To celebrate Women’s History Month, we asked all kinds of authors to share their favorite female-led stories for kids, written by women. From picture books to YA novels — read in childhood and more recently as adults — we received lots of fantastic recommendations for books that present compelling, strong, brave, smart, all-around awesome role models for girls.
“Harriet the Spy was a book I read over and over as a kid. I loved Harriet’s independence and drive, her ability to get where she wanted. The depiction of city life seemed so glamorous and sophisticated to this country kid (I still want to try an egg cream). Most of all, Harriet reminded me that everyone has a story worth reading.”
Kristan Higgins is a New York Times-bestselling author of more than 20 novels. Her newest book, Good Luck With That (on sale 8/7/18), tells the story of two women who must conquer their fears in order to fulfill their best friend’s dying wish.
“Forty years after I first read Ellen Conford’s And This Is Laura, I found it on my nephew’s bookshelf. What a delight to re-read this tale of a seemingly talentless teen in a family of gifted individuals. When Laura discovers she has the unexpected gift of ESP, she’s suddenly special, only later realizing she has always been loved for who she is. I read this book when I was 10, and enjoyed it even more when I was 50. Added bonus: You’ll always remember Conford’s story as ‘that book with the pith helmet.’ A highly recommended read for all ages.”
“I could write a million words about how much I love the Anastasia Krupnik books by Lois Lowry, and how they shaped me as a young reader/thinker/girl/human. Anastasia was awkward, smart, gawky, curious, sarcastic, and consistently overwhelmed and fascinated by teenage life. She was basically my hero, and the books were my favorites, for years. Also, here is a partial list of the concepts and words that I vividly remember encountering for the very first time in an Anastasia Krupnik book: Gertrude Stein; feminist; Sigmund Freud; sexism; iambic pentameter; Sarah Vaughn; Harvard University; turrets; and Rachmaninoff.
I mean … this is some pretty fundamental stuff (turrets and Rachmaninoff notwithstanding)! Thank you, Lois Lowry! And thank you, Anastasia!”
Kate Schatz is the author of the upcoming Rad Girls Can: Stories of Bold, Brave, and Brilliant Young Women (on sale 7/17/18), a new book for readers young and old about girls who have changed the world.
“My favorite book heroines aren’t people I want to be, or be best friends with. They’re the ones I wish I’d created, and they are legion. Marigold Green of Jane Gardam’s Bilgewater is near the top of my list, maybe because she’s such an unlikely heroine. Up there, too, are Tenar (The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula K. Le Guin), Katsa (Graceling by Kristin Cashore), and Isaboe (Lumatere Chronicles series by Melina Marchetta). Oh, and Alice Bastable (The Story of the Treasure Seekers and its sequels by E. Nesbit) — anyone who can survive being Oswald’s little sister is a miracle.”
“When her father dies, the spoiled but charming Sara Crewe in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess is taken out of the nicest room at her school in England and sent to the garret, which she shares with Becky, the scullery maid. Now, the envy of all the other schoolgirls is mocked and tormented. She is hungry and shabby and all of this is thrillingly tragic — a real education in social inequality. But Sara is refreshingly forthright and humane throughout her travails and she is finally rewarded, which set me on my course as a writer who probes the possibility of righting the wrongs committed by my characters.”
“It can be difficult to figure out where to class Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones. Is it a young adult book? It would be now, but it was published before YA really carved out its niche, and is often treated as adult fantasy. Is it a portal fantasy? Yes and no: It’s the other side of the portal fantasy, the one where the magic is commonplace, if occasionally terrifying, and the mundane is rare and unbelievable. But it’s definitely, without question, Sophie’s story — a story of growing up, growing older, and growing into your place in the world.”
“I was obsessed with Pride and Prejudice from the moment I read the very first sentence. Elizabeth Bennet is a strong-willed, spunky heroine who defies society’s dictation on etiquette. At a young age, Austen made me believe that strong women like Elizabeth deserve love from men who respect their intelligence and wit. I can confidently say that Austen’s story shaped the direction of my writing career. I re-read Pride and Prejudice once a year now just to remember the importance of creating female characters who know their minds and their hearts.”
