Over the last several years, an explosion of girl-centered literature, both non-fiction and fiction, has brought women’s history and stories focused on girls to book shelves and libraries and classrooms. Yet, often, the default falls to the male-centric literature with which older generations grew up. The view that girls accept and relate to male historical figures and main characters more than boys accept and relate to their female counterparts still prevails, but there are plenty of books out there to push the needle further toward equality and balanced bookshelves. Check out the list below, and then add your own suggestions in comments.
Short biography collections are all the rage, and there are several wonderful options that focus on prominent and historical women. Both editions of Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls have a variety of women featured in one-page biographical summaries. Rad American Women A-Z and Rad Women Worldwide, as well as Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History all have accessible and child-friendly biographies of women in the USA and around the world.
Early Readers who love picture books also have some wonderful picture books of historical figures to choose from that go past the names we hear repeated as defaults.
Midnight Teacher: Lilly Ann Granderson and Her Secret School details the bravery of Lilly Ann Granderson as she, an enslaved woman herself, taught hundreds of enslaved people to read and write in Mississippi in the 1800’s, despite the risks.
Margaret and the Moon tells the story of Margaret Hamilton and how her love of math problems led her to overcome obstacles to attend MIT and then work at NASA where she handwrote code that helped complete NASA’s Apollo missions 8-11.
Voice of Freedom: Fannie Lou Hamer shares the life of this powerhouse champion of civil rights and voting rights from the 1950’s until her death in 1977. Despite interference from President Johnson, her 1964 speech at the Democratic National Convention aired on national TV and inspired millions to support her cause.
The World is Not a Rectangle: A portrait of architect Zaha Hadid shares how this visionary architect traveled from her childhood home in Iraq to study architecture in London. The landscapes and ancient ruins she loved were incorporated into the various designs including a museum, an opera house, and even a ski jump. Eventually, she became the first woman to be awarded the prestigious Pritzker Prize.
I am Jazz tells the co-written autobiographical story of a child who knew she had a girl’s brain in a boy’s body. With simple, clear, and joyful text, this historical book shares Jazz and her family’s journey from a doctor’s explanation of Jazz being transgender to discovery and acceptance. (For older children and teens, Being Jazzis a memoir that delves into some of the more difficult aspects in her life including bullying, dating, and finding supportive friends.)
Maya Lin: Artist-Architect of Light and Lines spotlights the visionary artist-architect who created the once controversial, now beloved, Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The book also continues to show her continuing career as an architect, artist, and designer.
Middle grade readers who love fiction have loads of funny, sensitive, strong, and realistic protagonists to choose from.
Be Prepared focuses on Vera, a 9-year-old who desperately wants to blend in with more wealthy and “in-the-know” girls. The discomfort, desire to belong, and repeated, hopeful attempts at fitting in are palpable and cringe-worthy. Feeling “too poor…too Russian…too different” she convinces her mother to send her to Russian summer camp – where she finds a less than welcome reception. Through it all, Vera is a remarkable example of perseverance and sensitivity.
Genesis Begins Again is a novel about Genesis, a girl who finds a lot to dislike about her life, but tries to learn to love her talents and looks and family despite keeping a list of things she hates about herself. Identity, internalized beauty standards, and stressful life changes all factor into Genesis’ conflicts.
Star Scouts and League of Lasers stars Avani, a girl who feels like she doesn’t fit in with the girls at her school and finds a host of friends (and enemies) in outer space. A diverse host of alien beings, lots of attitude, fart jokes, and an oblivious parent all create the perfect storm of action-packed silliness with lessons in diplomacy and friendship.
All Summer Long illustrates the push and pull of growing up and growing apart. Bina, the main character, learns terrible news to start her summer vacation: her best friend Austin is going to soccer camp, which means their summer traditions will be disrupted, perhaps forever. Bina is awkward and likeable as she stumbles and dances over the summer. The adventures and mishaps are relatable and have just enough fantastic twists to keep the story stimulating and still believable. It is perfect for fans of Roller Girl.
Pashmina is about the hardships and self-discovery involved when children juggle two cultures and two worlds, especially those who are 1stgeneration children of immigrants. Priyanka, the protagonist, finds a pashmina hidden away, and wearing it transports her to a fantastical version of India to search for where she comes from and why her mother left her home country. This fantasy adventure is a loving and heartwarming family story with a mystery to unfold.
Teen and Young Adult readers have myriad books to choose from when it comes to strong, versatile, and varied protagonists (and antagonists!). Whether the works deal with societal issues or typical teenage problems, everyone can find something to enjoy and learn from.
SPEAK, the Graphic Novel is an adaptation of the late 1990’s novel of the same name by Laurie Halse Anderson. The story gives voice to sexual assault and its aftermath via a raw and honest narrative that refuses to talk down to readers who had experienced similar incidents of abuse. The story follows 9thgrader Melinda during the school year after she is sexually assaulted by another student at a summer party. For teens who can relate all too well to the events, the novelmay be a salve and catharsis or a painful trigger of their experiences. Trusted adults in a young person’s life should keep this in mind.
A Blade So Black doesn’t waste time before running headlong into action in this exciting sci-fi/fantasy take on Alice in Wonderland. With an Alice who resembles Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Dark Angel’s Max Guevera more than any of the Alices we’ve gotten to know over the years, the opportunities for a wide array of emotions and character driven plot twists occur throughout the novel. Alice is a Black teenager struggling to mourn her father and find common ground with her mother. Her friends, mentors, and the various Wonderland personalities surround her with moral support, friendship, romantic challenges, and role models of all kinds.
Here We Are: Feminism for the Real World includes forty-four writers and various artists whose pieces about romance and friendships, gender identity and intersectionality, and everything in between will be sure to reach every reader. As a whole, the collection demonstrates the wide range of definitions and views of what Feminism means to both individuals and society.
I am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter weaves together family expectations, cultural norms, tragedy, and grief. When Julia’s older sister is killed in a tragic accident, her mother’s grief is channeled into what feels like constrictive judgment. Working through her own sadness at losing her sister and losing the path she thought she had ahead of her, Julia discovers things about her self as she learns details about her lost sister.
Our Stories, Our Voices is a collection of essays by 21 Young Adult female authors who write about growing up in the United States while female. The diverse group of authors address topics including religion, race, ethnicity, and both physical and emotional abuse. Most readers will find something to relate to in the collection, and the voices are diverse in many ways, though there is a lack of a trans-woman author, which is mentioned in the foreword.
What are some of your favorite stories or collections that focus on female characters and voices? Add them in comments!