Feminist Books For My 4 Year Old Son

September 16th, 2014 - filed under: The Farm » Family

feminist books for kids

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.

And that’s a legacy I want to pass on to my son.

little boy dress dressup

Because he loves Darth Vader, firefighter, and fairies. And he loves playing dress-up. And he has no idea that he’s not supposed to love his pretty purple dress . . . Yet.

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:

childrens books strong female lead
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.

feminist books for kids
Me, Jane
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

feminist books for children
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

kids book feminist
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.

kids book strong female lead
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

childrens books about equality
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.

You can buy the DVD or book, and the CD is great to have . . . but also FYI it’s free on Spotify just sayin’!

feminist books toddlers

Other Female-Positive Books We’ve Read:

Girls A to Z

Katy and The Big Snow

A Is For Abigail: An Almanac Of Amazing American Women

Not All Princesses Dress In Pink

A Sweet Smell Of Roses

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):

Girls Think Of Everything: Stories Of Ingenious Inventions By Women

Two Girls Can

My Princess Boy

10,000 Dresses


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.


  • Sara MM

    Love this topic. I wish more parents of boys felt this way. What a difference that would make in society!

    We have read quite a few of these to make sure we balance out my 5 year old daughters natural interest in princess culture. For the one’s we haven’t I have already noted if they are available at our library or not. Thank you for providing such a large list!

    Somehow princesses naturally seeped into our lives. We aren’t saying anything negative about it or telling her not to like it because we don’t want her to feel like she can’t like what she likes or that we don’t respect her opinions but we are certainly making sure to include a lot of strong females into her world.

    She really liked these two biographies:
    Daredevil: The Daring Life of Betty Skelton
    Miss Moore Thought Otherwise: How Anne Carroll Moore Created Libraries for Children

  • Amanda Newman

    Thank you for this list. I’m due in January and I put some of these on my registry. We don’t know if we are having a boy or a girl, but it doesn’t matter. They both need to be taught to be feminists! ;-)

  • Rachel in Veganland

    Sayward, as a gender and queer theory based art historian, I’m SO happy to see you share these books! Enacting real change definitely starts with our children, with normalizing things like intersectionality and social injustice but with providing solutions to these problems. I’ve always admired the way you’ve raised Waits (i remember when he was a baby you mentioned that one day he’d inform you of his own gender identity, but for the time being you were perfectly happy to dress him in any and all colors and styles of baby clothing) and it definitely gives me hope for the future. :) Thanks for sharing these books!

  • Lindsey

    Love this post and I purchased these books for my soon-to-be 3 year old son! He is a pink/purple every color wearing, ponytail wearing, nail polish wearing Superhero! I work at a childcare/preschool center and I would say most of the girls and boys are gender neutral (this is our policy). I love seeing the girls play with the blocks and tools while the boys are in the kitchen making dinner and taking care of the dolls. I see this on a daily basis and it brings me so much hope for our children’s futures. I would love to see more posts on this topic. Thanks again!!

  • Ashley

    this book, “Its ok to be different” is amazing and I buy it for any child in my life: http://www.amazon.com/Its-Okay-To-Be-Different/dp/0316043478

  • jenN

    Hey Sayward, we just read the Jane one and it was so sweet seeing Jane as a baby girl with her stuffed monkey. I shared that with my daughter who loves wild animals. And I remember a book we read about but darn can’t remember the title but it was about a man who loves working on planes, gets a job working for the army building planes and when he finds out what they are being used for (fighting and dropping bombs) he replaces the bombs one day with seeds. Wow what an amazing and important message to send to children.

  • http://www.theveganchickpea.com theveganchickpea

    you are such an amazing mama. i also consider myself a feminist but never studied it, either. the most i’ve ever done is to research my butt off when i decided not to change my last name after getting married and wanted to be educated enough about the subject so i could provide relevant insight into the subject matter when i was undoubtedly met with questions and confusion. if i had a son, i’d want to raise him just like you ;)

  • Jim B.

    I have 7 nephews (0 nieces yet) and I think their parents have done a great job exposing them to books like these. I do have one question, though – it might just be outside the scope of this blog (I think) but do you also have pro-masculine reading materials along with pro-feminine reading materials? I’m no gender theorist, but I’ve always worried that over-exposure to just one of the gender perspectives would not foster equality, which I assume is the point. Thanks!

  • Amy

    Love this list! My boyfriend is actually a children’s book author, so I have to shamelessly plug one of his books: it’s called The Radically Awesome Adventures of the Animal Princess (http://amzn.com/160905296X), and it’s a “graphic novel” for young readers. The protagonist is a princess who basically defies expectations, does some super fun adventuring, has a pet sabertooth tiger, and is way into animals (her signature animal pajamas have magic powers!). It’s basically just fun stories showing a girl setting her own expectations and being herself, which I think is something every kid should see as normal. :)

  • http://thewh0lestory.com Vanessa

    Thanks for sharing. I’m not a mom but my best friend is raising a young boy, and I will definitely be passing along these reading materials! I hope more moms and women think like you do as we progress – it would make for such a beautiful world.

