Want to load your kids’ library up with books that show the fierce and fearless side of women? Check out these incredibly strong and empowering girl characters who play starring roles in children’s books!
There Aren’t Enough Strong Girls in Children’s Books
Let’s cut right to the chase. There aren’t enough strong girls in children’s books. Period. Women make up just shy of 50% of the population (about 49.6%, according to latest statistics) yet only start as the lead role in about 31% of books for kids.
I didn’t pull that number out of thin air. It’s based on a massive study of children’s lit led by Florida State University’s Sociologists for Women in Society department. While the study is a few years old, the numbers haven’t changed all that much. Boys still outnumber girls in children’s fiction.
Even when girls do manage to score a lead role in a story, they’re cast as a side-kick, a nag, a damsel, a hopeless romantic. Or worse, all three. Our kids (all of our kids, not just our girls) need better female role models in the stories that shape their young minds, plain and simple.
I’ll spare you the rest of my soapbox lecture on gender inequality in children’s fiction. Soraya Chemaly wrote a wonderful piece on it in the Huff Post that you can check out if you’re interested. I’ll assume you already know that it’s a problem, otherwise you wouldn’t be here searching for children’s books with strong girls in a lead role! So, let’s get to it, shall we?
I was very picky about which books I chose for this list. I want strong girls who play major roles in the story. In other words, not just thrown in there to make a boy-centric book appeal to the female market, too. I also want my girl characters to have more than one facet. Brains and brawn, so to speak. In short, a good role model for my niece and a character that shows my son what I really want him to know about women. Got it?
Strong & Empowering Girl Characters in Children’s Books
Since “children’s books” can mean anything from picture books for little kids to chapter stories for elementary grades, I’ll note the “suggested age range” for each book. Remember, though, it’s just that, a suggestion.
Last note- The book links below are affiliate links, which means I earn a small commission (at no extra charge to you) if you shop through them. Thanks!
1. Pippi Longstocking
Pippi was one of my own fierce female role models as a child! She was totally independent and did what she wanted without worrying about what other thought. She’s smart yet strong (like, carry a horse over her head strong), a rebel with a heart of gold. There’s no one quick like Pippi! She was so independent that dictatorships felt the need to ban her from bookshelves (source: Pippi Longstocking- Rebel Rolemodel).
Age range: About age 8-10 for her chapter books, but Astrid Lindgren also wrote Pippi picture books that are great for younger kids, too.Buy Now on Amazon
2. Dora the Explorer
Dora was one of my least favorite children’s shows when Jake was little (she was way too energetic for me at 6AM, and I felt like she was always screaming orders at me!). Still, I have to give her credit, she’s one fierce and fearless little girl! She’s smart, independent, adventurous, and has an incredibly generous heart.FYI, there are a boatload of Dora books. I just picked the one pictured here because I remember reading it to Jake.
If you’re interested in learning more about why she’s a good role model, I love this article on Romper.
Age range: Preschool to around age 7Buy Now on Amazon
Matilda, the titular character in Roald Dahl’s series, is clever, brave, and brilliant. She has a passion for reading and a mischievous streak a mile long. She may be a prankster, but she has a heart of gold. She stands up for herself and her friends, and teaches kids that no one should be allowed to bully them, especially adults who are supposed to be caring for them.
Check out this great piece on Jo Writes Stuff to learn more about why Matilda is such an excellent role model for girls.
Age range: 8-12 yearsBuy Now on Amazon
4. Nancy Drew
Out of all the strong female characters in children’s books, Nancy Drew is among the most enduring. Although created by Edward Stratemeyer (who also created the Hardy Boys), it was his daughters who really turned the character into the feminist icon that we know and love. After all, even though Edward tried to write “strong” women roles, he still held onto the same archaic beliefs about “a woman’s place” in this world as many men did during his time (and, sadly, still cling to today).
For further reading, check out this piece on Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls website to learn more about how Nancy inspired generations of fierce and fearless women.
Age range: Middle school (about 6th-8th grade)Buy Now on Amazon
5. Hermione Granger in Harry Potter
We can’t talk about strong female role models in fiction without mentioning Hermione, now can we? While Harry may be the titular star of the series, Hermione is miles away from just another female sidekick to a male hero. In fact, without her brains, bravery, determination (and yes, a bit of nagging), Harry never would have triumphed over his adversaries. Calling her one of literature’s strongest role models for girls is definitely no exaggeration!
