Originally posted as a guest post on Kids' Book Review.
I wrote Amazing Babes for my son’s first birthday after a year of reading so many wonderful books, yet feeling frustrated by how few of them had strong female role models for him to grow up with. I’ve since discovered there are plenty – they’re just a little more difficult to find! Which, after a bit of research, makes sense; only 31% of children’s books published each year have female protagonists.
This statistic mightn’t mean too much at first glance, I know when I’m looking for a book for my kids the first thing I look for is a book that they’ll love, the second is that it’s a book that I won’t hate. As my two children grow older I’ve started to notice that the books they read have an impact on how they view the world – just like us, kids make sense of the world through what they know.
And if what they know is made up, in part, of the books we read with them, then it’s important those books reflect the way in which we’d like for them to live in the world. So I’ve started to actively seek out that 31% of books with female protagonists, and find those that have different kinds of role models that are boys, too.
Here are some of my favourites:
Magic Beach by Alison Lester
Alison Lester is a favourite in our house for her wonderful stories, rhythmic delivery and beautiful illustrations. Magic Beach is by far our favourite, a gorgeous book that explores the joys of holidays by the sea – I can almost smell the ocean with every read. It gives the imagination a great work out and guides readers into these marvellous parallel worlds, all inspired by exploring the seaside. My favourite bit is where, in the sandcastle-building world Lester creates, Princess Belinda charges a dragon to rescue her prince brother. What I like about this one, fleeting reference is how normalised it is – this isn’t a book about reversing gender roles, it’s just par for the course. No big deal!
The Dot by Peter H. Reynolds
The Dot is the gorgeous story of the main character, Vashti, being tricked into having the confidence to draw, and find a way to express herself. It’s a really beautiful tale, told quite simply, about believing in your own abilities, and finding ways to empower others to do the same. These are things both boys and girls need, and I really like how in this story gender is invisible. Instead there is this beautiful exchange that’s universal.
Katy and the Big Snow by Virginia Lee Burton
Like most two-year-old boys, my son is obsessed with Thomas the Tank Engine, so Katy is a natural hit around our house. First published around the same time as Thomas in 1943, Katy and the Big Snow is a really simple tale of a tractor who bulldozes during summer, and plows snow in the winter, working overtime with huge strength and courage to make sure everything runs smoothly. Not unlike Thomas, except its Katy who saves the day. Extra points to Burton for exceptional illustrations, we especially love the map of the city!
Different Like Coco by Elizabeth Matthews
I love picture book biographies so much; I think there are few better stories than the ones that happen in real life. And who better to introduce kids to than Coco Chanel, a revolutionary designer with a classic rags to the-finest-textiles-you-could-imagine tale. The book puts forward Coco’s difference as the source of her success, which is such a great message for all kids, and while the story is simplified I think there’s a lot of power in introducing young people to the lives of inspiring women even if it’s not the full picture – they’ve got their whole lives to continue finding out about these people!
The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes by DuBose Heyward, illustrated by Marjorie Flack
First published in 1939, this book is way ahead of its time. Not only is the Country Bunny a woman, but she’s also a mother, a brown bunny, and a country bunny, rustic through and through. So when it comes to competing to become the top bunny, the Easter bunny, she’s laughed at. Spoiler alert: the Country Bunny goes on to win the competition because of the way she raised her children. It might seem this book hits you over the head with its messages but it really is a wonderful story with beautiful, intricate illustrations. Alongside gently nudging at ideas of class and race, it tells kids that women, and working mums, are capable of anything, which is a really important message to grow up with.