“First of all, why be beholden to the boringness of traditional names? ‘Bink’ and ‘Gollie’ — the titular characters of the picture book series by Kate DiCamillo and Alison McGhee — are super fabulous names for little girls. Makes me wish I was named Zorch or Hooah or something. Bink and Gollie are best friends who display stellar vocabularies and biting wit as they romp through the mini-adventures that compose childhood, relying on each other and their special brand of girl power to achieve their goals. Like every well-written children’s book, this one transports you through the alternate-reality lens of a kid.”
Kimmery Martin is the author of The Queen of Hearts, a debut novel about two friends with happy family lives who work together at a hospital in North Carolina — until a former coworker reappears in one of their lives and threatens to uproot it all.
“I absolutely adore Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine. What could be better than a story about a girl forced to obey every order who refuses to accept her fate? This is an empowering story about taking matters into one’s own hands and using wits and determination to overcome what seems like an insurmountable obstacle. More timely than ever!”
“One of my favorite female authors is Judy Blume and my favorite book of hers is Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself. All of Blume’s characters are fantastic. They are complex and three dimensional, and even, on occasion, not-always-likable. But Sally spoke to me on a personal level. On the surface we had little in common. She lived in Florida in the ’40s and I was growing up in Canada in the ’90s. But we both had one very important thing in common: playing make-believe. I had never seen make-believe so accurately represented before, right down to how it filtered into her real life, tinging her hopes and dreams just as it did mine. Some see Sally as naïve, but to me she was hopeful. And resilient. And full of imagination. She was, truly, all kinds of wonderful.”
“Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery was a favorite book of mine as a child and one I heartily recommend. I received the series as an Easter present from my parents and fell in love with Anne Shirley, her friends, and her life in Green Gables. Anne’s courageous and witty personality won a place in my heart, and I felt as though I grew up alongside her as her character evolved and she found the home she had always longed for.”
“Fierce, determined women are at the heart of all of my favorite books, and the heroine of Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida Córdova is no exception! Alex is a bruja, a powerful witch, but it’s a heritage she struggles against despite her family’s expectations. When she casts a spell to rid herself of her magic, she accidentally banishes her entire family to Los Lagos, a dangerous and mysterious land that she must navigate to bring her loved ones back — and maybe learn to love who she is in the process. Alex is a bright and courageous heroine and I loved rooting for her.”
Julie C. Dao is the author of Forest of a Thousand Lanterns, a YA reimagining of the rise to power of the Evil Queen in “Snow White,” and the upcoming Kingdom of The Blazing Phoenix (on sale 10/23/18).
“Karen Cushman’s Catherine, Called Birdy features an independent, decisive young heroine in a medieval world where women have little power. Yet Catherine manages to exert it: in acts of kindness to servants around her father’s estate, but most of all in efforts to destroy his matrimonial plans by doing all she can to appear undesirable to her suitors. She’s a loyal friend and a creative thinker, and shows that there are many ways to be strong. When I first read this book, I admired her and knew that if I’d lived in her time, we’d be best friends.”
“As a young girl myself I remember reading the Trixie Belden mystery series by Julie Campbell. At the time there weren’t many mystery books with young female protagonists so I devoured these one after another. I loved that stories show how intelligent the girls are and that they are capable of solving mysteries on their own. Later on in life I shared the series with my own daughters and they also loved the stories.”
“‘Life was so interesting she had to find out what happened next,’ Beverly Clearly writes in Ramona the Pest. Five-year-old Ramona is bright enough to wonder how steam shovel-bound Mike Mulligan used the bathroom, and she’s courageous enough to ask her teacher in front of the class. She has the imagination to name her doll Chevrolet and the exuberance to convert her tricycle into a two-wheeler by popping off a tire. Reading this hilarious story is a reminder to nurture the spark of Ramona that burns in every girl, no matter what her age.”
