Feministe Feedback: Feminist-Minded Children’s Books

Feministe Feeback

I was reading a few articles you’ve linked to recently about children’s media, and a quick squiz through my little brother’s books has me kind of worried. He’s four, so this is about when that kind of stuff starts to really sink in. I’ve noticed before that his favourite series of books/cartoons, Thomas The Tank Engine, was… well, you know the drill. All the trains are male, a few coaches are female – it’s adapted from a pretty old series so that’s not surprising. Lately they’ve tried to add some girl trains but all two of them are pink and purple and the morals of their stories end up being weird riffs on the “woman enters male dominated workplace, thinks she’s all that, can be useful after all when she’s learned her place” theme. Which is really surreal in a childrens book. Then again, the (extremely unsubtle… unless you’re four, I guess) morals of all the male trains stories are basically of the training-corporate-drones genre (Really Useful is the highest accolade a train can hold – yeah, it’s REALLY REALLY blatant).

Anyway, I can’t do anything about what his favourites are, but I would like to make sure his choices include good books with more equality in them. He’s mostly being raised by my parents and grandparents but I babysit, and I can give him books for his birthdays, and I thought your readers might have some recommendations as to children’s books (preferably picture books as he can’t read yet) which have female characters and won’t make me stop halfway through reading them aloud to say things like “which is a little silly because I’m sure she could have caught the dinosaur by herself…” ALL THE TIME.

Thanks in advance

Any ideas for good children’s books that don’t tokenize girls, depend on stereotypes, or train kids to fulfill narrow gender roles (girls as “helpful” or dependent and boys as “useful”)? Or books that have characters from diverse backgrounds and family structures (i.e., not all white kids with two married heterosexual parents)?

70 comments for “Feministe Feedback: Feminist-Minded Children’s Books

  1. meggygurl
    May 5, 2008 at 10:04 am

    I actually have been researching these lately, as one of my close friends is about to have a baby and I want to start stocking up on pro-feminist books now. Some of the good ones I have found are:

    The Different Dragon by Jennifer Bryan.

    Molly’s Family by Nancy Garden

    The Sissy Duckling
    by Harvey Fierstein

    Those are a start. Amazon will recommend you some good ones from there. :)

  2. Becca
    May 5, 2008 at 10:06 am

    I remember reading this book, and being charmed by it a few years ago. It’s about a lighthouse keeper waiting for his male partner to come home for his birthday. It’s just such a sweet story, with lovely illustrations.

  3. May 5, 2008 at 10:19 am

    The Paper-Bag Princess, Robert Munsch.

  4. Amanda
    May 5, 2008 at 10:19 am

    Try Virginia Lee Burton’s books (Katy and the Big Snow, Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel). The main characters are machines like snow plows and steam shovels, but they’re all female. Katy is one of my favorite children’s books–she’s the strongest snow plow in the city of Geopolis, and she saves the day when a big blizzard shuts down the town.

  5. meggygurl
    May 5, 2008 at 10:19 am

    Now I have been looking! This also look good.

    A Girl Named Dan
    by Dandi Daley Mackall

  6. Daomadan
    May 5, 2008 at 10:25 am

    Howl’s Moving Castle -Diana Wynne Jones
    Princess Academy -Shannon Hale
    Heather Has Two Mommies -Lesléa Newman
    Kira-Kira -Cynthia Kadohata
    A Step from Heaven -An Na

    Just a few of my favs.

  7. May 5, 2008 at 10:35 am

    The Enchanted Forest Chronicles by Patricia C. Wrede. They’re a little older than Thomas the Tank Engine, but they’re quite good, and subvert a lot of classic fairy tale tropes.

  8. May 5, 2008 at 10:41 am

    “Katie Morag Delivers the Mail” features an adventurous girl, and her granny wears overalls and fixes her own tractor. The series of Katie Morag books are all very sweet, about island life in a remote Scottish community, she’s a fun heroine. Lovely illustrations too.

    Another Scottish series (can you tel where I grew up?) is the Maisie books. Maisie is a girl cat, who’s father is an explorer, she lives with her auntie and granny while he’s off in the jungle. Shes spunky and adventurous, and gets to encounter the Loch Ness Monster at some point.

  9. Alison
    May 5, 2008 at 10:49 am

    And Tango Makes Three — based on a true story about the gay penguins at the zoo.

    The Houndsley and Catina books, by James Howe — these feature a male dog and a female cat, and both are fully rounded out characters.

    For slightly older readers (ages 6-9): The Judy Moody books, by Megan McDonald, feature a strong female protagonist whose gender isn’t made an issue at all. She’s just a fun kid.

