Tomorrow is International Women’s Day so I thought it would be the perfect time to put together a list of children’s books all about amazing, rule breaking, badass women. I get so many questions about how I am raising Mazzy and Harlow to be such strong fearless girls and really, the one thing I can point to is the books we read at home. We started with “Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls” a few years ago (you can read my complete review about that series here) and our collection of stories featuring powerful female role models has only grown from there. These books continue to shape how my kids think about themselves and the world, both to see the obstacles in their way and potential paths to success.
Mazzy’s teachers tell me repeatedly that she is a vocal advocate in class for gender equality and quick to point out instances where there seems to be a discrepancy. They also both like to challenge gender norms, in big and small ways, like the time when we played the Game of Life, and the girls both decided that the blue pegs would represent girls, the pink pegs would represent boys and that they would both be marrying their pets. I’m actually starting to realize that everything they are learning and reading is making them challenge my traditional beliefs as well, like my focus on how I look, when they are taught that other qualities clearly mean so much more. For instance, Mazzy questions why I wear make-up (“you are more beautiful as you are”) and why I care about the way she wears her hair, when she does not. That’s probably a blog post for another time.
The books listed below are far from all the books out there about amazing women (there are a lot of us to cover!), but these happen to be the ones that line our bookshelves at home, and as a result have had the biggest impact on my girls. I’d also like to point out that all but one of the books are written and illustrated by women as well. Woohoo!
15 Children’s Books About Badass Women
By Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo
“Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls” is a thick hardcover book with the stories of 100 different women in history who have made a difference by defying the rules. In addition to introducing my girls to a lot of badass women (some historical and some living), the book has also brought up tons of different discussions, starting with the most obvious one— that historically women did not have the same rights as men, and that there is still a lot of work to be done. It’s also guided us into conversations on things like race, arranged marriages, religious differences, cultural differences, war, diseases and dictatorships. The stories are told in a palatable way for kids, but be prepared to elaborate on your own, depending on your child’s age and curiosity. One particularly tough read was the story of Irena Sendlerowa, who saved 2500 Jewish children during the Holocaust. We bought the original book a few years ago and then bought the follow-up book when it was released too.
By Chelsea Clinton and illustrated bu Alexandra Boiger
“She Persisted” was written by Chelsea Clinton, which provided a very interesting starting point for my girls. They are both well aware of Hillary Clinton’s historical run for President and I think it’s been helpful for them to see that life continues for the Clintons despite the loss. The book presents important American women throughout history in language that is much more child-like and simple for little kids. Like the precursor for Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls. I also love how each woman featured is illustrated as both a young girl and as an adult. The book tells both what that little girl went on to accomplish and explains they obstacle that she had to overcome to get there.
By Roda Ahmed and illustrated by Stasia Burrington
Mae Among the Stars was inspired by the true story of Mae Jemison, an engineer and physician who became the first African American woman to travel in space. It’s a wonderfully aspirational book which tells the story of Mae’s young life and her life long passion for space science. It teaches kids to believe in themselves and have the courage to follow their dreams.
By Debbie Levy and illustrated by Elizabeth Baudeley
Ruth Bader Ginsburg grew up in a time when girls were taught to be wives and mothers, as opposed to doctors and lawyers. “I Dissent” begins when Ruth is a little girl finding reasons to “protest” (when her teacher wanted her to use her right hand instead of her left) and “object” (when she told she had to take home economics instead of shop class) even when she was a child. The story then takes the reader through her college years, her decision to get married, her law career, her entry into the U.S. Supreme Court, and her work as an associate justice, all while using bold typography to highlight words such as protest, object, dissent, disagree, and agree, showing that standing up for inequality, even when it was unpopular, is what helped RBG make her mark. I also like to tell Mazzy and Harlow that Ruth Bader Ginsburg is a Jewish girl from New York City, just like them.
By Margot Lee Shetterly and illustrated by Laura Freeman
Hidden Figures is based on the true story of four African American women who were really good at math. So good, that despite being women and African American in 1961, they were hired by NASA to do the math that would one day send the United States into space for the very first time. This story was made popular by the recent movie, but it is one that can be shared with even younger kids, thanks to this surprisingly in depth new picture book which explains both segregation and the space race as well as the personal stories of Dorothy Vaughn, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson and Christine Darden.
