Children’s Books Featuring Little Girls with Big Voices
Let’s save the world with these literary role models!
Recently, I published Women and Silence — Vox: dystopian fiction, and the power of our voices, and it got me thinking about what I do to combat the silencing of women, in my personal/parenting life.
I do what I do when I’m faced with any huge cultural problem. I try to empower the next generation, and…
I READ CHILDREN’S BOOKS!
Yeah, I basically try to solve everything through carefully chosen children’s books. Okay, it’s not the only tactic I’ve got, but it’s a start.
And, by the way, these books aren’t just for daughters! All kids need to see kids of all genders in all kinds of situations doing all kinds of things and feeling all kinds of feelings!
Read diverse books with your kids!
Here are some books my family loves that feature little girls with big voices.
We were able to find all of them for free at our library:
The Little Little Girl with the BIG BIG VOICE by Kristen Balouch
This little little girl with a big open mouth keeps scaring away all the big, big animals. On first reading, I kept waiting for some sort of morality tale about how she needs to shut her mouth so they’ll like her more. (Society sure has done a number on my expectations.) Nope! Instead, she finds a lion who can roll with her loudness, and they have loud fun together.
I’m a girl! by Yasmeen Ismail
People keep assuming this badass kid is a boy because she’s messy, fast, brave, spontaneous, loud, competitive, and likes to learn. But she loudly lets them know that she’s a girl and she loves being just the way she is!
Note: I would wait on this book until your kid has already absorbed a lot of societal messages about gender. It starts, “I’m supposed to be nice… all sugar and spice…” so it’s only really useful if your kid has already internalized stereotypes like that.
Malala’s Magic Pencil by Malala Yousafzai, ill. by Kerascoët
Nobel Peace Prize Winner Malala Yousafzai wrote an autobiographical children’s book! And it’s amazing! And the art is gorgeous! Malala, in the book and in real life, raises her voice in service of girls (and all humans) everywhere.
“How could a few men stop all the girls in our valley from going to school?
If more people knew what was happening to us, I thought, they might help.
Wishing wasn’t enough. Someone needed to speak out.
Why not me?”
Despite the heavy theme, I found this book to be appropriate even for my 3-year-old (although, I discuss the isms more with her than most parents probably do with their young kids). The only part of the book that hints at Malala being shot by a Taliban gunman is a drawing of her in a hospital gown with these words:
“My voice became so powerful that the dangerous men tried to silence me, but they failed. And now my voice is louder than ever. Louder, because people have joined me.”
Brave Girl: Clara and the Shirtwaist Makers’ Strike of 1909 by Michelle Markel, ill. by Melissa Sweet
This is the true story of Clara Lemlich, a Ukrainian Jewish immigrant to the United States, who in 1909 organized The Uprising of the 20,000 (at that time, the largest walkout of female workers in US history).
Clara was a revolutionary by her teens. At 19, she was organizing her fellow garment workers into the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU). For her labor organizing, police arrested her 17 times. The book mentions that bosses hired people to beat her and break her ribs; that’s the only part you might choose to edit if your kids are especially young.
At 23, she stood in front of leaders of the American labor movement and did what no one else would: called for a general strike. In impassioned Yiddish, she convinced tens of thousands of people to strike. Then she spoke — and sang — at rallies until she lost her voice.
“Her throat is hoarse, her feet are sore, but she has helped thousands of people, proving that in America, wrongs can be righted. Warriors can wear skirts and blouses, and the bravest hearts may beat in girls only 5 feet tall.”
The Paper Bag Princess by Robert Munsch, ill. by Michael Martchenko
If your kid is in a “princess phase,” this classic feminist children’s book is a must. It subverts all the stereotypes: the princess saves the prince; she outsmarts the dragon rather than slaying him; and she rejects the prince’s offer of marriage and walks away proud and free. Mostly, the paper bag princess uses her voice cleverly, and not loudly, though there is one notable moment where she shouts as loud as she could, “Hey, dragon!”
Amazing Grace by Mary Hoffman, ill. by Caroline Binch
Grace loves to act, so of course she’s going to try out for the lead in Peter Pan, even when a boy tells her she can’t because she’s a girl, even when a white girl tells her she can’t because she’s black. I’ll let you read the book to find out if she gets the part.
(Heads up: The book was published in 1991. In it, Grace dresses up in a ton of costumes, one of which is a headdress. So if you read it, there’s the whole cultural appropriation thing to talk about.)
Drum Dream Girl: How One Girl’s Courage Changed Music poem by Margarita Engel, ill. by Rafael López
This story is based on Millo Castro Zaldarriaga, a real-life Chinese-African-Cuban girl, who changed everything in 1930s Cuba, when she insisted on drumming, even when everyone told her drumming was only for boys.
“…she was ready
to play her small bongo drums
outdoors at a starlit café
that looked like a garden
where everyone who heard
her dream-bright music
that girls should always
be allowed to play
and both girls and boys
should feel free
I like to read that last part as, “and all kids should feel free to dream.” (Any chance to challenge the binary!)
The art is dreamy, the words rhythmic, and the story so inspiring!
I Know A LOT! by Stephen Krensky, ill. by Sara Gillingham
Start ’em off early with this great board book. Just having a young female character (of color!) proudly say, “I know a lot,” is revolutionary. My hope is our kids will look back confused at my previous sentence.
I believe in these books, but I also believe in YOU, parents!
These books are all awesome, but when it comes to gender, most books leave a lot to be desired. So, especially with older books, please remember that any book with empowered boy characters can magically become a book with empowered girl characters if you read it with different pronouns. Yes, it’s fantastic that we have some characters in dresses being brave and loud and clever. But let’s also show our kids that you don’t need a dress to be a girl, and you don’t need to be a girl to wear a dress.
From the get-go, when you read to your babies/kids, play around with the pronouns. Use he/she/they whenever you want to, so regardless of what the words of the book say, or what the dominant culture will tell your kid, they will see characters being sensitive/strong/fast/funny/curious in all kinds of clothes and with all kinds of haircuts. And they will understand that we can’t assume someone’s gender or sex just by looking at them.