  10. Alison
    May 5, 2008 at 10:52 am

    I almost forgot! William’s Doll, by Charlotte Zolotow, is one of the greatest picture books around.

  11. Terri
    May 5, 2008 at 11:08 am
  12. puggins
    May 5, 2008 at 11:15 am

    I asked a somewhat-similar question a few weeks ago and got a metric ton of fantastic suggestions. I’ll link to the thread itself, since I’d prefer the readers who sent in suggestions to be properly accredited:

    My favorite? The Paperbag Princess. Wonderful stuff. The Snail and the Whale is great too, assuming you don’t mind anthropomorphic animals.

  13. Tom
    May 5, 2008 at 11:22 am

    Don’t forget Corduroy!

  14. Bobthemole
    May 5, 2008 at 11:27 am

    Claire and the Unicorn – Happy Ever After has a girl ask her Dad what it takes to make someone “happy ever after”. When he doesn’t know, she gets on her magic unicorn and goes to ask fairytale characters what would make them happy.

    The answers range from “a comfortable bed” to “lots of flies”, turning around the idea that you have to marry a prince to become happy.

    It’s a VERY pastel book, clearly aimed for girls. (I was looking for something more gender-neutral, but the store was closing and why didn’t this post appear, like, last week). I guess girls in the target age range get heavily into the Princess market, so books have to be PINK with UNICORNS to appear on their radars. And then this one begins its subversive magic.

  15. random6x7
    May 5, 2008 at 11:28 am

    I like Kevin Henkes’s books. They actually have, you know, female lead characters. Awesome!

  16. Ruby
    May 5, 2008 at 11:28 am

    I can’t tell you how much I loved this book as a kid. It’s an amazing introduction to tolerance and pluralism and diversity. And not just, say, on the different shapes of noses or different kinds of architecture. It explains that some people prefer solitude, some prefer crowds. That sort of thing.

    People by Peter Spier

  17. Jay
    May 5, 2008 at 11:49 am

    I probably recommended this in the previous thread, but The Undone Fairy Tale, which has the advantage of being fun to read so the grown-ups will enjoy it, too.

  18. May 5, 2008 at 11:55 am

    Not a book, but the Free to Be You and Me tapes (I’m sure they’re CDs by now) are pretty classic.

  19. SKM
    May 5, 2008 at 12:06 pm

    I have a 3-year-old niece and a 6-year-old nephew, so this is an important issue for me.

    In terms of trains and machines, my niece prefers The Little Engine That Could and Mike Mulligan and the Steam Shovel to Thomas. (And Mike Mulligan’s steam shovel is named Mary Ann).

    Here are some books I recently tried that are huge hits with the kids:

    The Dot, by Peter H. Reynolds (main character is a girl)–v. good for age 4

    My Friends/Mis Amigos by Taro Gomi (main character is a girl; text is on both Spanish and English)–also v. good for age 4

    The Princess Knight, by Cornelia Funke (female lead character)

    Ballerino Nate, by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley (male lead character who pursues a non-traditional interest–ballet. Provides opportunities to point out how limiting stereotypes are)

  20. ataralas
    May 5, 2008 at 12:16 pm

    I’m a huge fan of David Wiesner’s books. They’re all more than slightly absurd and fantastical. Tuesday and The Three Pigs are especially my favorites. The Three Pigs is a surrealist retelling of the folk tale, in which the pigs are blown right out of the story and encounter other classic fairy tale characters. Tuesday is about what happens to some frogs one Tuesday night, and won the 1991 Caldecott. It’s a wordless book, so readers can articulate their own story. Oh, and how can I forget June 29, 1999, which tells the story of a young girl with a science experiment that goes hilariously awry!

  21. May 5, 2008 at 12:32 pm

    the paper bag princess (although already mentioned) is one of my favorites.

    also, for older readers, Juniper and Wise Child, both by Monica Furlong, are awesome. i’d say they are suitable for a fourth or fifth grader, but i still read mine every now and then. they might be out of print, but worth looking for.

    one series i liked as well is by tamora pierce, and starts with book one. its about twins, one boy and one girl, that trade places so that the girl can go to the boy’s school. it goes through her hiding her sex, and many things happen (she starts her period, has to tape down her breasts, etc) that are discussed in the book. really a good read, and she saves the day.

  22. May 5, 2008 at 12:33 pm


    i meant to include that link, to the pierce books

  23. May 5, 2008 at 12:46 pm

    Anything by Tamora Pierce. :)

  24. Carol
    May 5, 2008 at 12:47 pm

    Katy and the Big Snow by the author of Mike Mulligan. Katy is a bulldozer. She clears out all the snow in the town after a paralyzing blizzard. Because of Katy, the doctor gets to the patient, the firefighters get to the fire, etc., etc., and Katy doesn’t stop until the job is done. The illustrations are a pleasure. It’s a terrific book for a child of either sex; I always include it with other shower gifts. Enjoy!

