One of the best traditions in my family has always been giving books as gifts. Between used bookstores, eBay, garage sales, flea markets and friend exchanges, books can be a really inexpensive way to give a gift you know a special someone will love. I thought a post on great books for girls could be a lot of fun, today we’re covering birth through elementary school, later on in the week (or some time before Christmas) we’ll tackle middle school, high school and adult daughters. The following are a mix of favorites from my childhood, my teaching days and some titles shared with me by some awesome future bookish, clever women I know. All of them (except one) feature bold, interesting girls as primary characters without relying on tired stereotypes. I tried to include a diverse mix of female characters, but I admit I am not as well versed in multicultural kids lit as I should be.
Babies to Age 4: At this age, reading aloud to your kids is the best thing you can do as a parent to increase how successful your child is in school. Reading aloud to your child at any age is a great practice – kids can often appreciate the complexity of a story they hear before they’re able to read it independently. Reading aloud to your kids will increase their vocabularies, reading comprehension skills, critical thinking skills, as well as written and verbal communication. Never mind the baby videos, the rigorous pre-schools and the flash cards. Go to the library and pick up some great picture books and put the money you save in a college fund. /public service.
The Very Busy Spider by Eric Carle – Eric Carle is probably best known for The Very Hungry Caterpillar or Brown Bear, Brown Bear, both of which are great books that can grab even very tiny, very busy children’s attention. It’s a retelling of the classic responsibility parable – work before play – with Carle’s adorable and friendly artwork. Between Carle’s spider, Charlotte and Little Miss Spider of Sunnypatch School fame, children’s lit paints spiders as smart chicks quite frequently.
The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes recommended by our Tumblr friend 14kgoldnyc, described succinctly as a “fucking feminist TREASURE.” The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes is written by Dubose Heyward and illustrated by the prolific and talented Caldecott Honor recipient, Marjorie Flack.
Ages 4-8: At this age, kids have longer attention spans and a better developed ability to relate to characters in books. Numerous studies show the benefits of providing kids with both “mirror” stories, where the reader can find her own experience reflect in the books she reads, and “window” books, which allow a peek into the lives of characters who don’t share her experiences. This is especially important for children who are members of marginalized groups, because we learn best (especially in language based subjects) by building on prior knowledge. Think of your brain as a skyscraper. The stuff you already know and have already experienced is the foundation and the scaffolding upon which all your new knowledge and experiences build. A young Latina reader is more likely to build all the higher level thinking skills she’ll need to be a strong and critical reader if she can relate in a personal way to the characters she meets in the earliest literature to which she is exposed. Multicultural education is about more than touchy feely liberal stuff, it’s about giving non-white, non-male, non-able-bodied children the same opportunities and tools for learning as their peers. Additionally, one child’s mirror book is another child’s window book – exposing your children to a broad range of characters in early childhood books can help them learn empathy and respect for what makes us different from each other.
Chrysanthemum – Kevin Henkes is a delightful writer, who creates spirited and curious characters. His characters are never goody two-shoes, and they all share a fiercely independent streak. The title character in Chrysanthemum is memorable and thoughtful, and a fine role model for little girls everywhere. Chrysanthemum doesn’t like her name, because it makes her feel different among the ordinary names of her classmates, who make fun of her. Chrysanthemum is hurt, but she learns how to appreciate that her name is beautiful and unique, just like she is herself, when she learns her beloved teacher’s first name is Delphinium.
When I Was Little: A Four Year Old’s Memoir of her Youth – This exuberant book by Jamie Lee Curtis features a four year old girl on the verge of becoming more independent as she heads off to school for the first time. Spirited and chuckleworthy for the grown-up reader, this is a fun book to share with your daughter as she begins to have all sorts of her own opinions.
Madlenka, Soccer Star – Another great book about a strong-willed girl who won’t let anyone stop her from choosing her choice, Peter Sis’s cute picture book is passionate and engaging, with beautiful art and a clear message. Great for your daughter who loves sports or your daughter who shies away from sports, this is a great book about trying hard, doing your best and being a good teammate. Madlenka makes a charming heroine, and one who will stick with both you and your little girl.
Owl Moon by Jane Yolen – I knew Yolen from her collections of modern fairy tale retellings, which I loved all through college. Her children’s books are just as beautiful, with help from illustrator John Schoenherr. In this quiet story, a father and daughter explore the life that lives in the snowy woods near their home.
Andy and His Yellow Frisbee – This is a touching story of a little boy with pervasive autism and the new friend he makes during recess at school. Andy is one of the very few non-verbal people with autism I’ve ever seen represented in any sort of media, and he’s portrayed gently and honestly here. This is a great book to help your kids empathize with people with disabilities.
A Chair for My Mother – This beautifully illustrated book tells the story of Rosa, her mother and her grandmother, who work together to buy a big, comfortable chair the three of them can share after their home is destroyed by a fire.
Older elementary, ages 8-12: This group is able to handle more complex themes, and are usually able to read and comprehend chapter books of increasing difficulty. Many books written for girls this age sadly start focusing on romance and boys, which of course are pressing issues for tweens, but it’s unusual to see the same plucky heroism from the above books for girls in this age group. Most of my choices here are older books, but I think the message will translate to new audiences.
From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg – Claudia, the main character, is smart and resourceful, if a little self-absorbed. She orchestrates and pulls off an elaborate plan for her and her little brother to run away and hide in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Claudia is running away from little more than boredom, and the mysterious adventure she stumbles upon at the museum helps her recognize that she can be extraordinary while safely at home.
The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin – Turtle Wexler is the 13 year old star of The Westing Game. Smarter and more aware than most of the adults that surround her, this clever girl never manages to be obnoxious or twee. A mystery lover like Mixed Up Files’ Claudia, Turtle ends up unraveling one of the best written mysteries I’ve ever read for kids or adults.
Ramona the Brave by Beverly Cleary – Ramona is fearless and timeless, and a role model for rowdy girls with an independent streak of any age. Like Turtle, Ramona is clever and sharp as a tack, and they both face mysteries head on, even when their normally impressive bravado fails them. All of the Ramona books are fantastic, but Ramona the Pest really captures the mind of a seven year old trying to navigate first grade.
That’s it for part one, we’ll continue with more great books for daughters soon, Sara B has offered to help and I bet her list is fantastic.