  • Kate

    Of course you are raising a strong open minded boy. I love the stories you shared. As a gay lady, if you’d like a story of being open minded and accepting people for their strengths and princesses rescuing princesses, I love Princess Princess. It will be how I tell my future babies of how I met my future wifey (who I have not met yet) http://strangelykatie.com/princessprincess/

  • Sarah C.

    This is fantastic, in so many ways. I love–as the mother of a girl–when mothers of boys take on the responsibility of raising boys who respect women and girls. We all have to do this together for it to work right!

    I think I have more suggestions to offer, but the first two off the top of my head:

    Miss Rumphius, by Barbara Cooney. It’s older but just so lovely. A story about a young girl who grows up knowing she wants to travel the world and make the world more beautiful. She does so, as a single lady who clearly needs no man to help or save her. Bonus points for world travel and for seed-bombing (the way she makes the world more beautiful as an old lady).

    The series of chapter books called the Rescue Princesses. In each one of these books there are a group of princesses (the group of princesses expands and shifts as the series got longer) who work together to save animals that need help. They do so by working together and practicing their ninja skills. These girls prefer running and jumping in the forest over frilly dresses, and the message is that you can be a princess and be strong and active and not need a prince to do things for you. Bonus points for rescuing animals in danger.

  • Sarah C.

    Hey Sara – as the mom of a little girl, I too at first worried about the princess culture thing, but, like you, I have come to accept it as just what she’s interested in (well, along with volcanoes, dinosaurs, and ninja turtles, so I feel like our play choices are fairly gender-balanced) –and to make sure that we let her know that her job is to be strong and self-reliant, even if she wants to dress up as a princess and that it’s all ok. I think there are now more and more books that cater to parents like us, such as the ones I recommended above in the Rescue Princess series. If your girl is ready to hear chapter books, these are good (message = princesses can be strong and active and save animals in danger). I was reading one to my daughter and some of her friends recently and one of the boys at first thought he didn’t want to hear about princesses, but by the end he was begging for more chapters just like the girls. I think that’s a sign that they’re good stories as well as sending a good message.

  • Sara MM

    Hi Sarah…too funny! I just checked out book 10 from the series this weekend. It must be popular because all of the others are checked out. I hope it doesn’t matter that we didn’t start with the first one. So far we have read two chapters and she’s digging it. I’ll check out the other book you recommend above also. Thank you!

  • Sarah C.

    That is funny! I hope she likes them. We’ve read around in the series too, and it hasn’t seemed to be a problem. I think it’s more a “series” in the sense of using the model to crank out new books than of a set of sequels that builds upon developments in earlier books. Glad they’re popular at your library – that means people must like the idea of strong girls being active and helping animals!

  • Leslie Ennis

    You are a bad ass. Thank you for these great book recommendations and for being a wonderful parent who thinks about these things. I am so happy that there are parents like you raising boys so thoughtfully and intentionally.

  • Danielle

    I want to have a baby girl now, just so she can marry the amazing son you are undoubtedly raising.

  • Lizzil

    Princess Smarty Pants by Babette Cole is another great feminist fairy tale.

  • Kristen

    Thank you! I’m sharing with my mamas group right now!

  • Charlotte

    Pipi Longstocking, can’t forget her.

  • Rebecca Carnes

    Love this post!! I’ve been thinking about how do I raise my little man to be respectful of
    women, importance of equality and all that good stuff…. as a single
    momma I was a little worried…but this is great!! Plus P and I just got a membership to the new Library in Downtown SD…it’s a good 30 min away, so Field Trip this weekend yay!!! :)

  • Nicholle

    Robert Munsch (Paperbag Princess) is a Canadian author. All his stuff is great and really funny. He often uses ideas from the kids he meets doing talks at schools–he did one about a little girl in a wheelchair that’s fantastic.
    I have a 16-year-old son who likes to mix things up gender-wise (although he doesn’t own a purple dress–yet). Last semester, he made himself a skirt in his fashion course (it was easier and faster than making pants) and wore it to Pride Day. He also likes to wear nail polish and sometimes wears makeup as well. His girlfriend doesn’t seem to mind and encourages his choices (I think she’s also responsible for a few of them).

  • Katrina Fleming

    Wonderful! (Children’s lit is my thing.) King and King. Get it. Bask in it. :)

  • Liv Reiners

    I just love you. love! thank you for this.