  25. Djiril
    May 5, 2008 at 1:10 pm

    Captain Abdul’s Pirate School is a good one. The main character is drawn as intentionally androgynous, and you don’t actually learn that she is female until the last page.

  26. Liftup
    May 5, 2008 at 1:26 pm

    Older kids: The Golden Compass. Lyra doesn’t take shit from ANYONE, and is the clear star of the series. There are some traditional gender things in that Will 2nd book) is the keeper of the knife (symbolic of action and aggression) while Lyra is the keeper of the alethiometer, which is used through (essentially) remaining calm and being introspective and emotionally intuitive. Of course, Lyra is also a girl of action, and Will is pretty sensitive. I think overall it’s quite good, and the series is fantastic. Much much better than – say – Narnia, which much as I love it and much as there are some good girl characters, is still a boy’s world, in which the character of Susan is in the end denied entrance to Heaven in a later book because she got into makeup and parties and boys. (Read Neil Gaiman’s “The Problem of Susan” for a great take on that.)

    I dunno if Pippi Longstocking is exactly feminist, but she is the main character; she likewise doesn’t take shit from anyone; she’s the strongest girl in the world (and IIRC, is stronger than her Dad); she lives alone and takes care of herself completely; she has awesome red hair.

    Feel free to challenge these two suggestions, all.

  27. May 5, 2008 at 1:57 pm

    A book I liked as a child was Daddy Makes the Best Spaghetti, a book about a little boy whose father picks him up from daycare, goes grocery shopping and makes dinner while they’re waiting for his mother to come home from work. It’s nice to see a book where the father is involved with home life instead of just looking over his newspaper before heading off to work — it might be a good way to challenge gender roles for a little boy.

  28. Matthew
    May 5, 2008 at 2:02 pm

    Thanks for posting these; I’ve been reading my daughter many, many books, and both my wife and I think it’s important to have the strong role models. Being a fan of all things pirate-related, definitely going to have to check out the pirate school title.

    Good children’s books are something I’ve been thinking about since one of my daughters’ favourites is a retelling of Sleeping Beauty. Not exactly a strong female lead there (although this particular version has her opening one eye to peek at the prince as he kisses her, which I think saves it a little). Granted, she’s only 18 months, but I’d rather be reading her something where the female characters are actually doing stuff.

    So glad somebody asked the question, and glad to see so many answers.

  29. Caravelle
    May 5, 2008 at 2:18 pm

    I join Terri in recommending “The little old lady who wasn’t afraid of anything”, it was one of my favorite books as a child. Aside from the feminism angle of having, well, a little old lady who isn’t afraid of anything, there’s a nice moral about not fearing fear itself and accepting people who are different. Also, it’s a lot of fun.

  30. TinaH
    May 5, 2008 at 2:30 pm

    An amazing thread on Pandagon about a million years ago, chock full of great kids’ books.

  31. kiki
    May 5, 2008 at 2:42 pm

    The Wee Free Men, A Hat Full of Sky, Wintersmith by Terry Pratchett.

  32. May 5, 2008 at 4:10 pm

    Most of the kidlit I recommend is more YA than anything else so I’m not sure how much use this’d be for a four year old.

    All of Terry Pratchett’s YA stuff – the ones kiki mentioned, featuring Tiffany Aching are brilliant, but so is The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents.

    Tamora Pierce’s Tortall books (I haven’t read the Circle of Magic ones so can’t comment, but I assume they’re equally good) all not only have really well written female protagonists, but also examine sexual politics rather well.

    China Mieville’s Un Lun Dun. Again, wonderful female protagonist – he is working very consciously against stereotypes in this book and I think he does a great job. Plus, great illustrations.

    I just finished Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines quartet, and I think he did rather good things with his female characters too.

  33. May 5, 2008 at 4:25 pm

    The American Library Association (which I am so super happy to be a member of) has a Feminist Task Force and a GLBTQ roundtable (the GLBTQ roundtable, for the record, is the oldest professional organization of its kind in the county. Librarians represent!) and each year they release lists of books for children. The GLBTQ list is much newer, whereas the FTF list has been around for quite some time.

