18 Picture Books Featuring Strong, Feisty Girls
Where are the strong girls in children’s books?
The lack of cultural diversity in most children’s books is something that I’ve been aware of for a long time. What did surprise me was a study I came across recently that found that 57% of children’s books published each year have a male protagonist, while only 31% have a lead female character.
Many books that do feature girls as main characters do so in stereotypical ways. It’s especially difficult to find children’s books featuring girls of color, as Marley Dias’ 100 Black Girl Books campaign last year illustrated.
The good news is there are fantastic picture books featuring strong, feisty girls and women. I’ve compiled this list of 20 of the best. I hope you’ll share them with the girls AND boys in your life.
Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links to my Amazon Associates account, as well as links to my Barefoot Books storefront. If you purchase items through these links, I earn a small commission at no additional cost to you. I received a free copy of Padmini is Powerful to review from Bharat Babies. All thoughts are my own.
18 Picture Books Featuring Strong, Feisty Girls
Padmini is Powerful by Amy Maranville and Tim Palin
Padmini is a spunky toddler who is as powerful, wise, creative, energetic, and generous as the Hindu gods. On each page spread, children can see Padmini on one page, doing typical toddler things. On the opposite page is a Hindu god whose qualities she shows in her work. For example, when Padmini builds an enormous block structure, “she creates, like Brahma.” (Recommended for ages 2 – 5).
Elena’s Serenade by Campbell Geeslin and Ana Juan
Elena longs to be a glassblower who makes magical creations like her father. But her father thinks she’s too little, and “besides, who ever heard of a girl glassblower?” Elena’s brother Pedro tells her she should travel to Monterrey, where all the best glassblowers work.
Dressing herself as a boy, Elena sets out on her journey. When she blows on her pipe to pass the time, she discovers she can make amazing music that enchants the animals she encounters. When she arrives in Monterrey, she is in for an even more amazing surprise about what her serenades can create. (Recommended for ages 4 – 8).
The Princess and the White Bear King by Tanya Robyn Batt and Nicoletta Ceccoli
A young princess has a dream about a golden crown like none she has ever seen. Her dream leads to a real encounter with a great white bear, who takes her away to live in his castle. When the princess makes the mistake of following bad advice from her mother, the bear disappears into the winter night. She must summon up all her strength and skill to undertake the arduous journey to find him. (Recommended for ages 5 – 9).
Amazing Grace by Mary Hoffman and Caroline Binch
Grace is an adventurous girl captivated by stories. She loves to act out adventure stories and fairy tales, even when the only other actor is her cat. When the teacher announces that the class will be performing Peter Pan, Grace knows right away that she wants to be Peter. One child tells her she can’t be Peter because she’s a girl, while another child whispers that Grace can’t be Peter because Peter isn’t Black.
When Grace tells her grandmother what’s happened, Nana is determined to show Grace she can be anything she wants to be. (Recommended for ages 3 – 8).
Amelia to Zora: Twenty-Six Women Who Changed the World by Cynthia Chin-Lee, Megan Halsey and Sean Addy
This alphabet book tells the story of twenty-six trailblazing women from all around the world, from scientists to athletes to diplomats to activists. Each brief biography includes a striking collage illustration of the heroine, as well as a quote from her. While some heroines such as Amelia Earheart may be familiar to you, others will likely be new, such as computer pioneer Grace Hopper or women’s rights activist Nawal Edl Sadaawi. (Recommended for ages 5 – 10).
Shining Star: The Anna May Wong Story by Paula Yoo and Lin Wang
As a child, Anna May Wong dreamed of becoming an actress. Despite initial opposition from her family, she began her career in the 1930s as an extra, gradually working her way into larger roles. While she loved being able to act, she was also troubled by racist policies on the movie sets. Almost all the roles available to Asian Americans were based on stereotypes or were demeaning to her people.
After a lengthy visit to China and conversations with her father about his experience of being an immigrant in America, Anna May vowed that she would only take on roles in which Chinese people were shown in a positive light. (Recommended for ages 7 – 12).
Keep Climbing, Girls by Beah E. Richards and R. Gregory Christie
Pioneering actress, poet, and playwright Beah Richards published the poem “Keep Climbing, Girls” in 1951. In this picture book, Gregory Christie’s bold brushstrokes bring to a life a girl determined to climb to the top of a tree despite the warnings and threats of her mother.
When Miss Nettie tells the girl that “you’re a tomboy, that’s what you are, and you’re going to have a tomboy’s scars,” she is sure she won’t have to say anything else. She’s miscalculated “the widsom of little girls. For even they know little boys have the upper hand in this world.” (Recommended for ages 4 – 10).
The First Strawberries: A Cherokee Story by Joseph Bruchac and Anna Vojtech
Although this re-telling of a Cherokee tale about the origins of strawberries is a serious story, the first time I read it I giggled. The story describes how the first man and woman lived together happily, until one day the man arrives home from hunting. He finds that the woman has not prepared a meal, but is picking flowers. When complains harshly, she bluntly tells him “Your words hurt me. I will live with you no longer. ” (That will teach those men who think supper should be on the table as soon as they arrive home!)
The man soon realizes he shouldn’t have spoken harshly, but the woman is moving so quickly he cannot catch up with her. The Sun agrees to help the man by getting the woman’s attention so that he can apologize. (Recommended for ages 3 – 7).
Fiesta Femenina: Celebrating Women in Mexican Folklore by Mary-Joan Gerson and Maya Christina Gonzalez
This stunningly illustrated collection of folktales from a variety of indigenous peoples of Mexico features many strong women. In “Rosha and the Sun,” Rosha is devastated when her brother uses her hair to trap the sun. Realizing that soon all the corn will die, she alone must figure out a way to free the sun.
