Feminist-friendly books for kids

// 4 December 2009

Guardian journalist Viv Graskop has been testing feminist-friendly books on her 3-year-old daughter and six-year-old son in a ‘gender stereotyping intervention’. Out of five novels, the kids give Princess Smartypants by Babette Cole and The Pirate Girl by Cornelia Funke a big thumbs up:

A riotously subversive read. “Princess Smartypants did not want to get married. She enjoyed being a Ms.” Princess Smartypants keeps giant slugs as pets and challenges her geeky prince suitors to roller-disco marathons. When one of them finally wins her over, she kisses him, intentionally turning him into a toad. “When the other princes heard what had happened to Prince Swashbuckle, none of them wanted to marry Smartypants. So she lived happily ever after.” Excellent.

Molly is in her boat, sailing off on holiday to her granny’s, when she is kidnapped by Captain Firebeard and his vicious band of pirates. But they chose the wrong girl. Molly’s mother is Barbarous Bertha and when she comes to rescue her daughter she brings her own ferocious crew. Brilliant – although I worried slightly about the male pirates. At the end they are forced to polish Barbarous Bertha’s boots 14 times a week. Punishing the oppressor is not true feminism, it’s just role reversal. Still, this was the most successful read and I would recommend it to anyone.

We’ve got a selection of books for children and young people in our shop, and for older kids and young teens I’d highly recommend my favourite childhood series The Song of the Lioness Quartet by Tamora Pierce, featuring a girl who disguises herself as a boy so she can train to be a knight (the best knight in the kingdom, no less). What would you recommend? I notice Graskop’s selection focuses mainly on challenging female stereotypes rather than male; are there any books out there featuring boys baking pink cakes to save the world?

Comments From You

Jess McCabe // Posted 4 December 2009 at 2:25 pm

Mostly the kids I have to buy books for are my brother and my cousins, all in their teens now (although my cousins speak and read English as a second language, so that’s always an extra issue). I try and add the books I get them to the shop. Justine Larbalestier’s books are my latest find, following on from the whole debacle about her book covers I got her Magic trilogy for my 16 year old cousin, it went down really well.

The Amelia Bloomer Project is always a good place to start too.

FeminaErecta // Posted 4 December 2009 at 2:28 pm

Princess Polly to the Rescue by Mary Lister is amazing! Princess Polly has to rescue her betrothed from being eaten by a witch’s dragon, along the way meeting an amazing assortment of characters

Was dissappointed to not see Prince Cinders as well as Princess Smartypants in the article!

gadgetgal // Posted 4 December 2009 at 2:39 pm

You’ve already listed most of the ones I’d recommend, but I’ll mention another couple anyway.

I really liked “Mischievous Meg” by Astrid Lindgren when I was growing up. I LOVED the Pippi books (I read all of them and even had the doll!) so it led me to her other books, and this was my favourite.

Also I remember being read to by a teacher in class in the US and the book was called “William’s Doll” by Charlotte Zolotow – it’s (obviously) about a boy who wants a doll, and how his parents and friends don’t understand, but then his grandmother explains why there’s nothing wrong with it. That one definitely sticks in my memory because I seem to recall even the boys in class liked it!

Laura // Posted 4 December 2009 at 3:23 pm

Ronia the Robber’s Daughter by Astrid Lindgren has a fabulous, brave, proactive girl as its central character.

When it comes to books which challenge male gender stereotypes the only one that comes to mind is Flour Babies by Anne Fine, and it’s been a long time since I read it so I’m not quite sure if it would be appropriate or not.

I loved the Lioness books when I was growing up, they made an incredible impression on me.

earwicga // Posted 4 December 2009 at 4:16 pm

My boys and I love The Practical Princess (recommended on another thread on here) – I had to get it second hand from the States, but well worth it so thanks to whover recommended it.

From memory Roald Dahl offers decent portrayals of boys – I haven’t read as my boys have read them all themselves.

Judy Moody series of books are great and seem to be terribly funny from listening to my boys laughter when reading them.

Just asked my boys to suggest some books for here and one said Alfred Hitchcock’s The 3 Investigators series and the other said Secret Seven.