“All the Rage by Courtney Summers is one of my favorite feminist YA reads. In the aftermath of her sexual assault, Romy Grey is ostracized by her town, which has rallied around her attacker — the son of the local sheriff. All the Rage is an unflinching look at rape culture and Romy says one of my favorite quotes in YA ever: ‘My dad used to say makeup was a shallow girl’s sport, but it’s not. It’s armor.'”
“Anne, with an ‘e,’ Shirley remains one of the dearest heroines of my heart. She’s fiercely loyal to the family and friends she builds around herself. She’s unapologetic with her academic ambitions. She’s creative and absentminded and prone to anger. In L. M. Montgomery’s quiet, meandering narrative, Anne defies the expectations of both her time and ours. When I read Anne of Green Gables as a child, she felt like a real person, and I loved her as if she were real. And when I read her as an adult, I’m reminded of the tremendous power of quiet books with genuine, complex, human heroines.”
“Characters don’t get any stronger than 11-year-old Melody in Sharon Draper’s Out of My Mind. She can’t talk, walk, or care for herself due to cerebral palsy, but she won’t be defined by these challenges. Melody is brilliant and determined to have her voice heard. Her witty observations and raw emotions make her relatable to all tweens — to readers of any age, really. Rooting for this brave, smart girl is easy.”
Stacy McAnulty is the author of several children’s books including The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl (on sale 5/1/18), about a young girl with genius-level math skills who must take on middle school.
“The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin remains one of the most extraordinary reading experiences of my early life. It’s a smart, delightful murder mystery with a twist that declares, right from the beginning, that children are smart enough to follow along. Turtle Wexler, its tenacious and temperamental young heroine, taught me that girls can be leaders, that friends are the family you make for yourself, and that, on occasion, it’s totally fine to kick people in the shins. After a recent road trip and a fabulous audio version, my four sons are now devoted fans as well. #TeamTurtleWexler”
“When I was in elementary school, I loved the historical All-of-a-Kind Family books by Sydney Taylor. The series tells the story of five Jewish immigrant sisters (responsible Ella, rebellious Henny, bookish Sarah, dreamy Charlotte, and baby Gertie) growing up on New York’s Lower East Side at the beginning of the 20th century. It’s a sweet, old-fashioned series that highlights smart and resourceful girls, the importance of family and cultural traditions, and the unbreakable bonds of sisterhood.”
“It’s hard to beat the Brontë sisters for their woman power. My favorite book of all time is, hands down, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë, which proves that a girl or woman can have inner strength and great power by being herself, even if that is ‘poor, obscure, plain and little.’ Even as an introvert, Jane refuses to give in to moral convenience, at great cost to herself. As a result, she’s able to show true love and change the lives of those she encounters. A lesson for an extrovert like myself: Sometimes it’s in the small acts, which no one sees, that real change is made.”
“It has been 40 years since I first read Elizabeth George Speare’s The Witch of Blackbird Pond, but I still vividly remember Kit Tyler, the headstrong, courageous heroine who tries to adapt to life in a new world. When everyone around her wants her to be a tame, obedient little wren, Kit insists upon being herself and staying loyal to her friends, even at the risk of her own life.”
“Sophie Hatter, of Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones, is the eldest of three in a world where fairy tale tropes are always true, so she knows she’s doomed to have a boring life. When she finds herself unexpectedly turned into an old woman, she decides she has nothing left to lose and takes off on the road. This is a book about breaking societal rules, finding your own way, and finally coming to understand that tropes are not destiny, even in fantasyland.”
“Compared to her family members, Jane feels, well, ordinary. She’s certainly not graceful like her mother, mighty like her father, or daring like her brothers. Jane tries to perform amazing stunts. But nothing ever goes quite right. By the end of Hanna E. Harrison’s Extraordinary Jane, however, this little underdog proves extraordinary in her own special way.”
“As the mother of two little girls, I’ve been so pleased by the increasing variety of books for young readers with strong female characters. My 4-year-old daughter and I particularly enjoy the Angelina Ballerina series by Katharine Holabird. We love reading about Angelina’s adventures with her friends and family as she grows in confidence, and learns to not only be a better dancer, but also a better mouse. Kindness is supreme, and friends come in every shape and size.
