When I was pregnant, I started thinking about the kinds of books I would want to read to my child if it was a girl. Instead, he’s a boy. But I realized that didn’t mean I shouldn’t read the types of books I was already looking for. He would need to see, from an early age, that women can do everything men can. That girls are awesome. That girls aren’t too be messed with. If I want to raise the kind of boy who respects girls, who never says “Girls can’t do X,” I needed to start building that foundation right away. Just like I would if I were raising a girl to be as fierce as she needs to be in this world. We recently read several picture books about women (with plenty more on our TBR pile), and so I thought it appropriate during Women’s History Month to post about a few. You’ll notice that this isn’t a list of “Books for Girls,” but rather a list of “Books about Girls.” I don’t believe that books are for a specific gender. I want to live in a world where we can all empathize with each other, and that starts at the most basic level, with not dividing the world into things for boys and things for girls.
These two books, by Andrea Beaty, feature girls trying to make sense of the world around them. Rosie Revere is, as the title suggests, an aspiring engineer. Her inventions don’t always go as she plans. After several failed inventions, Rosie is about to give up, until her Aunt Rose lets her know that failure is just the first step to success. As another reviewer stated:
This isn’t a girl self-esteem book. This is an importance of failure book. There’s something I haven’t seen a lot of. The main character is a female because the main character had to be something. She could have been a genderless anthropomorphic bear, that’s how little sex roles have to do with this story.
And she is right. The character didn’t have to be a girl. And that’s part of what I love about these books. Things aren’t happening because they are girls. They just happen. (A lot like real life.)
Ada Twist doesn’t say a lot (or anything), until she turns three. Then she starts asking questions and doesn’t stop. “She started with Why? and then What? How? and When? By bedtime she came back to Why? once again.” There is a foul smell in Ada’s house, and she is determined to find it, through observation and experimentation, that eventually lands her in a bit of trouble. In the background of the book, her parents struggle to learn how to support her curiosity about everything (something a lot of parents can empathize with, I’m sure). As one Goodreads reviewer wrote, “FUCK YEAH BROWN GIRLS AND SCIENCE.”
Both books are written in rhyming couplets that flow wonderfully while being read aloud. The illustrations are engaging, containing a lot to look at without feeling so busy they are distracting. There is a lot to talk about, looking through the illustrations, as children find familiar and unfamiliar objects around the main characters and their adventures.
In this wonderful picture biography about one of our most important Supreme Court Justices, readers see that from an early age, Ruth disagreed with much of what she saw in the world. From signs that read “No Jews” and “No Dogs,” to the idea that “Boys were expected to grow up, and do big things in the world. Girls? Girls were expected to find husbands.” As we all know, Ruth didn’t just disagree, she took steps to change the world, one case at a time. As one of only 9 women in a law school class of 500, she faced obstacles at every turn. The very court that she would one day serve on had said that “Woman has always been dependent on man,” and that “The natural and proper timidity and delicacy which belongs to the female sex evidently unfits it for many of the occupations of civil life.” An unexpected page spread that I really appreciated was one that illustrated her friendship with Antonin Scalia, pointing out that even though people can disagree on things as fundamental as human rights does not mean they need to be enemies. This is an important lesson to learn especially in these divisive times. Almost as important as learning to disagree with the messages the world tells you, and to do something about it.
Winner of the 1939 Caldecott Award, Mei Li is the story of a little girl who wants to go to the New Year’s Eve Fair like her older brother. After sneaking out of the house, she attends the fair with her brother, who is less than enlightened about what a girl can actually do. Unlike the other books in this list, you have to look a little deeper to see the positive message under the stifling gender norms of society. Mei Li tries out all sorts of things at the fair, including stilt walking. Her brother laughs at her attempts, but Mei Li doesn’t let that slow her down. She keeps trying things and having fun! They run into a bit of trouble when they are late leaving the city and almost don’t make it home to greet the Kitchen God and receive his blessing for the year. Luckily, another strong female, Lizda the beggar girl, keeps them from closing the gate long enough for Mei Li and her family to leave. Mei Li’s trip the fair doesn’t change any societal norms, it doesn’t even change how her family treats her as a girl. To me, it was more about the small forms of defiance that one can find in their everyday life. The ones that don’t seem like much, until they all add up, and suddenly are. The black and white illustrations, possibly done with brush and ink, are stunning to look at. (I am purposely not commenting on cultural aspects, as I do not have the background to make a sound judgment on those issues. Other reviewers seem to feel it is less problematic than other similar books of the time.)
And just in case that last book wasn’t quite as female empowering as you would like, here is a book showcasing 26 amazing women in American history. “There are artists and abolitionists, scientists and suffragettes, rock stars and rabble-rousers, and agents of change of all kinds.” This book gives a short biography of essential women, some better known than others. Not only does it demonstrate the range of effects women have on society and culture, it’s a great jumping off point for further discussions and reading. This would be a great place to start when looking for a topic for those Women’s History Month projects. It includes a note at the end with 26 ways to be radical, and suggestions for further reading.
Technically, this is a book BY a girl, not about one. Say goodnight and count to ten in this picture book that shows that numbers are all around us. On each page, a child and its parent say goodnight to two hands, three wheels, five points (on a star), and more. The soft illustrations are perfect for winding down at the end of the day. The endpapers in the front and back feature the numbers 1 through 10 in numeral, text in several languages (English, Spanish, French, German, and Mandarin), and a pictorial representation (as boxes colored in “ten frames”). At the end of the story, Danica has written a message to parents/caregivers about how to find math in everyday activities, and why it is so important to fight back against the negative messages our children hear about math and numbers from the world around them. Written by the mathematician who once played Winnie Cooper in The Wonder Years. If you have older children, check out her math books aimed at giving middle school girls confidence in math.
What books are you reading, to yourself or others, that celebrate how kickass women are?