Going beyond “strong female characters” in children’s books

One of you dreamy readers, specifically Elisabeth M., left a comment that really got me thinking last month. She was responding to this post where I put a call out to children’s book readers near and far to help me find some stories with good, strong female characters in them.

Here’s what she had to say:

I don’t just want books with “strong female characters.” I want books with “varied female characters.”  And, I want female SECONDARY characters. In other words, I don’t want one strong propaganda-piece for female empowerment leading a show that’s populated by and all-male supporting cast, over and over and over. The thing is, as long as we’re stuck with “strong female characters,” we’re still putting females in a box—a propaganda box—and we’re still making the story about “femaleness” to some extent. People say boys don’t want to read books about female characters; I think the answer to that is to make the stories big, to include (in addition) a healthy number of female-led stories whose scope goes beyond patriarchy, stories that deal with issues other than gender identity. How about neutral female characters? How about “regular people” female characters? Until we have balance in the stories – by which I mean, an undeniable female presence that isn’t calling attention to itself—we’re going to be raising girls and boys to look at “female” as “other.”

So here’s my mission (and I have NO idea how to find this) – books that have a variety of female types—not just “strong,” and not just “stereotypical,” but varied—and which include a neutral cast of 50/50 male/female secondary characters. (Why do all the friendly insects on the pages need to be male?)

Well yowza. I couldn’t agree more. Thank you, Elisabeth M., for this killer distinction. I’ve been sorting through my list to see if any books fit the bill: having a balanced number of females in them without being about “femaleness.” The best I can come up with right now are the Katie Morag books. They’re written for the 5-9 set, but J has been really into them as the fairly verbal 3 year old that he is.

Katie Morag is supported by a nice balanced cast of characters, including feisty Granny Island who is often on her tractor, Granny Mainland, the ferryman, Katie’s brother Liam and her parents, Mr. and Mrs. McColl.

katie1

The books really aren’t about “femaleness” at all, but rather life on the Isle of Struay, a hearty little island off the coast of Scotland.

katie2

There are also the Mrs. Armitage books which I already reviewed here.

I don’t have a great recommendation for 1-4 year olds. But I did love Sally and the Limpet. It isn’t about “femaleness” per se, though I think most of the other characters are male.

sallylimpet

So now, I have to pass Elisabeth’s question on—do you know of any children’s picture books with a variety of female types and a balanced male/female cast of characters? Do tell.

8 thoughts on “Going beyond “strong female characters” in children’s books

  1. Wow, thank you! This is great. I have some reading to do now. (:

    Old Black Witch has a male protagonist, but both supporting characters are female. Mrs. Gaddy and the Crow is one-to-one. Those are off the top of my head… I will have to try to think of others.

  2. This is awesome! I’m marking these as too read. As for other books, I love the Magic Treehouse books for both boys and girls. The two kids who travel through history are both strong in their own ways and don’t fall into any trap of being “girlish” or “boyish.” In the same vein, we have enjoyed the A-Z Mysteries that feature boys and girls. I feel quite a need to go through our picture books to find stories that fit this.

  3. I thought of another. Books by Taro Gomi. The illustrations are well crafted, simple and poetic, and the stories aren’t gender-focused at all, yet the cast includes lots of female main & supporting characters.

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