On girls, women and dads in picture books

Alright folks. The clock is ticking. J has been napping for an hour already and I have to see if I can get this sucker up in a half hour. Go!

So I’ve been relentlessly pursuing picture books featuring female characters with power and agency. Thank you so much to all of you who commented here and on facebook. I’ve compiled all of your recommendations into a list and have maxed out the number of holds I can place at the Berkeley Public Library.

Here’s what I’ve found so far: some of the recommendations wound up being books with girls in them. Not books about central girl characters doing things like being themselves, which might include riding bikes or playing with dolls or rolling in the mud (or all 3!), but simply books with a girl character, however minor. While that’s a start, I have to internally cringe a bit. Really? Can’t we set the bar a bit higher??

So after reading the first pile of books I placed on hold,  I’ve found that in books that do have a central girl character, they often go out of their way to show that “Mom could be an astronaut” (My Mom, Browne) or “She’s pretty cool, for a girl” (Meggie Moon, Baguley). As in, “Just in case you didn’t know already, this is an exception to the rule. Most moms don’t have exciting jobs and most girls aren’t cool, but once in a while…” Couldn’t we just say, “She’s pretty cool” and   show mom being an astronaut?

The other thing I’ve found is that when girl characters are uplifted, they often take a dig at the boys in the story–like the little girl who re-evaluates her baseball playing brother and his friends. “It doesn’t really look like that much fun after all” (Ladybug Girl, Somar and Davis). This dynamic doesn’t sit well with me either.

So here’s my revised mission: To find picture books for the 2-5 crowd with central girl or women characters who, simply by virtue of being themselves, expand our images of who women and girls are and what they do, and who don’t have to give anyone else a smackdown in order to do that. Any revised suggestions? My apologies if one of the books you’ve already recommended fits that bill. I can only check out so many books from Berkeley Public at one time.

I’ll keep you posted on what I find. For now, my favorites I’ve found so far are Zen Shorts

and Knuffle Bunny Free.
Neither book is a ringer in terms of my revised mission, but they both have good girl characters and are a pleasure to read. I also liked Ladybug Girl alot, if not for the dig on her brother, and J really likes Meggie Moon. Apparently he’s not offended by the boys who boss her around or begrudgingly admit to her coolness. Perhaps its because they build boats and ships and cars out of old junk. I have to hand it to him there.

I’ve been talking up this whole girl/women characters in picture books thing a lot lately, and had a notable chat with a dad I met at a toddler birthday party this weekend. He said something like, “Here’s the real challenge: find a book that has one of those girl characters you’re looking for and a dad who’s not an idiot.” He went on to talk about how the Dad characters in books he reads to his daughter are most often shown as detached and, essentially, stupid. And I’d been chewing on this conversation when Voila! I ran across this post on one of the blogs I read today.

Well hot damn. I believe that’s what they call serendipity.

11 thoughts on “On girls, women and dads in picture books

  1. Just found your blog and am happy to be exploring it!

    Let’s see … there’s Barbara Cooney’s Miss Rumphius, which is about a girl and her great-aunt (mostly the aunt, whose life history of not marrying/reproducing is represented as fine and dandy: she’s a great, strong character).

    And Antoinette Portis’s really lovely A Penguin Story, starring Edna the adventure-leading and broad-thinking penguin.

    I also have a list of resources for finding nonsexist children’s books at http://www.firsttheegg.com/reading/for-babieschildren/

    Good luck!

    1. Hi Molly! One of my friends left your website as a comment on my girls and women in children’s books post! I checked out your site a bit and LOVED it. Thank you. I do think we’re birds of a feather. And thanks so much for the specific tips. They’re going on my list! And as I said, I’ll be posting my favorite discoveries as I find them.

  2. Hey there! Thanks again for mentioning my effort to print a children’s book that celebrates Engaged Dads! Into your pot, I thought I’d throw:

    Marisol McDonald Doesn’t Match by Monica Brown. Marisol is bold, unique, and endearing. (this book is bilingual, in both Spanish and English)

    A Sweet Smell of Roses. Two sisters venture out on their own and join a civil rights march with Dr. King.

    I have a few more, but have to check my *library* at home… 🙂

    Happy hunting!


  3. Hello,

    Random lurker here (clicked through from firsttheegg actually).
    I totally agree with the dads being stupid characters (or just plain non-existent)…So Frustrating!
    Anyway, I don’t know if these made the list, but they more or less fit the bill:
    Amelia’s Road
    Not only a female main character, but about the life of immigrant labor.

    Oh No!
    To be honest, this is a completely wacky book with the visual imagery of old Japanese monster films – however, it clearly fits the mission!

    And our kid really like the “Paper Princess” books (there’s at least two) which have relatively strongly gender identified girl characters, but virtually all the character Are girls, so that’s a start.

    Like the post.

    1. Hadn’t heard of either of these yet, so thank you, Adam. I’ll be linking to my favorite girl/women/dad books as I find them…and firsttheegg has also been a great resource!

    2. So I lied. I actually have read Oh No! It is THE ONLY book that Jonah has ever picked up at the library and asked me to read him. He’s normally obsessing with computer keyboards or the box of cars there. Thanks for reminding me–it totally DOES fit the mission.

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