One of the great challenges of encouraging young girls to read is the difficult task of instilling feminist values when there are so few pieces of culture aimed at kids, whether books or films or tv shows or music, that reflect such values. Little girls are still inundated by a barrage of pink princess role models and while one doesn't necessarily need to eliminate all of that, it becomes quite imperative to temper those messages of sugar and spice and everything nice with stories that feature strong, smart, independent girl heroines. There are in fact quite a number of wonderful children's books that have a distinctly feminist slant; for this list, I've compiled eight that I particularly recommend.
While there are some great picture books out there - the first ones that come to mind are The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes by Dubose Heyward and Marjorie Flack, Mirette on the High Wire by Emily Arnold McCully, and the marvelous stories in the anthology Tatterhood and Other Tales edited by Ethel Johnston Phelps and Pamela Baldwin Ford - for the time being I'm concentrating on chapter books for slightly older readers.
Catherine Called Birdy - Karen Cushman
This brilliant work of historical fiction by the author of The Midwife's Apprentice doesn't merely cultivate feminist sensibilities - it has an almost incontestable claim to being the best feminist work ever written for children. Set in thirteenth century England, Birdy keeps a diary detailing both the details of her day-to-day life and her ingenious efforts avoiding the seemingly endless array of ugly, middle-aged, lecherous suitors her father rounds up for his fourteen-year-old daughter, culminating in a tour de force resistance essay against the advances of a particularly loathsome potential husband known as Shaggy Beard.
Matilda - Roald Dahl
Most of Dahl's child heroes are boys, but the significant exception is Matilda, a true genius born to revolting parents who finds her way forward through a love of reading and the discovery of a telekinetic gift. As the protagonist of an adventure with real danger and not the slightest, most meager hint of coming adolescence and sexual definition, Matilda is already a wonderful and unusual feminist heroine; add in her self-sufficiency, strength in the face of hardship, and incredibly high IQ and you have one of the best female role models in children's fiction.
A Wrinkle in Time - Madeleine L'Engle
The first of L'Engle's science fiction novels for young adults, A Wrinkle in Time is deservedly acclaimed. Meg, a bespectacled, intelligent, but not terribly mature teenager, enters on an intergalactic journey that will test her love for her family, particularly for her brother Charles Wallace, and her strength of purpose. L'Engle had an extraordinary gift for writing about the fascination of scientific mysteries and the equally arcane mysteries of spirituality and this book is a quintessential example. Her other four works of science fiction (A Wind in the Door, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, Many Waters, and An Acceptable Time) are also great.
Juniper/Wise Child - Monica Furlong
Juniper and Wise Child were two of my favorite novels growing up and had a profound effect on my thinking about female identity and power. Both set in a mythic and remote Scottish village, the two books follow the spiritual and magical development of two young witches. Furlong was primarily a writer of Christian biographies and was also active in attempts to integrate women more fully into the Anglican church, but whether or not one is Christian, these books have much to offer. Few children's books delve so deeply into the complexities of the female psyche.
Mariel of Redwall - Brian Jacques
The fourth in Brian Jacques's epically long Redwall series is one of the few that features a female protagonist. The Redwall universe is populated by small mammals, mostly rodents, and has complex political and spiritual realities that complicate ideas about peace and violence. In this volume, young mouse Mariel survives a brutal shipwreck with her memory in fragments. As she recalls the tumultuous events of her past, she is compelled to swear revenge on Gabool, a pirate rat who attempted to murder her and kidnapped her father. It is a rare book indeed that presents a female avenger in such a swashbuckling setting.
Pippi Longstocking - Astrid Lindgren
This delightful book (and its sequels) has a bit of the ghoulish sense of humor of Roald Dahl and an equally great disregard for the sort of adult nonsense for which children have contempt. Pippi is one of the best female role models out there - strong in every sense of the word, self-sufficient, confident, open to new experiences, and creative. She is also absolutely uninterested in changing herself to suit the standards of others, even in cases where most of us quail. When a woman remarks that Pippi suffers from freckles, she replies, "but I don't suffer from them. I love them. Good morning."I'm not sure I know a single girl or woman who couldn't benefit from Pippi's example.
The Story Girl - L. M. Montgomery
Montgomery excelled at writing strong heroines, particularly child heroines, which is a monumentally difficult task. In The Story Girl, a group of cousins, including Sara Stanley who is a born story-teller, spend their summer together on Prince Edward Island. Sara is neither beautiful nor faultless, but she has a strong sense of self, enormous talent and ambition, and a secure moral center. I strongly recommend any and all of Montgomery's novels and short stories, including the sequel to this novel, The Golden Road, for their beauty, humor, and gentle philosophy of life.
Island of the Blue Dolphins - Scott O'Dell
O'Dell wrote dozens of marvelous historical fiction novels for young girls, most based on the lives of actual historical figures and most with wonderful, complex heroines, including Sarah Bishop, Sing Down the Moon, and The Road to Damietta. This, his best known novel, is based on the true story of a young Nicoleno Indian woman who was stranded on an island off the coast of California for eighteen years. Karana learns to survive on her own, hunting, taming the feral dogs of the island, and building her own home, never knowing whether she will ever be reunited with her tribe on the mainland. O'Dell richly deserved the Newbery Medal he won for this book.
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