    In their words: This year’s list includes books challenging the young women of today to take a new look at what it means to be feminist, showcasing who fought for our rights. These books bring to light the stories of women who break boundaries, from civil war doctors and journalists covering WWII to graffiti artists and girls demanding to be accepted for who they are. The 32 books on the 2008 Amelia Bloomer Project list encourage and inspire girls to be smart, brave, and proud. They lead off with a quote from one of the books selected for their 2008 list, Full Frontal Feminism. They have everything from picture books to non-fiction works about the pro-choice movement. The lists go back several years.

    Amelia Bloomer Project
    Rainbow List

    So, you know I must end by post by saying, “Ask your local librarian, they will be happy to help you find books with strong female characters in them and probably have a suggested book list ready to hand out!” because, literally, it’s my job! ;)

  34. Steve Shon
    May 5, 2008 at 4:30 pm

    Ah, you beat me to the Terry Pratchett. That’s a shame.

    And I gotta be honest…I grew up loving the Thomas stories. Oops.

  35. May 5, 2008 at 4:30 pm

    What a great thread! I like “The Hello Goodbye Window” by Norton Juster and illustrated by Chris Raschka. It’s about a very independent little girl of mixed race; both parents and grandparents appear to be a white man and black woman. Both grandma and grandpa display authority and seem to have an egalitarian marriage from what we can tell. The little girl is very creative and imaginative.

  36. Hannah
    May 5, 2008 at 4:51 pm

    Need A House, Call Ms. Mouse was by FAR my favorite book this side of Busytown. I also thought Ms. Mouse was an architect until recently when I read really really closely. It’s hard to find, but has beautiful illustrations and a nice story about a put-upon interior designer creating nice homes for the other woodland creatures.

  37. Dylan
    May 5, 2008 at 5:31 pm

    It isn’t out yet, but I just finished doing illustrations for a children’s book called My Special Tree, written by Raki Desai.
    It’s about a little Earth-loving girl growing up to become a successful architect, and the conflict of building a giant toy store over her favorite tree.

  38. May 5, 2008 at 5:47 pm

    Neil Gaiman has a nice picture book called Wolves in the Walls which has a little girl as the hero, and a lot of jam sandwiches. It can be a bit on the scary side, so mileage may vary according to the wee one in question.

  39. Misspelled
    May 5, 2008 at 5:50 pm

    There’s a book called The Serpent Slayer (and Other Stories of Strong Women), written by a mother and daughter, that has folktales from a lot of different cultures, some of which I absolutely loved when I was little — still do, really. And it has gorgeous full-page illustrations.

    Definitely The Paper-Bag Princess.

    Charlotte’s Web is good as a children’s book that has strong, smart female characters without making gender a theme.

    J.K. Rowling won’t let you down.

    The American Girl books pretty much made my life, along with the Dear America series and its spin-offs. I don’t know how easy those are to get outside of the U.S., but it’s definitely worth a try.

    I second the Enchanted Forest Chronicles — they’re all about overturning fairy-tale conventions, and they’re hilarious.

    I used to like Julie of the Wolves and its sequels a lot, and it’s not too often you find a good kids’ book about the Inuits.

    I didn’t like the Seventh Tower series by Garth Nix that much, but they had incredibly badass female characters in Milla and the other Icecarl women.

    The Wayside School books are just funny, but they’re written for and about both boys and girls, and there’s never any distinction made about who plays what on the playground or anything. I remember noticing and appreciating that when I was little. Plus I just kind of think everyone should read them.

    The Girls to the Rescue series combines original short stories by various authors with folktales, and they often try to give a little cultural lesson while they’re at it. I used to get those out of the library when I was in elemantary school.

    The Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry trilogy, about a black family in Mississippi in the thirties and forties, has a girl as its main character, and it’s great historical fiction as well. I definitely learned a lot about the post-Reconstruction South from it.

    For older kids… Tamora Pierce, Tamora Pierce, Tamora Pierce. I also love Crown Duel, by Sherwood Smith, because it’s a fantasy book set in a gender-equal world, and there’s never a word said about it. Let’s see… The House on Mango Street is great. Dicey and Mina, from the Tillerman Cycle by Cynthia Voigt, are really pretty cool — Mina’s book, Come a Stranger, also has a strong theme about racial identity, which again I learned a lot from.

  40. May 5, 2008 at 7:51 pm

    Oh, my favorite subject ever. I blog reviews of kids/YA fantasy and scifi at active-voice.net, from a feminist and anti-racist perspective. Working from books aimed young up to teen, some of the best I’ve found that are pretty progressive:

    The Skull of Truth by Bruce Coville, which features a (middle school age) discovering his uncle is gay and coming to terms with it. (He’s startled and a little upset, but loves his uncle, and realizes it doesn’t matter in the end.)

