Nine Awesome Picture Books with Girls as Main Characters

Photo: Covers of the books Lola Loves Stories (girl and her dad reading a book), Ada Twist, Scientist (a girl with lab goggles and boy below her), One Hot Summer Day (a girl looking up at a city apartment) and The Paper Bag Princess (a girl in a paper bag facing a dragon). Text: "Nine Awesome Picture Books with Girls as Main Characters / We'll Eat You Up, We Love You So"

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.

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Hidden Gems on my Son’s Bookshelf

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Sprout has a lot of books – a consequence of being part of a family of avid readers and a grandchild of a retired teacher. While some are classics, some make us question our mental health, and others are just plain weird, there are a few that are both not particularly well-known and absolutely wonderful. They made their way onto his bookshelf in a variety of ways: received as gifts, picked up second-hand, and discovered at book festivals. They have both beautiful illustrations and lyrical text.

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Reading it Up in the Suburbs: The Gaithersburg Book Festival

Hearing one of your favorite authors speak is one of the great joys of being a fan of authors who are still alive. For such purposes, we have the huge National Book Festival in D.C. Unfortunately, while it’s still attracting amazing authors, it hasn’t been nearly as appealing since it moved off the National Mall to the Convention Center. While it was easy to stand in the back of an outdoor tent and leave if Sprout got fussy, it’s much more difficult to be adaptable in a smallish, packed room. Fortunately, we’ve found a less glamorous but more inviting alternative – the Gaithersburg Book Festival. As Gaithersburg – the suburb just north of us – isn’t exactly known for its high culture or literary scene, I didn’t expect much. But my low expectations turned into pleasant surprise when we attended the Gaithersburg Book Festival last weekend.

Walking in, there were two very welcome things I noticed that the National Book Festival doesn’t have. The first was a gaggle of local food trucks serving a huge diversity of food. The National Book Festival has a couple of crummy tents selling boring tourist food like hot dogs and terrible pizza, so this was a big step up. We brought a picnic because we were trying to stay cheap, but I appreciated their presence.

The second was a table run by Book Crossing, a worldwide network of people who want to share and trade books with each other for free. Because I’m ridiculously susceptible to the lure of free books, I browsed the kids’ table. It doesn’t count if it’s for my son, right? I picked up a counting book with lovely nature photos (Counting on the Woods) and was moved to see that it was in honor of a little girl who had passed away. Reading her story on the family’s Facebook page , I was almost brought to tears. She was from suburban Virginia and died after getting hit by a car while riding her bike. As a family biking advocate and someone who wants the roads to be safe for everyone, I am both saddened by the circumstance and honored to be able to celebrate this little girl’s memory through this book.

Strolling through the Park that hosted the Festival, I was struck by how much larger it was than I expected. There were tents beyond tents, a sea of white points dotting the landscape. The children’s area was almost as large as the National Book Festival. While they didn’t have an entire Magic School Bus trailer or PBS tent, they did have Clifford the Big Red Dog, a whole tent of kids’ entertainment, and most importantly, a fenced playground. The tents were also a lot smaller, which made it much easier to hear and see the authors.

We wandered by the children’s entertainment tent just as they started a puppet show of Where the Wild Things Are. It was a very different set-up than I had ever seen – they used paper cut-outs of the characters, switching out the backdrops and lighting as the scenes changed. The puppetry was pretty simple, with the puppeteers wiggling around characters on sticks, but it was effective enough. Instead of having the characters speak, a narrator read the book, accompanied by music. Hilariously, the parts in the land of the Wild Things had an arrangement of In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida as the background music! Not what I would have chosen, but its melodic darkness was surprisingly appropriate.

Next, we caught the ending of a talk by the author of Goatilocks and the Three Bears. The author recruited a few members of the audience to play the various parts in her book, including the three bears, the eponymous goat, and the house itself. As more than half of the “actors” were kids who didn’t quite know what was going on, it was pretty adorable. In the background, they showed the book’s illustrations, which involved said goat gobbling down not only Baby Bear’s porridge, but also his chair and bed!

Finally, the talk our family was waiting for arrived – the author and illustrator of Dragons Love Tacos! This book is so beloved that Sprout renamed Figment the Dragon to Taco because of it. The collaborators (Adam Rubin and Dan Salmieri) are a couple of youngish guys, close to Chris and my age. They joked that they knew what kids thought were funny not because they had kids but had never really grown up. (I admit that’s one reason I love reading to Sprout. At least the first time, most of his books are pretty awesome.) As an example, they mentioned that when they first met, one brought the other a taxidermied squirrel as a present, toting it around town the entire night. Anyone who has the guts to do that deserves some credit in my book.