In “Why the Moon Is Free,” we learn of how the moon cleverly tricks the Sun who wants to marry her. She tells him he must first give her a gift of beautiful clothing, which must be exactly her size. The Sun soon discovers that the Moon’s constantly changing shape makes this task impossible. (Recommended for ages 6 – 12).
Ida B. Wells: Let the Truth be Told by Walter Dean Myers and Donnie Christensen
Activist, educator, journalist, and sufragette Ida B. Wells took incredible risks for freedom of Black women and men in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Long before the Birmingham bus boycotts, Wells was manhandled for refusing to move from the ladies’ coach of a train. She even sued the railroad for the mistreatment she received. Later, It is Wells’ activism and journalism about the terrible reality of lynching that earns her both fame and threats.
This biography covers Wells’ amazing life from her childhood through her death. Girls and boys everywhere will be inspired by her wisdom and her willingness to speak the truth no matter what. (Recommended for ages 7 – 12).
Violet the Pilot by Steve Breen
Our 4 year old son has been captivated with Violet the Pilot since he received it from the Dolly Parton Imagination Library, proving there’s no such thing as a “girl book” or “boy book.” From a very young age, Violet’s interest in Popular Mechanics and her access to a junkyard lead to all kinds of incredible inventions.
Though the other kids’ make fun of her inventions, she knows that her flying machines are something special. Maybe, she thinks, she can win a blue ribbon at the upcoming Air Show. A Boy Scout troop in need of rescue interrupts her plan to win the show, but perhaps something even greater will come of it. (Recommended for ages 4 – 8).
Rad American Women A – Z: Rebels, Trailblazers, and Visionaries Who Shaped Our Future by Kate Schatz and Miriam Klein Stahl
I realize this is my second A – Z book in this post, but there are very few repeats between Rad American Women A – Z and Amelia to Zora. Rad American Women is also written with more detail for a slightly older audience. My favorite story shared in the volume is about Florence Grifith-Joyner, who was asked by her teacher what she wanted to be when she grew up. “Everything,” she said. “I want to be everything.”
I was inspired by the work of Jovita Idar, who organized Mexican-American women in Texas in the early 20th century to provide bilingual edition to their children because of the terrible state of their schools. The book does an excellent job of including women of diverse culture backgrounds, from different time periods, and many different professions. (Recommended for ages 9 +).
Raising Dragons by Jerdine Nolen and Elise Primavera
Though her Ma and Pa don’t have time for make believe, the curious little girl at the heart of Raising Dragons knows that dragons are real. She wants to mind her Pa when he tells her to stay away from a large, strange looking egg, but she just can’t help herself. When he hatches, she knows right away that Hank is her dragon. This brightly illustrated, fanciful tale is funny and delightful. (Recommended for ages 4 – 7).
Stone Girl, Bone Girl: The Story of Mary Anning by Laurence Anholt and Sheila Moxley
Mary Anning lived in England in the early 1800s, where as a child she loved to dig for “curiosities” in the clay cliffs near her home. Her well-to-do neighbors the Philpot sisters were trained scientists, and they realized Mary had an amazing collection of fossils.
Despite taunts from other children that she is a “Stone Girl, Bone Girl, Out on Your Own Girl,” Mary’s fascination continued. It led to one of the most important scientist discoveries of her century. (Recommended for ages 5 – 10).
Players in Pigtails by Shana Corey and Rebecca Gibbon
“Katie Casey wasn’t good at being a girl…at least not the kind of girl everyone thought she should be.” What Katie was very good at was baseball. She wanted to try out for her high school team, but since it was the the 1940’s, she wasn’t allowed.
When World War II meant that professional baseball players were overseas, Phillip Wrigley, owner of the Chicago Cubs, had the idea that if women could fill in at the factories, they could do the same on the baseball field. Katie finally had her chance to play! But can she and the other girls prove themselves to people who think “players in pigtails” are silly? (Recommended for ages 4 – 8).
Abuela by Arthur Dorros and Elisa Kleven
Rosalba and her grandmother are always ready for adventure, including the kind that involves flying over their city. Along the way, Rosalba learns about important memories from her Abuela’s life. Spanish phrases are woven throughout the book, with context clues to help non-native speakers discover their meaning. Though I love the lyrical story, my favorite part of the book is the enchanting, colorful illustrations. (Recommended for ages 3 – 7).
Wilma Unlimited: How Wilma Rudolph Became the World’s Fastest Woman by Kathleen Krull and David Diaz
Before reading this book, I had no idea that Olympic gold medalist Wilma Rudolph was not even expected to live past her first birthday. She was often sickly as a child and contracted polio at age 5. No one believed she would ever walk again. They underestimated the determination of Wilma and her mother.
All of Wilma’s practice meant that eventually her mother was able to mail her heavy leg brace back to the hospital because she no longer needed it. She began to play basketball, taking her team to the Tennessee high school championships. Though they lost the game, a college coach for the track and field team spotted her, changing her life forever. (Recommended for ages 4 – 9).
Lola’s Fandango by Anna Witte and Micha Archer
Lola’s older sister seems so much more glamorous and talented than she is. But Lola’s discovery of her mother’s flamenco dancing shoes leads her to an important discovery about her own special gift. Papi gives her secret dancing lessons on the roof while Mami and Clementina are at the grocery store. Lola practices again and again, but will she have the duende (spirit) it takes to become a true flamenco dancer? (Recommended for ages 4 – 9).
What’s your favorite children’s book featuring strong, feisty girls? Tell us in the comments!