  • http://kellisvegankitchen.com/ Kelli

    I loved Princess Smarty Pants! I used to read it to all my classes when I was an elementary school teacher.

  • Sarah

    I love this. I was raised by a liberal mother, too – she’s a quiet activist, former trade unionist, and all-round badass, and she supported my precocious decision to become vegetarian aged 6, and vegan aged 13. I remember her encouraging me to always exercise my right to protest for something I believed in, and bringing home animal rights campaigning materials from her friends at work for me to get involved. That support was so instrumental in me becoming the person I am today, and to be raised in that kind of environment is such a profound gift to a child. I think it’s incredible that you’re raising your son in such a loving, open-minded, informed way, and I’m sure we’re all looking forward to reading about what a great man he turns out to be!

  • Sonja

    I totally love the way you are raising Waits! As I’m working in the field of Gender and Diversity Studies I would be interested in which books you personally read about sexism and feminist theory. Thank you so much for being awesome!

  • Chelsea

    Have you checked out the awesome site for wee-one feminist reading suggestions? http://www.amightygirl.com/books I think it’s an awesome resource. And I second the person who suggested Miss Rumphius. I remember being obsessed with lupins as a child because she flower bombed the world with them.

  • Sarah C.

    Moms and dads who let their boys express their gender identity however they please are my heros. There’s a little boy in my girl’s preschool class who wears dresses sometimes and pink most days, and I want to hug that mom – not just for being a good mom to her son but for teaching my girl that pink and dresses aren’t just for girls. (I feel, maybe wrongly, but I FEEL like it’s socially easier or more accepted for my girl to love trucks and volcanoes than for a boy to want his nails painted, so I think unfortunately a lot of that work falls to boys who are different and their parents).

  • juana

    awesome post! thank you for the recommendations!!!
    i kinda disagree on one thing, though. i think moms of boys tooootally do get that we are all raising kids to be self affirming and respectful of others. as a mom raising two boys (soon three), an birth activist and feminist, it is very much an issue that i take seriously. i think it is a huge part of hte discussion, and i very much do not think it is limited to moms of girls. i mean, why raise empowered young women if we still raise cave men who will conk them over the head and try to drag them off?
    we were reading a very typical knight story the other day… and the knight was defending the princess from a dragon. wanna know why? because the princess didn’t have a sword! i mean, how can she defend herself if she has no sword and no shield? we dont have feminist books (cause i m behind here), but we do read with a critical eye. not even me, my sons do.
    and btw, my youngest wore his pink princess dress for a year. every single day. these days, kids (kids!) come up to me and ask if he’s a girl. i say no, he’s a boy. and they say, uber confused… but he’s wearing nail polish?! food for thought, huh. i should mention, i do live in uber conservative madrid…

  • http://bonzaiaphrodite.com/ Sayward Rebhal

    I feel your pain on the princess thing. I too struggle with not wanting to deprive Waits of relevant cultural experiences – for me it’s often Disney stuff – and having difficulty accepting media that I find so grossly in contrast with my ethics. I’ve often joked that someone needs to write a primer for progressive parents “How To Talk To Your Children About Disney” because it’s something I’ve really had a hard time with! Mostly the racism. OMG so much racism! He loves Peter Pan and I just cringe at the depiction of the “Indians”. So far my approach has been to just let it be the gateway to an open an honest conversation. Last weekend he was playing with an older kid and I guess they were playing “indians” and she kept saying “Okay we’re Indians, now we’re gathering food”, stuff like that, and I heard him pipe up up at one point “Yeah, we’re Native Americans”. I don’t know if it was intentional on his part or not, but I couldn’t help but notice it. ♥

    Anyway, thank you so much for the recs!

  • http://bonzaiaphrodite.com/ Sayward Rebhal

    Congratulations Amanda!

  • http://bonzaiaphrodite.com/ Sayward Rebhal

    Thank you Rachel, and I totally agree that the key is in normalizing these things and encouraging critical thinking regarding intersectionality and social injustice (and teaching *empathy*!). I actually feel very confident about the next generation. ♥

  • http://bonzaiaphrodite.com/ Sayward Rebhal

    Yes! This comment makes me so happy! Waits’s preschool is very small (like 6 kids at a time) and something that makes me soooo happy is that all the kids will play together, so ALL the kids will be in the kitchen playing “house” (funnily enough, this is often a 2-dad house with lots of kids and dogs), and then they ALL run off together to play firefighter, and on and on, dress-up butterflies to secret agents, all of them together, girls and boys. This makes me SO happy. This next generation, I tell ya . . .

    Also, thank you so much for doing this important work of early child care and development, and especially, it sounds like, in a totally awesome progressive environment. The kids are lucky to have you!