An honorable mention also goes to The Princess in Black, the monster-crushing superhero series by Shannon and Dean Hale.”
“As a freckled, toothy, braid-wearing child, I over-related with the TV version of Laura Ingalls Wilder, but it was her Little House series — her accounts of Midwest homesteading in the late 1800s — that captured my heart as a young reader. I was endlessly inspired by plucky young Laura and her sisters — girls who are strong, smart, playful, and industrious as they make daily contributions to the survival of their family. Written in a far less culturally sensitive era, Wilder’s Little House series also offers opportunities to talk with kids about ongoing issues of social justice, including women’s rights and racism.”
“Some of my favorite novels from when I was younger were in the Anastasia Krupnik series by Lois Lowry. I read these books well before Lowry wrote her blockbuster hits The Giver and Number the Stars, and the series starred a girl — a feisty, neurotic, go-getter who I thought was hilarious and who I often sought to emulate. Anastasia was the first girl character I read who was as smart and funny and interesting as boys always were in most books. I think reading her impressed upon me the importance of asking questions, seeking adventure, and being brave, and taught me, maybe more than anything, that there was something inherently valuable in being absolutely myself.”
“Kay Thompson and Hilary Knight’s treasure Eloise is an all-time favorite for me, even as an adult. I cannot think of another character (male or female) in children’s literature that matches the spirit, spunk, brains, and attitude of Eloise. She practically OWNS the Plaza Hotel, Nanny, and the elevator. She’s got opinions about everything, most of them correct, of course. She loves fiercely and plays hard. We could all do with a little more Eloise in our lives.”
Rebecca L. Brown is the author of Flying at Night (on sale 4/10/18), a novel about a family on the brink — an autistic child, his determined mother, and her distant father — who learn that when your world changes, you find out who you really are.
“One of my favorite books of all time is Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine. Ella is cursed at birth with the ‘gift’ of obedience. Whatever anyone tells her to do she must do, which is never convenient, but especially not when you have a wicked stepmother and two bossy stepsisters. Ella is a strong heroine who rises to every challenge with spunk and wit, and this retelling of one of the most famous fairytales is one of the most satisfying.”
“Harriet the Spy is a very important book to me. When I was a kid, I snuck into a garage and read through a stranger’s old diaries because of that book — fortunately, the diaries were boring so my days of not-entirely-legal activities ended there. I liked Harriet because she did what she wanted to do and she spent a lot of time alone, working on her own projects. Harriet is also not very nice and that was a wonderful thing to see, especially in a young girl character. Kindness is an essential human trait across genders, but I think young girls are often taught that seeming pleasant is more important than voicing what we do or do not want. At heart, Harriet was kind and good, but expressing herself was more important than pleasing others. While life is a lesson in learning to balance tact and honesty, I still admire Harriet’s intentions.
Which brings to mind another female children’s book author, Ellen Raskin, who wrote in The Westing Game: ‘Smiling without good reason is demeaning.’ I think Harriet might agree with that sentiment.”
“Suzanne Collins, who of course wrote The Hunger Games, wrote a series of books prior to that, starting with Gregor the Overlander. The main female character in that series, Queen Luxa, is to me one of the great female heroines in YA and kids’ literature. She’s young, skilled, brave, and sad, and her arc across the series of books is about as real and believable as it gets. Collins is so brilliant at proving the truism that action is character, and Queen Luxa is definitely a creature of action. Totally brilliant, and perfect for fifth and sixth grade kids of all genders.”
Abbi Waxman is the author of Other People’s Houses (on sale 4/3/18), a sharp-sighted, funny novel that takes an inside look at the lives of four neighboring families — and an affair that threatens to change them all.
“I was 10 or 11 when I first read The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare. It was the first book I ever became completely immersed in: the sweet and courageous heroine, Kit; the early American time period, which was new to me; the plot featuring danger and accusations of witchcraft; the gentle and believable love story. I remember feeling entirely swept away, and I read it again and again. The book was written in 1958, and it has lost none of its wonder half a century later.”