    The City of Ember and its sequels, which deal with environmentalism, war, and violence. It’s a dystopian series, but aimed at middle schoolers (I think the main characters are 12); it’s got great gender balance and avoids gendered behaviors, in that the primary protagonist is female and physically active and her best friend (barely-secondary protagonist) is male and more emotional. And a rarity among books in general, the two protags don’t end up together, because, gosh, they’re kids. (That’s a whole different rant, though.)

    Jennifer Murdley’s Toad by Bruce Coville, from the same series as The Skull of Truth. Aimed slightly older, in this one an ugly girl comes to terms with her looks and they way people treat her. (Actually, I recommend everything by Bruce Coville; he’s pretty much my favorite author ever. Those two are the most explicitly progressive, but he’s pretty good about gender balance and not relying on gender tropes in everything.)

    The Enchanted Forest Chronicles by Patricia C Wrede (the first book is Dealing With Dragons), which were mentioned above. Cimorene is a great character, fairy tale tropes are completely inverted, and the morals are that hard work, being thoughtful, and being polite are important.

    – Well into teen/YA here, but Scott Westerfeld’s “Uglies” series (Uglies, Pretties, and Specials) are pretty good. I don’t love every aspect of the series, but they have an extremely active, awesome heroine, and they deal directly with body dysmorphia.

  41. May 5, 2008 at 8:56 pm

    I put up a whole blog post on it, right over here

  42. DiscGrace
    May 5, 2008 at 9:14 pm

    Tamora Pierce for slightly older kids; for younger ones, I liked the Enchanted Forest Chronicles quite a bit (Cimorene’s an okay enough heroine, but MORWEN IS SO GREAT, not to mention Kazul), and for younger ones still, there’s a short story called “Petronella” and I have no idea who wrote it anymore – but it’s a cute little fairy tale kind of a thing, where the princess gets to be the hero(ine) of the story, setting off to rescue a prince and find her fortune.

  43. crow
    May 5, 2008 at 11:38 pm

    The Magic School Bus books have about an equal amount of male and female kids, and Mrs. Frazier and Liz the lizard are both female. The class is racially diverse. Every book is about science, and every character learns about science, so naturally it is breaking some stereotypes.

    I personally hate Dora the Explorer, but she seems to be pretty popular among kids. And, you know, she’s a female explorer.

    Spongebob breaks gender stereotypes. Seriously, in the TV show it is said that he wears mascara, polishes his fingernails, and frequently cross dresses. The only female in the show is a karate enthusiast and a great scientist. Some have even said Spongebob is gay because he has a relationship with Squidward that seems more complicated than the relationship between typical friends. Neither Spongebob nor Squidward have ever shown any interest in any member of the opposite sex, although they both seem very concerned with looking handsome. (I’ve seen every episode.) I don’t read the picture books but I have seen them in the store and I image they are similar.

    Madeline is about an all-girls school. Madeline herself is pretty mischievous.

    Jan Brett is a wonderful illustrator. She is also an author of some books staring girls. I can’t remember most of them. I don’t actually have kids, I’m just remembering back to my own childhood here. I think one of them was called Annie and the Wild Animals, and it was about a girl who ventures off by herself to make friends with some animals.

    Older kids books: Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of Nimh is the only book I can recall that stars a mother. She bravely ventures out into the world to save her sick son.

    A Wrinkle in Time is about a young girl who enjoys math. It is a mind stretching book because it explores the meaning of space, time, and reality. Madeline El’Engle has written many other such books, including a sequal to the one I mentioned.

    The Animorphs series purposefully tries to break stereotypes. The black girl is gentle, the blond girl is feirce, the jewish man is a large basketball player, and the latino doesn’t have much luck with the ladies.

    The Redwall series is about animals, but it depicts a world in which all peaceful species can get along, which I have always seen as a metaphor for racial harmony. It is also a world in which women can be just as great warriors as men. There are also some Redwall picture books, although I haven’t read them.

  44. littlem
    May 6, 2008 at 12:06 am

    the morals of their stories end up being weird riffs on the “woman enters male dominated workplace, thinks she’s all that, can be useful after all when she’s learned her place” theme.

    Um, ew.

    Was this only in Thomas the Tank Engine, or have you seen this other places?

    I’d like to second Madeleine L’Engle and add Ursula LeGuin for the older set, although it does take some sophistication/time with mom/dad/elder relative to sort through the layers.