  • http://bonzaiaphrodite.com/ Sayward Rebhal

    Thank you so much Ashley!

  • http://bonzaiaphrodite.com/ Sayward Rebhal

    Hey jenN, oh man that sounds super familiar, I swear I’ve heard of that book before! I’ll keep my eyes out for sure – thanks for the rec! Glad you loved the Jane book, as a scientist I actually get emotional sometimes when we read it. I’m such a sap!! =D

  • http://bonzaiaphrodite.com/ Sayward Rebhal

    So interesting Caitlin, I made the same decision (re: name changing) when I got married, and it was actually more of a sticking point than I thought it would be (we are both so progressive!). Anyway, I didn’t actually do much formal research but I would love to hear about what you learned, that must be such interesting stuff.

    If you ever decide to have children, I know that you’ll be an amazing mama too. ♥

    PS – Jeremy and I have decided that NEXT year on our annual Maryland trip, we’re going to work in an overnight trip to Philly. Want to meet us for dinner at Vedge??

  • http://bonzaiaphrodite.com/ Sayward Rebhal

    Great question Jim, my thought has always been that the dominant cultural narrative of gender identity and gender rolls is SO strong (ie boys get “boy” stuff and girls get “girl” stuff – it is *everywhere*) that anything outside of that is much needed, without any concern for balance. it would be pretty hard to undo the cultural standard, so all of this material that is outside of gender norms, etc, is really just an introduction to the ideas. The dominant narrative is still incredibly dominant, and I don’t think it would add up to over-exposure. Hope that makes sense – it’s such an interesting and complicated topic!

  • http://bonzaiaphrodite.com/ Sayward Rebhal

    OMG Amy, that looks so amazing! I added it to my wish list, what a fun book! And what an awesome boyfriend you must have. ;-) Thanks so much for letting us know about it. I’m sure Waits will love it!

  • http://bonzaiaphrodite.com/ Sayward Rebhal

    Thanks Vanessa. Wouldn’t that be an amazing world, if all little boys were exposed to these ideas? So amazing . . .

  • http://bonzaiaphrodite.com/ Sayward Rebhal

    Awesome, thank you so much Kate! This looks like an awesome resource. ♥

  • http://www.theveganchickpea.com theveganchickpea

    absolutely! i would love that <3

  • Lindsey

    Ah, that is so nice to hear Sayward! Thank you!!

  • stephie137

    Love these books! I’m pretty heavy-handed with showing examples of strong women, for my girl and boys to see. Mostly because the media shows the opposite all the time. If there’s a girl skateboarding at the head of a pack, I point it out and say she must have practiced the hardest. I’m lucky to have a friend who is a stunt pilot, so I rope her into kid stuff all the time…she loves teaching the oldest all about planes. And they have all these amazing aunts to look up to; I’m frickin lucky I tells ya.

    And when I see books like this one, where it’s a female protagonist having an adventure, I make a point to read them, too. http://www.kidscanpress.com/us/The-Pirate-Girls-Treasure-P5964.aspx Gotta balance the scales somehow. And this one:http://www.andreabeaty.com/rosie-revere-engineer.html

  • stephie137

    Also you are the most important example. Keep being awesome! I love it when my son tells people “Mommy and Daddy work at the steel mill” (P.S. Mighty Machines show forever!)

  • Claire

    A great man involved in the feminist movement that has inspired many boys and men to think about women’s experiences and to take responsibility for how they may contribute to sexism and misogyny is Jackson Katz. I totally love him. He did a great movie in like 2000 or something called Tough Guise. He also wrote a beyond excellent book called The Macho Paradox. I’d recommend his works to everyone, but particularily those with sons or people who work with boys and young men. I know this post was about children’s books but when I saw this post I just had to comment. I’ve been reading this blog for like 5 years now and I never say anything! Ha, I’m like a stalker :)

  • Judith

    Hi! I haven’t read all the other comments, so maybe this one has been mentioned before, but I can highly recommend “I am me” by Mira Lobe (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mira_Lobe). I loved this book as a child. I also liked the paperbag princess a lot. I do not have any kids (yet), but I think it’s great that you’re raising the issue of gender roles in children’s books. And I like most that you’re approach to this topic is so positive!
    much love,

  • http://bonzaiaphrodite.com/ Sayward Rebhal

    The Lupin Lady!! Oh wow, I totally grew up on that book and forgot that’s what it was called. I’ve definitely got to track that down . . . and plant some lupins next year!

    The Rescue Princesses sound incredible, thanks so much for the recs!

  • http://bonzaiaphrodite.com/ Sayward Rebhal

    Aw, thank you so much Leslie!

  • http://bonzaiaphrodite.com/ Sayward Rebhal

    Ha! I love this comment, and I love that it has 6 likes! =D