Check out this piece from the Huffington Post detailing Hermione’s rise from a fictional witch to a powerful feminist icon.
Age range- About 9 and up (and up and up!)Buy Now on Amazon
Olivia is a fantastic choice for introducing your toddler to strong girls in literature. She has an incredible imagination and uses it to go on extraordinary adventures. She teaches young children to always be themselves
Check out: “Why ‘Olivia’ Is the Perfect Book for a High-Energy Child” on Scholastic
Age range: 2 – 5 yearsBuy Now on Amazon
7. Meg Murry in A Wrinkle in Time
Meg Murry is the epitome of what it’s like to be a pre-teen girl. She’s over-critical of herself, thinking that she’s ugly, stupid, and a total freak. That she just plain doesn’t fit in. The more she puts herself down, the worse she acts, and the more other people start to put her down as well. It’s a vicious cycle that I think we can all relate to.
So, what makes Meg such an empowering female in children’s literature? While she may not seem like a great role model at first, her journey through time also leads to a journey of self-discovery. As Shmoop explains, “She realizes that if she wants [her brother] to be saved, she’s going to have to let go of other people’s hands and do it herself. And once she sets her mind to it, she succeeds, suggesting that she had the potential to stand on her own two feet all along…all she needed was to believe in herself.”
Additional reading: “Why All Girls Need to Read ‘A Wrinkle in Time'” over on Scary Mommy
Age range: About 10 and up.Buy Now on Amazon
Oh, Ramona! You were my hero when I was in elementary school! Any girl who’s wacky enough to wear her jammies under her school clothes because they were just too comfy to take off is a girl after my own heart. In Ramona the Pest, author Beverly Cleary describes her as “…a girl who could not wait. Life was so interesting she had to find out what happened next.” She taught us about curiosity, the power in being ourselves, and that we were lovable just as we were.
Age range: 8-12
Check out “How Ramona Quimby Taught a Generation of Girls to Embrace Brashness” over on Lithub.Buy Now on Amazon
Coraline is perhaps one of the creepiest books with a strong female character, but what else would you expect from Neil Gaiman? The title character, Coraline, is incredibly brave and imaginative, two traits that we should encourage in all of our children. As an adult, though, I loved her for teaching kids one of life’s most important lessons- the grass may look greener on the other side, but the blades often cut twice as deep, and there really is no place like home.
The movie adaptation scared the crap out of my son, who was about 7 at the time. I literally had to hide it behind other movies on a shelf. He’s never quite forgiven me for letting him watch it! The book, as always, is better anyway. That said, the film actually made Bustle’s list of the 13 Most Feminist Animated Movies of All Time.
Age range: 8-12 (but only if your kids can handle the creepy factor)Buy Now on Amazon
10. Karana in Island of the Blue Dolphins
Island of the Blue Dolphins is one of my brother’s favorite books of all time, but I didn’t read it until he gave my son a copy for his birthday a few years ago. It’s easy to see why he fell in love with the tale of Karana. She’s by far one of the bravest, strongest and most resourceful girls in children’s literature. After all, not many characters can survive alone on an island for over a decade, starting when they’re just 12 years old.
Aside from inspiring kids to be brave and determined, Karana also teaches about forgiveness (and gives us one of literature’s most beloved canines, Rontu) and the importance of living in harmony with the world around you.
For more reading, I recommend this article on The Slate by Laura Miller. Along with an in-depth analysis of Karana’s character, Miller also goes into the real-life woman who inspired the tale
Age range: 8-12, although beloved by all ages.Buy Now on Amazon
Where to find more books with strong girl role models
While girls are drastically under-represented in children’s books, there are definitely more than just 10 out there! I stuck with my favorites among those I’ve personally read. If they don’t appeal to you, check out the resources below for more fantastic ideas.
- 50 Diverse Children’s Books about Strong Girls on Biracial Bookworms
- 28 Empowering Books with Strong Female Characters on Today’s Parent
- 35 Brilliant Books With Strong Female Protagonists on Pulptastic (geared more towards teens and adults, but a few good options for middle grade kids)
- Children’s Picture Books with Strong Females Leads list on GoodReads
- “Books for girls, about girls: the publishers trying to balance the bookshelves,” by The Guardian
Who are your favorite strong and empowering girl characters in children’s literature? Share below!
Last update on 2020-04-09 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API