    Authors for earlier readers:

    Ezra Jack Keats (also available in Spanish)
    Leo Leonni (also available in Spanish)
    Louise Fitzhugh (IMO it’s never too early to start)
    George Selden (“Cricket in Times Square”, “Genie of Sutton Place”)
    Constance C. Green (“A Girl Called Al”, “Isabelle the Itch”)
    Valerie Wesley
    “Cricket” magazine

    Also, a confirmation for those inquiring – “Free to Be You and Me” is available on both CD and DVD.

    I’m also an unabashed sucker for “Schoolhouse Rock”.

  45. May 6, 2008 at 12:28 am

    to this day i still love “the very hungry caterpillar” and i kno the writer of it has written more books since. its pretty safe, being about a hungry caterpillar and all. i loved shell silverstein poetry books too becos the way he played with language.

    as for chapter books, beverly cleary. you cant go wrong with ramona.

  46. Zardeenah
    May 6, 2008 at 1:23 am

    For non-gender conformity, I recommend the picture book “King and King” by Linda de Haan & Stern Nijland. The story is about a prince whose mother insists he look for a wife, but in the end, he finds a husband instead, and lives happily ever after. It’s cute.

    The Oz books aren’t picture books, but are good read alouds and have plucky girl heroines,. Due to their early 20th century origin, do have some less progressive stuff as well, but I can see that grandparents would be quite willing to read them aloud.

    My son really liked the Maisy series by Lucy Cousins when learning to read. She’s a mouse who does a little of everything (drives a bus, goes camping, drives a ferry, bakes, goes swimming…) The pictures are bright and the text is easy to read.

    There’s “Really Rosie” by Maurice Sendak — a super imaginative girl that’s the leader of her neighborhood.

    I also like the Kipper series by Mick Inkpen. There aren’t any girls in it, but the boys’ (well, pigs’ and dogs’) adventures are widely varied and sweet, rather than indoctrinating.

    “Olivia” by Ian Falconer is a bit of a brat, but the books are cute and fun to read.

    The Serendipity books by Robin Wright and Stephen Cosgrove are a bit saccharine, but my son is currently crazy about them. They have pretty full color illustrations, stories about all sorts of creatures, both male and female, with a variety of pro-environmental, anti-consumer, “be cooperative” morals. More that I can see grandparents reading aloud to a little boy. They’re a little hard to find in first-hand bookshops, but can usually be found at a used book shop like “Half Price Books”. Favorite titles at our house are “The Muffin Muncher”, “Serendipity”, “In Search of the Saveopotomus”, and “The Wheedle on the Needle”.

    Good luck!

  47. May 6, 2008 at 2:31 am

    There’s an excellent collection of female-centered folktales out there called Fearless Girls, Wise Women, and Beloved Sisters that saved my sanity during an unfortunate stretch of babysitting my four-year-old cousin. There are no pictures, so it’s really only good if you want something to read to the child, but all the stories are wonderful – and international! – and the book even includes some of the original versions of fairy tales familiar to us, before those misogynistic Grimm Brother jerks went and ruined them.

  48. VK
    May 6, 2008 at 10:25 am

    Bill’s New Frock.

    Male lead, but everyone thinks he is a girl and he is forced to wear a pink dress to school. And then he starts noticing now much differently girls gets treated…

  49. May 6, 2008 at 11:34 am

    The best thing to do is not to restrict books, but use them as teaching tools. Kids aren’t stupid, or passive in the ways they absorb media content — talk to him about the representations of girls in his books, ask him how he feels about it, if the women he knows are like that.

  50. Sniper
    May 6, 2008 at 12:01 pm

    Gaiman’s Coraline is also good for older kids.

  51. Roving Thundercloud
    May 6, 2008 at 12:12 pm

    For pre-teen and up readers (well, I like them too!) Diane Duane’s “So You Want to be a Wizard” series is very good–a young girl and slightly younger boy learning to be wizards, and the awesome responsibility it lays upon them. More about stewardship and protection of others than about having fun being powerful.

  52. Vail
    May 6, 2008 at 1:01 pm

    My daughter is 4 years old, and two of her favorite books are Ruby by Michael Emberley (a smart mouthed mouse version of Little Red Riding hood) and Ladybug Girl by David Soman and Jacky Davis (the illustrations are wonderful, and the girl shows that she can do anything cause she is Ladybug Girl!!!) I also second anything by Henkes. I recommend a book called Ella Sarah Gets Dressed for younger children. For older girls I recommend The Court of the Stone Children by Cameron and the Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Aiken. Oh and the Westing Game by Raskin.

  53. May 6, 2008 at 9:26 pm

    I vote for the “Clever Polly and the Stupid Wolf” series, which is very appealling to males. It’s a delightful twist on Red Riding Hood, with Polly even occasionally helping the wolf. (The bit in the last book when the wolf catches Polly’s younger sister, is getting ready to cook her up, cannot deal with a demanding toddler, and is relieved when Polly comes to rescue her, is something you don’t appreciate properly until you are a parent).

