My search for feminist children’s books has been a long journey. For the past 15 years, I have been a classroom teacher. I’ve taught kindergarten, fifth grade, special education and everything in between. Books with characters who challenge assumptions about what it means to be a girl have changed the lives of the children I teach.
When I became a mom, I wondered how my own child might form his own ideas of what the world should look like. The answer to my question? Books, always books. Throughout the pandemic, I’ve found the opportunity to explore some books because I actually have time to have more conversations while we read. Here are some of my favorite books, some old, some new, to build your own first library of feminist books for any child.
My First Book of Feminism (For Boys!)
by Julie Merberg, illustrated by Michéle Brummer Everett.
When I read this book with my two year old, he was fascinated by the illustrations. He especially loved the page that shows that boys can have lots of different emotions, not just happy or mad. We had a great discussion about all the other emotions pictured and why a person might feel each feeling. He didn’t quite understand what “equal pay” meant, however, I feel the real power for him at this age was the page about consent. “If a girl says ‘don’t touch me’ or asks you to go, you must leave her alone because no means no.” This will be a book we return to over and over as his understanding of the world grows. (Get it here.)
by Loryn Brantz.
You can’t really go wrong with a book that starts, “Feminist baby likes to dance. Feminist baby says, “NO!” to pants. Honestly, my toddler would love any book that has a naked butt in it, but this was a book he wanted to read over and over. Feminist baby is just like all babies. She can dance, she likes pink and blue, she likes cars and dolls. She can do whatever she dreams. A great book to break down gender norms. (Get it here.)
We Are Water Protectors
by Carole Lindstrom, illustrated by Michaela Goade.
Carole Lindstrom and Michaela Goade created a powerful and gorgeous story of the fight to protect our earth. This book has won many awards in 2021, notably the Caldecott Award for best illustrations in children’s literature. It made my list because it shows a young girl, taught an Anishinaabe prophecy by her grandmother, as a leader. The author and illustrator are both Native American and their heritage is woven in both the words and pictures. Inspired by the protests and demonstrations at Standing Rock, We Are the Water Protectors reminds us that we are all stewards of the earth. (Get it here.)
Julián Is a Mermaid
by Jessica Love.
When I read Julián Is a Mermaid to my kindergarten students, their eyes lit up with understanding. Julián loves the mermaids he sees on the train while riding with his grandma. My students loved the mermaids on the train too. Julián wants to go home and dress up like a mermaid. My students wanted to dress up like a mermaid. When Julián’s grandma comes out of the bathroom and sees him dressed up as a mermaid, some of my students held their breath. Because even at 5 and 6 years old, a few of them had already learned “the rules.” Boys don’t dress up as mermaids. When the story takes an unexpected twist…well, let’s just say we had lots of mermaids during play time that day. I was grateful for this book that day and every day since. (Get it here.)
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When You Trap a Tiger
by Tae Keller.
When You Trap a Tiger is an ode to three generations of women (a single mom whose daughter is now a single mom), a love letter to childhood, and what it means to travel down new and old roads all at the same time. I’ve never read a story quite like this. If you haven’t read a middle grade book yet, this would be a great one to read by yourself or with your own child. Lily, the main character, is biracial. When she, her sister, and her mom, move back to the Pacific Northwest to live with her Korean grandmother, she starts seeing a tiger. Is it real? Is it the same tiger from stories her grandmother told her as a child? As her family starts to adjust, her grandmother’s health fades. Lily is in a race to find a way to help her grandmother and trap a tiger. Be warned—there will be tears while you read this book. It was no surprise to me that it won the Newbery Medal this year, given to the author of “the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children.” (Get it here.)
by Victoria Jamieson.
Roller Girl came out in 2015 yet it is still the book I most consistently give as a gift. This graphic novel came out when graphic novels were just starting to reach popularity and although it didn’t win the Newbery Medal, it did win the Newbery Honor. (Think of that as a sort of silver medal.) The main character, Astrid, has always done everything with her best friend, Nicole. However, when they turn 12, as is often the case, things start to change. Astrid no longer shares the same interests as Nicole. Instead of joining Nicole at dance camp, Astrid decides to join roller derby. The story is based on the author’s own middle school story and how she found herself at home in the roller derby community. (Get it here.)
by Yamile Saied Méndez.
Furia is written by Yamile Saied Méndez, an Argentinian woman living in the United States. It tells the story of Camila, a young woman with a desire to play fútbol, soccer, in a time when women, and especially in Camila’s family, are discouraged from playing. Some important background information you learn through this story is about the Ni Una Menos (Not one more) movement. This movement was started to protect women from violence. The real life movement plays an important role in Camila’s life. Girls in Camila’s neighborhood disappear, only to be found murdered. What does it mean to be a woman, dreaming of possibilities, in a world that actively works against you? These are the questions Camila asks and, whew, I was there with her.
Given the political turmoil in our own country, especially in regards to the rights of women, this is a timely read. When Camila says, “All the unnamed women in my family tree, even the ones forced into it against their will, those who didn’t ask to be my ancestors,” I had to stop to take a deep breath. I had to stop and think about how proud my family has been of our lineage, of our family tree. So many families feel this same sense of pride. And yet, for sure there were women who did not ask or want to be a part of that family tree. Never once had I thought of that before this book. (Get it here.)
Brave Girl: Clara And The Shirtwaist Makers’ Strike Of 1909
by Michelle Markel, illustrated by Melissa Sweet.
Clara Lemlich arrived in America as a young girl just at the turn of the 20th century. America offered the promise of possibility and hope. Clara learns quickly that America is not exactly as she envisioned. Many girls her age, and younger, are expected to work long hours for little pay sewing in factories. Despite exhaustion, she leaves work to go to school, learning to speak English and how to fight injustice. When she approaches the labor unions about striking and demanding better treatment, the men balk at her suggestions. Women, they say, can’t make change happen. Clara goes on to lead the largest walkout of women workers in U.S. history. Brave Girl is a great story for teachers to use as they compare our current social justice movements with the history of protest in our country. (Get it here.)
Queen of Physics: How Wu Chien Shiung Helped Unlock the Secrets of the Atom
by Teresa Robeson, illustrated by Rebecca Huang.
Wu Chen Shiung was born in China in a time when young girls weren’t allowed to go to school. Yet the women in her life were determined for her to have a different future. She was willing to ignore the path set out for most women and changed the world of science. Newsweek referred to her as the “Queen of Physics” because of her work on beta decay. She became the first woman hired as an instructor by Princeton University, the first woman elected President of the American Physical Society, and the first scientist to have an asteroid named after her when she was still alive. I love that new biographies in children’s literature feature women who children may not learn about as part of their normal curriculum! (Get it here.)
A Black Woman Did That! 42 boundary-breaking, bar-raising, world-changing women
by Malaika Adero, illustrated by Chanté Timothy.
Simon Biles. Shirley Chisolm. Mae Jemison. Cathy Hughes. Jesmyn Ward. Ella Baker. Serena Williams. Ava DuVernay. How many of these Black women have you heard of? If you only checked off a few of these names, this book will open your world to those and so many more Black women leading the way in every aspect of life. As I read through the accomplishments of women I had heard of before and some who were new to me, I was shocked at what these women had to go through to reach the top. It inspired me to open my own bookstore, something I thought was out of reach for me. I know that any child reading this book will know that they too, can achieve great things. (Get it here.)
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