Simone St. James is the author of The Broken Girls (on sale 3/20/18), a riveting thriller about a boarding school where a girl disappeared in 1950 and a modern-day reporter digging into the school’s history decades later.
“I don’t know where it came from, but when I was seven I discovered an old, battered copy of Pippi Longstocking in our house. Up until that point, I had only read books geared toward boys. Stories about trucks and cars and pirates. But here was a story about a young girl — and she fascinated me. She was wild and free and full of adventure. Maybe it was a reaction to my somewhat staid, traditional home life, but I thought to myself, ‘I really do hope there are people like this in the world. And I hope to meet them someday.’”
David Bell is the bestselling author of Cemetery Girl and the upcoming thriller Somebody’s Daughter (on sale 7/10/18), about a man who helps his ex-wife search for a missing girl, who might be the daughter he never knew he had.
“I was around 11 when I first met Anne, with an ‘e,’ in L. M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables — the very same age as Anne at the start of the book. I don’t think that was the reason I felt such a connection, though. This passionate, intelligent, imaginative, adventurous, brave, compassionate, red-headed slip of a girl seemed to speak directly to me and for me; I reveled in her trials and triumphs. Her very existence gave me permission to be myself, and I can’t think of a better gift for a child than that.”
Lexie Elliott is the author of The French Girl, a suspense novel that follows a group of college students from Oxford who go on vacation in the French countryside and meet Severine, a woman who later goes missing.
“Without question, it was Miss Elizabeth Bennett from Pride and Prejudice who inspired me as a young teenager. At the time — the early 1970s — I was surrounded by glam rock and hot pants but Lizzy, a character created in 1813, shone out. The second of five daughters, she deals with her mother’s attempts to marry her off by being feisty, clever, witty, funny, and sharp-tongued. Her creator, Jane Austen herself, described Elizabeth as ‘as delightful a creature as ever appeared in print.’”
“When I read A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett at age 11, I was undone by the unfairness of Sarah Crewe’s world and yet I remember being equally moved by her refusal to become bitter despite all that was taken from her. I love this quote from the book: ‘“Whatever comes,” she said, “cannot alter one thing. If I am a princess in rags and tatters, I can be a princess inside. It would be easy to be a princess if I were dressed in cloth of gold, but it is a great deal more of a triumph to be one all the time when no one knows it.”’ Definitely inspiring words to live by.”
“My favorite kids’ books about awesome girls were undoubtedly the Nancy Drew series by ‘Carolyn Keene,’ a pen name that represented primarily women authors. Despite reading this series as a young girl growing up in the ’70s, where antiquated gender roles were the norm in many YA books, I loved Nancy Drew because she was so smart and clever, fearless in the face of danger, and forceful while still being polite. Even though she had a boyfriend, she relied on her two besties, George and Bess, for help — making them real ‘Girl Power’ books.”
Karen White is the author of Dreams of Falling (on sale 6/5/18), a mystery that follows a woman who returns to her hometown in South Carolina when her mother goes missing and who reconnects with the friends and family she had left behind.
“Astrid Jones, one of my all-time favorite characters from my all-time favorite author, refuses to allow the rest of her world define her — as she struggles to find her own definition for what it truly means to live a good life — in Ask the Passengers. And, personally, I can’t think about Astrid giving Greek philosopher Socrates a first name (Frank) without smiling. A.S. King is nothing short of brilliant. No other author makes me think so much while smiling at such tiny, ordinary, honest human moments.”
“When I was growing up, children’s books were no less well written than today, but there were far fewer of them. During the 1950s and ’60s, Grosset & Dunlap had an outstanding biographical series called Signature Books for ages eight through 12 that featured the authentic signature of the person on the cover. Eventually the collection expanded to 51 books, but my favorite was The Story of Pocahontas. I read it over and over and in rereading it recently, I realized it influenced the way I structure my own biographical novels. The series is out of print now but can easily be obtained secondhand. It covers a range of personalities and times, from Leif Ericson to George Washington Carver to Marie Curie.”
For more literary celebration of Women’s History Month, check out 24 Authors Reflect on This Moment in Women’s History on Signature.
Books Mentioned in This Article
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