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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Book Club: Ten Nine Eight and Diversity

Children’s literature is often not meant to represent reality – I love fantastical, imaginative works. But one place it really falls down is its failure to represent the vast diversity of children, in both the world and America. Considering half the population is female and there were more non-white babies born in the U.S. in 2011 than white babies, children’s literature (especially classic books like Dr. Seuss) is awfully male and white. Unfortunately, this lack of representation means that when female or minority kids read, they don’t see anyone like them. Similarly, when white, male kids read, they only see people like them as protagonists. Then, when books do have diverse characters, they often make a big deal about it, focusing on the ethnicity of the characters rather than allowing them to be characters in their own right. All of which is to say that Ten Nine Eight is refreshing to read.

Cover of Ten Nine Eight

Ten Nine Eight is a bedtime book, a simple genre that basically follows a character going to bed, who is meant to be a stand-in for the child being read to. The quintessential bedtime book is Goodnight Moon, but there’s also Night Night Little Pookie, Bedtime for Chickies, and the geographically based series Count to Sleep [City Name]. Ten Nine Eight follows a dad putting his little girl to bed. It counts the different things in her room, ranging from her “10 washed and warm little toes” to her fuzzy stuffed animals. The illustrations have just the right combination of realism and nostalgic childhood softness. The counting down is a gentle, quiet game perfect for helping little ones fall asleep. The little girl’s room is full of telling, relatable details, from the “7 shoes in a row” (the cat has the missing one) to the seashells making up a homemade mobile. The book earned a Caldecott Honor award, which it totally earned for its simple artistry.

What’s particularly unique is that story is not only about a dad with his daughter (who are usually absent, mean or at best incompetent in children’s entertainment) and they are both black. The story doesn’t mention either of these facts; they’re just presented as a part of everyday life, which they are for millions of families. But when a big deal is still made about a photo of a black dad braiding one daughter’s hair while holding another in a baby carrier in 2014, this book must have been radical in 1983.

So if you want a lovely bedtime story with some unassuming, welcome diversity, Ten Nine Eight is for you.

Book Club: Little Pookie

Book Club is a semi-regular feature on the blog where I reflect on a children’s book (or series) and my personal experiences with it. (Just a note on this one – this is based on three of the five Little Pookie books, but they’re simple enough that I’m guessing the three are fairly representative.)

Sandra Boyton is known for her silly, cute children’s books featuring wide-eyed animals. Although most her books lack a plot or consistent characters, her Little Pookie books dig a bit deeper, presenting a rare portrait of a present, competent modern mom, even if she isn’t human.

The Little Pookie books focus on the relationship between Little Pookie, a young pig, and his mom. (Little Pookie’s gender is never specified, but the clothes are stereotypically male.) In most children’s books, the parents are either absent or ignorant of their children’s goings-on. In contrast, Little Pookie’s mom is present and engaged with the story. In fact, she’s the narrator. The books consist of her conversations with Little Pookie, where she invites him to do something – go to bed, dance, think about who he is – and he responds.

Through these conversations, we see a mom who is a good role model for parents reading the books to their kids. She talks to Little Pookie at his level, with relatively simple language, without talking down to him. She is playful, pretending she doesn’t recognize him when he’s sporting giant sunglasses or knowing where he is when he’s hiding under the sheets. She trusts him to be independent, offering guidance without nagging: “Now you brush your fine teeth and wash your fine nose.” However, she does set limits, illustrated by her counting to three when she wants him to get ready for bed. She encourages creativity and movement, with an entire book of her inviting him to do a silly dance, including a part in “his very own style.” She offers choices and is flexible when he doesn’t quite pick either one. For example, when given two sets of pajamas to choose from, he mixes the top from one with the bottom from the other. She encourages reading, illustrated on the last page of Little Pookie, which shows them reading the very same book together in a clever bit of recursiveness for a board book.

