As a kid, there was nothing I loved more in a book than a badass female protagonist. OK, I loved talking animals and fantasy books with maps in the front, closely followed by badass female protagonists. For a lot of us, those sensitive, smart, gutsy girls from kids' books were a big first step to becoming thoughtful young feminists. So here are some of the books that every feminist read growing up.
There were a few awesome female characters in TV and movies that we could cling to as kids (I was all about Eliza Thornberry and her ability to talk to animals). But the vast majority of entertainment was all about the boys, with the occasional token chick and/or love interest. If girls were in the spotlight, they were nearly always princesses (no disrespect to princesses, but girls cannot live on princesses alone).
So we turned to books. Sure, there was a lot of questionable gender representation in children's literature, and there were seemingly infinite books about boys and their dogs. But there was also a plethora of great books about girls. Girls with superhuman strength or intelligence, girls with a normal amount of strength and intelligence but a lot of heart, princesses, orphans, inventors, and so on. Thank goodness for those books, and how they made all of us into budding feminists:
1. Matilda by Roald Dahl
Matilda is definitely number one in terms of well-read, telekinetic little girls from literature. Not only was she a genius who would have fit in at Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters, she was also a good person. She wanted her principal to stop literally torturing children (which is definitely illegal?), and she fought to protect her teacher and classmates.
2. Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling
The Harry Potter books were centered on the titular Harry who was, in fact, a boy. But I don't think it's controversial to say that Hermione Granger was one of the biggest feminist influences of our childhoods. Hermione was bright, talented, and utterly ruthless. She was a trustworthy friend, but she was also capable of trapping journalists in jars and cursing snitches with permanent pimples. Truly an inspiration to little girls everywhere.
3. The Royal Diaries series by Kathyrn Lasky, Kristiana Gregory
The Royal Diaries series featured real, historical princesses. Yes, the first-person narratives were fictional. But the people and most of the events were based in truth. There were a bunch of these books, but I think Cleopatra VII was a big favorite for a few very good reasons: she's Cleopatra, she had all sorts of wacky pets, and there's definitely a scene in which someone is served a severed head on a platter.
4. The Paper Bag Princess by Robert Munsch, illustrated by Michael Martchenko
This was the picture book that taught little girls not to settle. Resourceful Princess Elizabeth rescues her fiance from a dragon, only to have him act like an ungrateful jerk because she doesn't look like a princess should. So she dumps his ass and gets on with her life. This is a good book to read as an adult woman, too, because it's never to late to stop dating sexists.
5. Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead George
This isn't your ordinary boy-and-his-dog novel. Miyax/Julie escapes an abusive relationship only to wind up lost in the Alaskan tundra. So, naturally, she befriends a pack of wolves, learns to communicate with them, and builds a life for herself in the wilderness. This book inspired a generation of girls to move to the forest and live with wolves rather than stay in a patriarchal society.
6. Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine
Ella Enchanted might just be the best reinterpretation of the Cinderella story to ever grace the YA shelves. In this version, Ella was blessed/cursed with absolute obedience at birth. She must follow every order she hears. But she's trying to lift the curse and marry that prince of her own free will, and the result is a brilliant book for fairy tale enthusiasts who wish Cinderella was a little less of a doormat.
7. Amazing Grace by Mary Hoffman, illustrated by Caroline Binch
Anyone who loved to perform as kid will probably remember this picture book. Grace wants to play Peter Pan in the school play, but some of her classmates say she can't do it because she's not a white boy. So Grace, like the true feminist she is, works hard and smokes everyone else at the audition, proving that she can very much be Peter Pan (or whatever else she wants to be).
8. Beezus and Ramona by Beverly Cleary
Those Ramona books taught us all that even if you're a girl, you can still be an unrepentant menace to society. At the time I remember identifying with Ramona and her fun-loving antics. But now I mostly feel bad for Beezus. Either way, these were great books, with a (somewhat rocky) relationship between two sisters at the foreground.
9. Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren
OK, so can we talk about the fact that Pippi has super-strength? Why did Pippi have super-strength? Someone please write a children's TV show starring Matilda and Pippi as a super-powered crime-fighting team. Because Pippi Longstocking was hands down the best Swedish super-girl from children's literature, and she made us all want to live with a horse, a monkey, and no parents.
10. Anne of Green Gables Novels by L.M. Montgomery
Speaking of redheads, Anne from Anne of Green Gables was another favorite for young feminists. Yes, she was fashion-conscious and loved her puffed sleeves, but she was also tough and dreamy, with a hyper-active imagination. She showed us all that girls can want traditionally "girly" things while still being fierce as hell.
11. American Girls by Janet Beeler Shaw, Valerie Tripp
The American Girls series was everything a history-nerd little girl could ever ask for in a book series. There was Felicity from the Revolutionary War, Josefina from the early 1800s, Addy from the Civil War, etc and so forth. My favorite was definitely Kaya from 1764, because she rode a lot of horses. But all of the girls were strong role models in their own way, and they all made us want to actually learn about women throughout American history.
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