I think they all contain children working together to solve problems and using their brains instead of manipulation, brawn and uselessness which seems to be the way in the stupid tv programmes they watch (not that I am typing this with Horrid Henry in the background at all).

Laurel Dearing // Posted 4 December 2009 at 4:21 pm

jane and the dragon!

“Jane and the Dragon is a series of children’s books written and illustrated by Martin Baynton. The books are “Jane and the Dragon” (1988); “The Dragon’s Purpose” (1989); and “Jane and the Magician” (2000).

The first book features Jane, a young girl whose mother is a lady-in-waiting to the queen. She is expected to grow up in her mother’s footsteps, but wishes to become a knight. When the royal prince is kidnapped by a dragon, Jane sets out to rescue the boy.

Baynton says that the inspiration for the books came from his wanting to write “a story about a girl who wanted to follow her dreams despite the expectations of her family and friends” and from a young girl telling him “how she hated fairy stories because the girls were wimps”.”

love the tv series too ^^

Victoria // Posted 4 December 2009 at 4:24 pm

The comment about there being far fewer challenges to male stereotypes really strikes a chord with me. I remember recently seeing a programme on Cbeebies (can’t recall the title) in which boys were playing at being pirates and girls were playing at being princesses. One of the girls wanted to be a pirate and at first I thought “it’s good to see these stereotypes being challenged”. But as the programme went on it became increasingly clear that the message was being a pirate = being ace and exciting, being a princess = being prissy and superficial. The girls who liked being princesses were presented as ridiculous whereas all the boys were presented as really cool, as was the girl who wanted to be like them. Yet poncing around in a pirate costume strikes me as just as inane as pretending to be Princess Tippytoes (not that children shouldn’t be allowed to be inane – I positively encourage it in my brood – but I resent the double standard in value judgements placed on stereotypical male and female inanities). Obviously, not one boy in the programme wanted to be a princess, the message being that in a more “equal” society women will learn the error of their idiotic feminine ways and men will be kind enough to allow us to the honour of emulating them. Anyhow, at least “William’s Doll” sounds ace – might give it to my sons at some point, but not yet, as it hasn’t yet crossed their minds that sometimes they play with “unacceptable” toys.

aimee // Posted 4 December 2009 at 5:21 pm

The Night Pirates is a great book… and obviously anything by Munsch.

Sue G // Posted 4 December 2009 at 5:42 pm

Even Rudyard Kipling, who is maybe less well well rated as a suitable children’s writer these days, has a brilliant girl starring in two of his ‘Just So Stories’. She was called Taffimai and she invented the alphabet and writing. When I was seven I thought this was a truly wonderful idea and I have gone on to become a writer, so having good female role models in children’s books really does work!

Anji // Posted 4 December 2009 at 6:31 pm

I’m glad to see this featured here – I’d just put it on the list for this month’s Carnival of Feminist Parenting.

The Resurrectionist // Posted 4 December 2009 at 7:31 pm

Tomie DePaola’s book “Oliver Button Is A Sissy” is a children’s book about a boy who tap-dances and gets bullied for it by the other boys. The girls in class stand up for him, and he ends up winning over some of the bullies with his dancing skills.

Jennifer Drew // Posted 4 December 2009 at 7:40 pm

Geoffrey Trease is a children’s author whose name might not easily come to mind, but Trease consistently wrote chidlren’s books wherein both female and male characters featured in equal numbers. The female characters in particular are strongly drawn. See Cue For Treason or just type in Geoffrey Trease. See link for more details concerning Geoffrey Trease’s life:


Caroline Lawrence’s books under the general heading The Roman Mysteries are a series of books which are not only historically accurate, they also feature two girls and two boys. All four characters are individual and none are depicted in stereotypical ‘feminine/masculine roles.’ All four children face difficulties and all of them experience a range of emotions and courageous action.

Caroline Lawrence is a very popular children’s author because not only does she present social history in an easy to understand style, she also does not attempt to hide the realities of living in Ancient Roman times.

Cazz Blase // Posted 4 December 2009 at 8:04 pm

Ooh, I love blog posts like this…

Bills New Frock by Anne Fine is a good role reversal one, also Charm School.