  54. alicepaul
    May 7, 2008 at 4:24 am

    Madeline, Madeline, Madeline!

    She’s the brave French redhead who has to get her appendix out & is proud of her scar. She’s the smallest of all her friends, but has the most courage. Good for girls who feel different (being short, having red hair, being sick, etc.) Very sweet illustrations, and a classic.

    For older kids (YA): anything by Francesca Lia Block. Start with Weetzie Bat! Themes: queer, surviving abuse, growing up, etc.

  55. suramila
    May 7, 2008 at 5:56 am

    little fox goes to the end of the world…altho my mother may be the last person to have more than 1 copy of this book, its great. little fox tells her mother all the adventures she’s going to have, and her mother keeos asking, and what will you do then. shes just a normal little girl(fox) and unlike so many stories where the mother warns the girl to stay at home, she encourages her…its simple, but its so gender-neutral (as in, little fox is just a kid, who happens to be a girl, and nothing important about that) and positive as to really stand out in my mind.

  56. Mo
    May 7, 2008 at 9:28 am

    Amanda Pig and her Big Brother Oliver was a favorite of mine when I was a kid. However, my (extremely feminist) parents were consistently frustrated about the dearth of good female characters in children’s books, so they took matters into their own hands.

    With a jar of white-out and my mother’s famously precise handwriting, they edited my books. They swapped around genders.

    As a result, I was quite certain that my first-grade teacher was reading The Cat In The Hat wrong, because she appeared to think the Cat was a boy. To this day I think that story sounds weird with a male Cat, because I knew her as a girl-cat.

  57. thoughtful fem
    May 7, 2008 at 11:08 am

    it’s a little long, and is wordy, but I’ve always loved ‘Old Black Witch’. Single mother and her son, the mom sets up her own business, there’s a witch in the house, and the witch saves the day. in a nutshell anyway.

  58. Alara Rogers
    May 7, 2008 at 12:07 pm

    Mo —
    The Cat in the Hat would be much, much better with a girl Cat. Because in the modern age, a male figure who breaks into your house while your parents are away, ignores your protestations that your mom will be mad and this shouldn’t be happening, overrides your “conscience” (in the form of the fish) and makes as much of a mess as he wants in the name of “fun”… is a much, much creepier character than Seuss probably wanted him to be.

    Making the Cat female would break the immediate connection *I* had as an adult reading “The Cat In the Hat” to my kids of Cat = pedophile. And the Cat should *not* be coded as a pedophile; that wasn’t Seuss’ intent. He’s supposed to be Trickster, and the kids’ insistence at the end that he fix everything (and he does it) is supposed to be the triumph of a child’s growing maturity and sense of what’s right over the child’s own desire to make a mess and have fun. Cat is *supposed* to represent the child’s id or something like that, but instead, he totally comes across as a pedophile. Because we don’t associate women with pedophilia (or at least not the kind that preys on strangers’ pre-pubescent children; there are women who prey on their own kids and there are women who prey on teenage boys, but I’ve *never* heard of a woman kidnapping and raping a strange child), the Cat as a female Cat would work much better.

    Also, to me, all cats are female unless proven otherwise, so it’s disconcerting to me that most fictional cats are male.

    As for books, I liked the Frances books — “Bread and Jam for Frances” and “A Baby Sister for Frances” — where the main character is a very smart little bear girl who makes up her own songs, is kind of obsessive, and does things like run away from home to go live under the kitchen table. :-)

  59. tess
    May 7, 2008 at 1:08 pm

    It may be a tad late to chime in, but I think Gail Carson Levine writes wonderful books for young adult girls. All of her books feature funny, smart, determined girls learning how to be their own selves. Ella Enchanted is terrific (ignore the movie, please, it’s dreadful) for kids about 9-12, and Fairest is perfect for those slightly older. She tends to take fairy tales and turn them on their ends, with the girls as the heroines, often resucing the boys in the stories. The Two Princesses of Bamarre, The Wish, and her Princess Tales are really good, too. She also has a children’s picture books, I think – Betsy and the Wolf. I can’t recommend her strongly enough!

  60. Emma Rose
    May 7, 2008 at 10:54 pm

    Ohh, I am late but this is the kind of thread that will be referred back to, so who could resist?

    For young kids, Roxaboxen is beautifully illustrated and involves a bunch of kids creating an imaginary town together.