But most importantly, Little Pookie’s mom tells him how much she loves him, sincerely and often. Because parents are often disconnected from the events in children’s books, this message usually isn’t communicated at all. On the other end of the spectrum, some children’s books focus on that message to the exclusion of everything else. As a result, it comes off as forced and saccharine. But the mom’s expressions of love in Little Pookie flow naturally from the rest of the story and relationship.

While I don’t think most parents would look to a pig as a role model, the Little Pookie books offer a surprising amount of insight into a good parent / child relationship. I know I’d enjoy having Sprout and I hang out with her and her adorable piglet.

Book Club: Where the Wild Things Are

Book Club will be a semi-regular feature on the blog where I reflect on a children’s book (or series) and my personal experiences with it. The first one is obviously the namesake for this blog!

Where the Wild Things Are holds a special place in our family’s literary canon. It was my husband’s absolutely favorite book when he was a little boy. In fact, he knew its words and rhythm so well that my mother-in-law mistakenly thought he knew how to read! As for me, I mainly had a nostalgic fondness towards it until recently. I had a couple of Christmas ornaments and stuffed Wild Things, but didn’t think deeply about the themes. But then a series of events illuminated how much the book still speaks to me.

The first was seeing the Where the Wild Things Are movie, written by one of my favorite authors (Dave Eggers) and scored by one of my favorite bands (Arcade Fire). While turning a 40 page picture book into a film seems incomprehensible, I thought they did an excellent job. Instead of a series of fart jokes and action pieces – Dr. Seuss adaptations, I’m looking at you – Eggers meditated on the emotional weight of childhood and parenting. Although my previous concentration on the “wild rompus” obscured these themes, the movie brought them into focus.

The second was Maurice Sendak’s interview with Stephen Colbert just before his death. Rather than the quiet, gentle old man I had imagined, he was charmingly cantankerous and intolerant of fools. He outplayed Colbert at his own game, eviscerating his “character” while respecting his larger point. He talked honestly and openly about his struggles, including his frustration that people thought his books could harm children because he was gay. I absolutely loved him.

Of course, the last turning point was reading the book out loud to Sprout. As I devoted energy to each line, their multiple meanings emerged. This depth is especially true for the namesake line of this blog: “I’ll / We’ll eat you up.” Max first says it to his mother, angry at being punished for his unruly behavior. The Wild Things say it to Max out of adoration, adding on “We love you so!” While Max wants more freedom and the Wild Things want less, they both speak from simultaneous love and frustration. The intense love between a parent and child threatens to smother Max in his role as both the child (to his mother) and parent (to the Wild Things). In the end, he finds his balance, realizing that even when he ventures out into the world, his mother will be there at home with his meal “still hot.”

The book’s exploration of these themes made me consider my own journey of parenthood. Before I was pregnant, I was afraid of whether or not I was selfless enough to be a good mother. Like Max being overwhelmed by the Wild Things’ demands, I worried that I’d be too self-centered to find the energy to properly care for a helpless child. Now, I realize that you just do what needs to be done. You find the energy to get up over and over again at night. You summon the patience and back strength to bounce on the yoga ball a little longer to calm your child. You come home straight from work because otherwise you’ll miss bedtime. But being a good parent also means giving your child space to learn – Max would have never visited the Wild Things if his mom let him continue his mischief-making. Max’s mom gives me hope that I can find the balance between compassion and requiring responsibility.

The book also has a stark reminder of how being a parent can be isolating. Just as Max is lonely when the Wild Things have gone to sleep, so are so many new parents. Surrounding yourself with support is essential to both the parent and child. We never see Max’s mom, but I like to think she has multiple people close to her, whether that group includes a husband, mother, sister, church group, or set of close friends. These days, even though I sometimes see my friends less, I appreciate them more. I also greatly value my own parents and in-laws, finding their steady emotional presence reassuring.

Now, when I read Where the Wild Things Are to Sprout, I think about how my little Wild Thing will one day be both angry and loving, happy and lonely, desiring and fearing responsibility. And I’ll remember that I too feel that way sometimes. But as the parent, it’s my job to teach him how to process all of those emotions, whether it’s by imagining his own fanciful world or knowing he can rely on his dinner being hot when he comes home.