By Shana Corey and illustrated by Chelsey McLaren
Amelia Bloomer wasn’t the first woman to wear pants, but she was the first person to write about her experience wearing them in a women’s newspaper that she ran. Her article inspired many women to inquire about where they could get a pair for themselves, which is why the new style became known as “bloomers.” “You Forgot Your Skirt, Amelia Bloomer” tells the story about what women used to wear (huge uncomfortable skirts with underwire that swept the floor, preventing them from doing fun things like running and jumping), how Amelia learned about this new style of dress and how she popularized it around the country and then got criticized for it. It shows that doing something relatively small (wearing a clothing item and writing about it) can end up making a huge impact; one that has changed how women dress and are perceived to this day.
by Brad Metzler and illustrated by Christopher Eliopoulos
I am Rosa Parks is from the “Ordinary People Change the World” series which tells the life story of important people in history in a very kid-friendly, almost cartoon-like fashion. I loved learning that Rosa Parks was one of the smallest kids in school and that when she refused to give up her seat for a white person on the bus, she was only 42 years-old! As a kid, I always imagined that she was an elderly lady. It explains how the action of one person led to a greater movement in all of Montgomery Alabama that almost shut the bus system down.
By Kate Schatz and illustrated by Miriam Klein Stahl
This book is another great collection of women in history who have made a difference, this one told alphabetically. One woman represents each alphabetical letter beginning with Angela Davis (an activist, teacher, and writer) and concludes with Zora Neale Hurston, an anthropologist and writer. Inbetween are great American badasses like Billie Jean King, Carol Burnett, Nellie Bly and Sonia Sotomayor.
By Linda Glaser and illustrated by Claire A. Nivola
“Emma’s Poem” is about Emma Lazarus, the Jewish woman who wrote the famous poem that is inscribed onto the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty. Emma was dedicated to helping impoverished refugees, back in a time when it was considered improper to “mingle with poor people,” which was the inspiration for her poem. Her now familiar words—“Give me your tired, your poor”—transformed the statue from its original intent, as a gift of friendship from France, into a symbol of hope for immigrants, especially since the Statue of Liberty was many refugees’ first glimpse of America when they came Ellis Island by boat from Europe after the Holocaust. My mother was on one such boat and as a caveat, she bought this book for our girls and couldn’t finish reading it because it brought her to tears.
By Vashti Harrison
Similar to Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls, Little Leaders is a beautifully illustrated book that focuses on change making black women. It includes Phillis Wheatley, Ella Fitzgerald, Florence Joyner and Harlow’s favorite, Alma Woodsey Thomas, who had the first ever solo exhibition by an African American woman at a major American museum. In addition to learning about many new history making women, Mazzy and Harlow were very excited when they would see women that they had already learned about in Rebel Girls, like Harriet Tubman and Serena Williams.
By Lisbeth Kaiser and illustrated by Leire Salaberria
The Little People, Big Dreams series is a beautiful set of books, each about an individual woman who made a difference in history. Other books include Frida Kahlo, Marie Curie and Rosa Parks. I picked the Maya Angelou book because it tells the story of a little girl who, due to a pretty traumatic childhood, was afraid to talk at all and how she became one of the most beloved speakers and writers of our time.
By Emily Kleinman and illustrated by Lydia Ortiz
This set of board books focuses on artists, leaders, activists and pioneers. Each page has one short sentence and is the perfect introduction to fearless feminist leaders for even the smallest of kids.
14 & 15) Work It, Girl Series
By Caroline Moss and Illustrated by Sinem Erkas
This week, a new series called “Work it Girl” was released which focuses on women who have overcome obstacles to have successful careers and rise to the top of their industries. The first two books in the series are Boss the Bestseller List like J.K. Rowling and Run the Show like CEO Oprah Winfrey. Mazzy and I read the entire Oprah book yesterday (it’s a pretty dense book with full pages of copy and gorgeous handcrafted illustrations) and it was so great to really go in depth into one woman’s story of perseverance and success, after reading so many collections of one page bios. It is also definitely more for big kid readers like Mazzy, as the stories are much longer and go into real detail about the obstacles each woman faced, like Oprah’s complicated relationship with her mother and her decision to leave college to accept a job that ultimately went south. The book also mentioned that Oprah’s mother had her as a teenager, which prompted an unexpected line of questioning from Mazzy— “You can have a baby when you are a teenager?” “Well, she probably didn’t want to have a baby that young.” “Wait. You can have a baby by mistake?” Oh god. As I said, reading books about badass women definitely steers you into certain conversations, whether you are ready for them or not.
After I stumbled over that question, Mazzy and I both got totally engrossed in the book and she begged me to read her the whole thing in one sitting. Most kids will probably stretch the book out over several days. We particularly loved how it ended with a list of life lessons that were all pulled from the story. Like in Oprah’s case, never forgetting the people who helped you rise to the top and finding success by being true to yourself. Did you know that Oprah opened her first show by shouting, “I have hives underneath my armpits!”? That made her relatable and the audience loved it.
We started reading the J.K. Rowling book last night and I’m hoping it will inspire her to read Harry Potter!
If you’d like to win a copy of both “Work It Girl” books, I’m giving away signed copies of both books to three lucky winners in the comments! Just tell me who you think should be the next woman featured in the series!