    Also by the same illustrator, Miss Rumphius is pretty badass… A young girl who travels all around the world looking for a way to make the world beautiful,

    Someone mentioned a Garth Nix book up above, but I really recommend Sabriel, and sequels over the other series — about a women growing into her role as cop for the dead, basically.

    I’m a little anxious about Francesca Lia Block, just ’cause I think some of her books glamorize being very thin and doing drugs… She does address surviving abuse, and I think it’s good for people to see their fucked up experiences and thoughts reflected in literature, but I re-read one of her books recently and she makes everything including anorexia seem so fucking magical.

  61. Em
    May 7, 2008 at 11:36 pm

    I favor any books that stress imagination as paramount – Where The Wild Things Are, orRoxaboxen, for example – because in my experience that does all the work for you and so much more. When kids are encouraged to think for themselves, rather than think in a certain way – from either side of the fence – they tend to come up with decent stuff themselves. Any children’s lit that respects children as powerful, thinking beings, agents of their own will, imaginative, creative, part of a society/community that will accept them no matter who they are, is the best children’s lit to me. The message doesn’t have to be overt.

  62. Synonymous
    May 7, 2008 at 11:46 pm

    The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes by Dubose Heyward and Marjorie Flack, about a mommy rabbit’s quest to become an Easter Bunny. Everybody is gobsmacked by this book – it was written in 1939 as a timeless Peter Rabbit-like tale, complete with sweet illustrations, and yet uses classic old-timey storytelling to spin an effortlessly modern tale. Every reader seems to find their own reason to take it to heart – the noble, confident heroine goes on a heartfelt, perilous quest usually reserved for boys; the mom’s skills are dismissed by other bunnies, yet they uniquely qualify her for Easter bunnyhood; the country bunny is poor and brown, but proves herself against snobby doubters who are well-heeled and white. It’s a suspenseful book, with real drama in the tale; it’s an old-time bedtime story, just light-years ahead of its time.

  63. May 8, 2008 at 2:07 pm

    thanks for a great set of comments!

    also, tatterhood. this is an incredible set of folktales from around the world, and all the protagonists are female. i can’t count the times my mom read this to us, and i recently found out that my dad gives copies of this book to everyone he knows who has a daughter.

    (and just for the record, frances is a badger.)

  64. BWrites
    May 9, 2008 at 12:21 pm

    Seconding the love for Frances and Kevin Henkes. My daughter loves the Tacky the Penguin books by Helen Lester. Tacky is a boy, but he does things very unconventionally, and his uniqueness is usually the salvation of his conforming friends. I think it’d be a great book for a boy, because boys get that conform at all costs message early and loud. Ferdinand, the Bull Who Wouldn’t Fight is also about being yourself, no matter what others think you should do.

  65. Sam
    May 10, 2008 at 9:09 pm

    Don’t forget Geena Davis’s institute on gender balance in cartoons and movies for girls.


    Why are all funny witty side kicks boys? While girls are vain? The one girl.

  66. Gigi
    May 12, 2008 at 1:27 am

    I can’t believe nobody’s mentioned Robin McKinley! I loved her books in middle school, and on her website it says that she expressly writes so that girl have strong female role models as characters.

    The Blue Sword (girl is abducted by foreign Hillfolk but learns to fight/horseback ride/kick ass and defeats their enemy wizard while promoting racial harmony)
    The Hero and the Crown (princess hates being girly, goes out to fight a dragon while dressed as a boy)
    Sunshine (girl runs a bakery shop and stands up the undead)

    I loved Tamara Pierce as a kid, but McKinley has a much more sophisticated writing style and has won literary awards, where as I feel that Pierce just kinda churns out the series….

  67. May 16, 2008 at 9:23 pm

    The best thing to do is not to restrict books, but use them as teaching tools. Kids aren’t stupid, or passive in the ways they absorb media content — talk to him about the representations of girls in his books, ask him how he feels about it, if the women he knows are like that.

    I couldn’t agree more, whitneyanne! My 4 year old son loves the Yolen/Teague books about dinosaurs (How Do Dinosaurs Say Goodnight? etc).

    Unfortunately, all the dinosaurs are male, so each page tells you what a different “he” does. I decided to start mixing it up each time I read these, but I didn’t keep it consistent. My son noticed right away and began to have serious opnions about what gender each dinosaur was (the Velociraptor is ALWAYS a girl).

    This led to discussions about why he thought different dinosaurs were girls or boys, what differences (if any) there are, etc. I have actually found these books that are not feminist by design to be the ones that have allowed for more exploration of gender and more discussion about attitudes than those with a feminist bent / girl protaganist. We love those, too, of course. Paper Bag Princess and June 29, 1999 (both mentioned above) are a couple of our favorites.

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