one girl’s passion.
Jennifer Adam’s I am a Warrior Goddess is beautiful. Our warrior girl learns to make an impact on the world by connecting with nature and her own kindness. This book doesn’t mention feminism or girl power, and it certainly doesn’t describe how you can change the world by fighting injustice. But, in its quiet way, this book shows girls (and boys) that anyone can pay attention to their own mind and body and direct their energy to make the world a better place.
Lane Fredrickson’s Monster Trouble is a delight with another independent girl solving the world’s problems. Winifred Schnitzel has a monster problem. This girl isn’t afraid of the monsters, but they keep her up all night. She embarks on a quest to get rid of the monsters, involving research as well as her own inventions. In the end, she comes up with a solution that works for everyone. Monster Trouble is a great book for any girl (or boy) with their own monster problem, or one who loves inventions and elegant solutions.
I want to give a special shout out to two female heroines of the toddler set: Peg of Peg + Cat and Lola, of the Charlie and Lola books. Both series feature a confident, spunky girl who sees the world through her own eyes and solves problems with the help of a wide variety of friends and family.
In Peg + Cat’s The Chicken Problem, Peg and Cat use their counting skills to solve the problem of gathering up all the chickens after leaving the coop door open. Since The Girl and I have our own chicken problems over here, we can relate. Each of the Peg + Cat books feature these two solving math problems that involve adding, subtracting, number lines, and adding fractions. We love solving problems along with Peg and Cat in the books and the PBS series, and we also love that when they find a solution, we can sing along with them: “Problem solved! Everything is awesome, the problem’s solved!” This book and show are on the list because they reflect the lives of real girls: in Peg’s world she is totally in charge, completely confident, and solves problems that make her world better for herself and her community. Check out the episode where she helps our female president save the world for a real sense of how much value is given to the lives of girls on this show.
Lauren Child’s Charlie and Lola books are also featured here on this list though they mention feminism not one time. The books and show are narrated by Charlie, but the true star is Lola, his little sister who creates her own rules, makes her own fun, and has a rich imagination that is fantastical and purposeful. When she invents two tigers to delay bedtime in I am Not Sleepy and I Will Not Go To Bed, her brother Charlie doesn’t dismiss her as silly and obstructionist. No, he makes two more glasses of pink milk and indulges the tigers. This consistent practice of Charlie joining in with Lola’s fantasy world creates a sense of her ideas as valid and real, her mind as purposeful and determined, even if it’s pretend. Each book is filled with ways Lola’s unique take on the world and her determination flourish.
What feminist children’s books have you discovered that reflect to our girls the huge potential and big lives they can have without highlighting the limitations of the past?
Interested in more gift guides?
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