The girls are missing.
Children’s literature is remarkably devoid of female main characters. As a recent video illustrates so drastically, in a study of more than 500 children’s books, 25% had zero female characters. Even though there are loads of animals that could easily be female, they’re almost always identified as male.
Even when there are female characters, they’re often relegated to a stereotypical role, like the stick-in-the-mud, the mom, or “the vain one.” In children’s media, just under 20% of female characters had jobs or specific aspirations.
Just like in the broader popular culture, boys in picture books get to go on adventures, solve problems, and save the day. These stories teach our children that either girls don’t get to do fun things or have to stay in society’s prescribed roles.
In contrast, both little girls and boys need female characters in books! While little girls need to see themselves represented, boys need need to know that the story isn’t always about them – and that it’s a good thing.
Bringing down the patriarchy can start at your child’s bookshelf. Here are some of my family’s favorite books featuring girls as main characters. In addition, a number of these books feature girls of color, which are even harder to find.
Ada Twist, Scientist: Ada is exactly as wonderful and infuriating as a good scientist can be. She’s obsessed with her research, constantly asking questions. She utterly baffles her parents and teacher on a regular basis. She lets her quest for knowledge regularly overwhelm her good sense, from dumping perfume on the cat to writing equations on the wall. I love how this book makes Ada both quirky and charming in her quest for knowledge. Rosie Revere, Engineer is a sister book by the same author that I’ve also heard great things about.
The Paper Bag Princess: This book answers the eternal question, “Why is the Prince always rescuing the Princess?” (In fact, Robert Munch wrote it when his wife asked him that very question!) In the book, a dragon visits the kingdom where Princess Elizabeth is set to marry Prince Ronald. The dragon captures Ronald and burns everything Elizabeth owns to a crisp. With only a paper bag as a dress, the princess heads out to rescue the prince. After outwitting the dragon, she frees the prince, only to find out he’s a shallow jerk. Declaring “You are a bum!” she walks out into the sunset by herself. Elizabeth is everything one would want to be in the face of a jerky dude.
The Princess and the Pony: Princess Pinecone wants to be a big, tough warrior, like the rest of her fighting-happy society. But her parents keep giving her fuzzy sweaters! When she finally gets the war horse she wants, it turns out to be a dumpy little pony. But it turns out that the little pony can hold its own in a very special way. What I like about this story is that instead of “the girl can be just like the guys,” it frames typically effemine qualities as not only good, but essential to even the toughest warrior.
One Hot Summer Day: This isn’t a story so much as a photo-essay, following a little girl through the city on a staggeringly hot day. The text, which is from her perspective, captures a variety of childhood beauties and frustrations, from not being able to use the metal playground slide to eating drippy popcicles. Because it uses real photographs, it illustrates the details of an ordinary city street without drawing too much attention to them. For my sons, who live in a single family home in the suburbs, I like how it offers some insight into a place people live different from their own.
Ten Nine Eight: My younger son enjoys this book so much that he almost launched himself off of his “reading chair” to it as I was trying to read a different book to him. A lovely little bedtime book, it counts down through various objects in a little girl’s room as her dad puts her to bed. The little details in the drawings, from her homemade doll to the cat chewing on one of her sneakers, paints a picture of comfortable realness.
The Day Jimmy’s Boa Ate the Wash: Even though Jimmy’s name is in the title, Meg is actually the narrator and protagonist. As she tells her mother about her class’s increasingly bizarre trip to the farm, it’s clear that Meg is not going to fit into your stereotypes. Despite wearing a cute little dress, she throws eggs and gets into trouble with the best of them. And there are few lines as casually badass in children’s literature as her commentary on an egg fight, pig rebellion, and giant snake getting loose: “I suppose it was exciting if you’re the kind of kid who likes class trips to the farm.”
Sally Jean, the Bicycle Queen: Sally Jean has loved her bike since she was a little girl. But one day she realizes she’s simply too big for it! When her parents tell her that they can’t afford to buy her a new one, she has to find a way to build it herself. While the setting is pretty retro, I appreciate that the story specifically states that Sally Jean’s parents have to choose between buying a new bike and paying the bills. While our neighborhood has people from a variety of economic backgrounds, it’s nice to see that diversity reflected in books too.
Lola Loves Stories: This book follows Lola through her week as she reads the books she’s brought home from the library. From having tea with her friend and his babydoll to “traveling” with her stuffed animals, she acts out each of the adventures in the books. She even gender-bends her roleplay – like so many little girls, she puts herself in the place of a male character. I especially love it because it’s a nod to one of our favorite books! I haven’t had the chance to read them, but there’s also Lola Reads to Leo (about the arrival of her baby brother) and Lola Plants a Garden.
Maple: Maple is a quiet, slightly odd little girl who considers a maple tree planted at the same time she was born as her best friend. While the arrival of her little sister seems like she’s going to disrupt the relationship, she teaches her to love nature too. This is one of the books I bought Sprout to help him prepare for his little brother’s arrival. As an only child, it also provides me with some lovely insight into the ups and downs of sibling relationships!