Dan Salmieri holding up a copy of Robosauce

They then offered us the first look anyone in the general public had at their new book to be released in September, Robosauce. Unlike Dragons Love Tacos, I immediately loved this book. I won’t ruin it, but it has a surprising and cool twist that makes it both unlike any children’s book I’ve ever seen and very much in the new tradition of using books as objects in ways that iPads can’t replicate. We’ll definitely be picking it up for Sprout when it comes out.

Adam Rubin and Dan Salmieri with a monster picture created from children's suggestions

This is our blurry photo, but the one on Dan Salmieri’s Instagram is much better.

To keep the energy up – an hour-long talk for kids is long – they played a game. They asked members of the audience to name different objects that could be body parts of a monster, from a monster’s hair to its ears to its feet. The kids came up with some very interesting answers, from microphones for a head to cupcakes for hands. The best one was a oil tanker car for a neck, which was promptly followed by a very loud, long train whistle – the park backs right up to the railroad. As the kids volunteered ideas, Salmieri drew a cobbled-together beast, which ended up looking rather scary-adorable.

To wrap up our time at the festival, we made a stop at the playground while Chris got Sprout’s book signed and then headed out via the book tent. We already own Dragons Love Tacos, but I wanted to buy Sprout a commemorative book from the festival. In celebration of spring and gardening, I picked up Up in the Garden and Down in the Dirt. The Gaithersburg Book Festival tent also had three major advantages over the one at the National Book Festival. It was run by Politics and Prose, one of our very few local bookstores, whereas the National one is run by Barnes and Noble. It had a little kids’ corner with chalk and crayons, which was great while we were waiting for Chris to check out. Lastly, it had a program where you could buy a book for the Book Festival to donate to a needy family. We decided to share the Dragons Love Tacos love with another kid who might not have his or her own library at all.

While I didn’t know what the Book Festival was going to be like at first, I appreciated its geographical closeness to us (rather than having to haul all the way into D.C.), intimacy, and kid-friendliness. We’re very fortunate to have such a great celebration of books so nearby!

Of Board Books and Bibliophibians

Chris caught Sprout “reading” earlier this week. He obviously didn’t understand the words, but there he was on the floor of his bedroom, flipping through a book page by page. As a touch and feel book, he was running his fingers over the textured spots and even had it the right side up! Moments like this make me glad we haven’t abandoned physical books yet. As convenient as e-readers are, they don’t have the material presence of books, which is essential for a child to build an appreciation of them.

For one, e-books can never provide the tactile feedback of board books. You can’t allow babies to gnaw on the edges or turn the pages with drooly little fingers, even with the best covers. There’s no such thing as a touch and feel e-book, with furry and fuzzy patches that simulate the baby’s senses. Having a direct interaction with books, not just seeing them held at the parent’s arm length and out of reach, is important for a baby. It builds an inherant affection for books that they’ll carry throughout their lives. Many lovely e-picture books have sounds and animations, but those just aren’t the same, especially for infants.

E-books also don’t have the physical presence in the house that regular books do. While this is a huge advantage when you are traveling or facing a serious lack of shelf space (who, me?), you can never get the sense of being “surrounded by books” as you can with a good family library. It’s been shown that kids that see their parents reading regularly are much more likely to read themselves. I feel that having a physical library reinforces the self-image that “we are a family who values reading and books.” To quote Wondermark, I want Sprout to be a bibliophiban, to breathe books as he does air.

Relatedly, e-books also don’t allow a child to have a personal library, unless you purchase them their own tablet. Despite Amazon’s claim that an Kindle is a perfect Christmas gift for a one-year-old, I disagree. But with board and picture books, Sprout already has a whole bookshelf full of wonderful stories that he enjoys pulling off the shelf on a regular basis. Many of them carry special inscriptions in the front, reminding him of the fact that a gift of a book is a sign of love in our family. With electronic versions, it’s much harder to pass down beloved books. It’s simple to let a child read one, but it lacks the history of worn covers and bent pages that remind you that you were once their age.

I’m glad that in this day of electronic media – which I’m certainly prone to favoring myself – that there’s still a place for physical children’s books. I know reading to him on my lap, watching him turn the pages (even if it’s often backwards), has given me more appreciation for their simple charms.