In terms of classics, how about The Ordinary Princess by MM Kaye? The genius of it is not just that the Princess is Ordinary, and so seen as being awkward and rebellious, but the King character she encounters later is like that as well, so it works on both levels.

A smilar trick is at the heart of the Dragonsbane books by Patricia C. Wrede, which are for slightly older readers.

I’d also reccomend Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfield, despite the way the BBC ruined it a few years ago… Because at the heart of it is the relatively new notion (for the time it was first published, which was 1936) that it’s good for women to learn a trade and be independent, and earn their own money.

I’d say, from the experience of working in public libraries a few years back now, that it’s actually harder to find books for boys that are good and that challenge gender roles, but Morris Gleitzman’s books, particularly Bumface and Boy Overboard and Girl Underground are good for boys and good for girls. Also Six Storey House by Geraldine McCraughton.

Totally agree re Tamora Piece as well, fantastic writer.

maggie // Posted 4 December 2009 at 9:09 pm

My suggestions are The Magician’s Elephant by Kate di Camillo (for my 8 year old) plus Stolen by Lucy Christoper for my 14 year old.

I heard these on Radio 4’s Open Book presented by Mariella Frostrup.

sarah // Posted 5 December 2009 at 12:25 am

I remember “The Paper-bag Princess” by Robert Munsch/ Michael Martchenko was pretty cool. The gooey-looking princess is just about to marry the arrogant-looking dreamboat-prince, when a dragon burns everything down including her clothes (hence she must wear an old paper bag) and carries off the prince. So she sets out to get him back, outwits the dragon and finds the prince – but then the prince is all huffy because she’s covered in soot and looks like a beggar. So she tells him he’s a “bum” and dances off happily into the sunset. “They didn’t get married after all” :D

saranga // Posted 5 December 2009 at 12:34 pm

the hounds of the morrigan by pat o’shea. An irish fantasy book incorporating a lot of Irish mythology about 2 kids who go on a quest to find this stone which will stop the evil queen, the morrigan, taking over the world.

the kids are brother and sister and are fully fleshed out rounded characters. from a political viewpoint there’s a wide variety of both female and male characters in the book, and no one is constrained by their sex or gender. the kids come from a traditional family but it’s not done in a harmful or sexist manner.

I *adore* this book, always have done. if you like the irish gods then you’ll love it.

Jan // Posted 5 December 2009 at 8:47 pm

I loved Tamora Pierce’s Keladry books too (Protector of the Small Quartet).

Erica // Posted 6 December 2009 at 7:15 am

“The paper bag princess”! A very short story about a princess who rescues her prince from a dragon, and when he criticizes her for getting dirty and not looking “princessy” she dumps him and lives happily ever after.

Also, the “wild washerwomen” although it may no longer be in print. It is a surreal rhyming story about a group of washerwomen who live in the forest. When a group of loggers come and try to make them do their laundry for free, they use their muscles developed from all the clothes washing to wash the loggers instead. The loggers then respect the womens strength and they all life happily in the forest together. Heteronormative and I’m not thrilled about the message of women’s work vs men’s work, but I LOVED it as a kid for it’s message about womens strength. Also the illustrations are crazy and amazing.

Lee H // Posted 6 December 2009 at 6:24 pm

Whilst not overtly political the “Amelia Rules!” comic books star a tomboyish 10 year old girl who lives with her mother and her aunt.

New editions of the collected books are being printed by Simon & Schuster in North America.


saranga // Posted 6 December 2009 at 7:17 pm

I second the paperbag princess. bloody great and the illustrations were just as good.

Elmo // Posted 6 December 2009 at 9:11 pm

the two i can remember loving (ah, all those years ago-not) were “The Firework Makers Daughter” by Philip Pullman, and “The Ordinary Princess” by M M Kaye. I don’t know if you can still get them-probably on amazon? I’d also definitely recommend “The Wee Free Men” by Terry Pratchett, a children’s Discworld about a young witch called Tiffany Aching, who has to sort out everything because none of the grownups will listen, and she doesn’t fancy being a damsel in distress.

Philippa Willitts // Posted 6 December 2009 at 10:03 pm

Sandi Toksvig has written some children’s books. I haven’t read any of them, but I bet they’re a good bet for girls to read. Her grown-up novels are fantastic.

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