I feel so lucky to have been raised by a moderately radical, definitely left-of-left liberal lady. My mom, a single mom, was a product of the 60s, and she marched for civil rights and she believed in equality, and I grew up knowing that I could do anything I wanted to do. And also, that with that came a responsibility . . . to do.
My mom was an activist and even after she died, I lived with my dad who is an activist and my godparents who are also both activists, and so it comes as no surprise that I am an activist too. I guess you could say it’s sort of my legacy.
I’ve always identified as a feminist, but I have to admit, besides watching The Vagina Monologues over and over in my early 20s (cut me some slack okay? I was attempting to connect to my womanhood!) it’s not something I’ve ever really “studied”. But then I started listening to the Citizen Radio podcast, and they introduced me to a whole slew of feminist writers and thinkers (and seriously, have you listened to Citizen Radio yet? Because SERIOUSLY! And hey, they have a book coming out next month, you can preorder it!). And then, earlier this year, a misogynist went on a killing spree at my University, and since then I’ve pretty much been reading everything I can about sexism and feminist theory.
And you know, it’s interesting. I hear a lot of my mother friends talking about how important it is to raise their daughters to believe in the empowerment of women, to internalize equality, and to never fall victim to social conditioning, gender expectations, or the beauty standard.
But I don’t hear that so much from the mothers of little boys.
And you guys – that’s a problem! As a woman responsible for raising a man, I believe that it’s my duty to teach him about the empowerment of women, about respect and equality, and about the awful pressures of social conditioning, gender expectations, and the beauty standard.
But you know – age appropriate!
So here is our list (so far), of totally feminist, strong female lead, non gender normative, picture books. 100% Waits approved! Our Top 5 Favorites in detail, plus a longer list if you still want more. Here goes:
The Princess Knight
By Cornelia Funke, and illustrated by Kerstin Meyer
This is Waits’s absolute favorite picture book, featuring a badass princess who learns to fight and eventually bests all the knights in the kingdom, to win her own hand in marriage. I like the art and the traditional framework of the story makes it a fun play on a familiar narrative. Waits really loves the jousting.
By Patrick McDonnell
This is all about Jane Goodall’s childhood. It’s an autobiographical picture book that tells the story of a girl who grew up and followed her dream in a time when women weren’t generally accepted in the world of science – especially not doing field work in Africa. As a female scientist, I really really appreciate this book.
Extra points for Intersectionality: Conservation; Environmentalism; Animal Welfare
Nobody Owns The Sky
By Reeve Lindbergh, and illustrated by Pamela Paparone
This is another autobiography of a woman who pushed the boundaries in a time when women were expected to fit into very specific roles. It’s the exciting story of “Brave Bessie” Coleman, a black woman who became a stunt pilot all the way back in the 1920s. Just a warning for parents of sensitive kiddos – Brave Bessie died while performing in an aerial show, and the book does acknowledge her death.
Extra points for Intersectionality: Racial diversity; African-American history
The Paper Bag Princess
By Robert Munsch, and illustrated by Michael Martchenko
Apparently this is an old story that’s been illustrated in several iterations. I love the pictures in the book we got (pictured above and linked) and I really love the story. It’s fun and playful along the way, telling the story of the princess/heroine outsmarting a dragon. The ending comes as quite a surprise in this classic “slay the dragon” tale. Totally delightful.
By Jonah Winter, and illustrated by Ana Juan
This might be my favorite of the five. Frida Kahlo is a personal hero of mine, and I’m so happy to share her story with my son through this incredible art and words. I adore the illustrations, and the story is told in whimsical poetry that doesn’t shy away from the difficulty that Frida faced in her early life. Excellent, and highly recommended.
Extra points for Intersectionality: There’s-A-World-Outside-Of-America; Mexican history and culture
Multi-Media Bonus: Free To Be You And Me
By Marlo Thomas and friends
You guuuuuuuys! I grew up on Free To Be You And Me, and I am SO THRILLED that it’s still around. Pictured above is the book, but what I really recommend is the CD or DVD. This is a multi-media extravaganza of music (the book includes sheet music), photography, poetry, stories, drawings, and in the DVD – live action, puppetry, and cartoons. It’s AMAZING and best of all, it features 1970s amazingness in all its polyester, bell-bottomed, feather haired, weird color combo’d glory. PERFECT.
Free To Be You And Me covers racial equality, gender equality, and challenges traditional gender norms with songs like “It’s Alright To Cry” (aimed at little boys), “William Wants A Doll”, and stories like “Ladies First”. Plus SO MUCH MORE.
Not One Damsel In Distress: World Folktales For Strong Girls (this is for a bit of an older age range)
And A Few More We’re Still On The Lookout For (but I can’t vouch for these):
In this post, I’ve provided links to purchase all of these books (and FYI, they’re affiliate links, so make sure to avoid them if you’re not comfortable with that), but honestly I got the vast majority of these from our local Public Library. In fact, when I spoke to the librarian about what I was looking for, I was thrilled to hear that she’d already been putting together a list of children’s books with strong female protagonists (it was mostly for older kids, but still, very cool). The library is such an amazing resource!
And finally, I want to hear from all of you. This is only the beginning of our list, and we’ve got many more years of reading to do, so please – if you have a favorite book that you think would fit the bill – share! Let’s get a big list going in the comments, so other parents can check in and connect.