Recently, I had one of those conversations that stopped me instantly. You know the kind. The kind where the words you are hearing require you to look up from your phone (yes, I do sometimes “listen” while looking at my phone…it’s just the sad truth), look away from the computer (again, yes), or look up from your book (don’t judge on this one, you know that it is completely justifiable to “listen” while reading…it is a finely honed art). The kind of conversation that starts off innocuous and routine, then as words sink in you realize this conversation has weight and depth. It will not be brushed aside or made to wait. It demands attention and now. And so you stop, you look up, you listen, and you hope to know how to answer.
Here is how this particular scenario unfolded:
During a conversation with her teacher, my ten-year-old daughter pointed out that in each of the stories they had read in class the female character’s role was to be rescued, usually by a prince and even once by a dragon.
Apparently, this led to a good conversation about book choice.
After she told me her story, she said, “I just wish we could read books where girls did big things too.”
At this point I would love to tell you that my first thoughts were of how proud I was of her for speaking up about what she noticed and how sad I was for her that this is the reality in literature. Unfortunately, my first, unspoken thoughts were entirely selfish, something along the lines of, “Your house is full of books about girls doing big things.” As a book blogger, I am absolutely providing my daughters with a plethora of books featuring girls doing big things, right?! I had an embarrassing moment of righteous indignation.
And then I looked up. I saw my ten-year-old daughter asking for books about girls doing big things in front of a bookshelf overflowing with books. I tamped down my heated defenses and paused. Thankfully, at this point a measure of common sense returned and I realized this moment was not about me, my pride, or my ability to provide the “right” books for my girls. This moment was about her. It was about her ability to voice her observations and ask that we do better. It was about giving her disappointment space to exist. It was about finding what she was looking for.
A few days before this conversation, a video by Rebel Girls went viral. In the must-see clip, a mother and daughter are searching their bookshelf looking for books with girls doing big things. After watching the video with my daughter, we decided to do a little experiment of our own.
Inspired by the video, we decided to take out every book on our bookshelves that featured a human female as the main character, who had speaking parts, and did something inspirational, exciting, or adventurous. For the purposes of this experiment, we did not include stories about animals, automatically excluding the likes of Charlotte (Charlotte’s Web), or stories where the female main character shares the lime light with her fellow male counterparts, automatically excluding the likes of Hermione (Harry Potter), Annie (Magic Tree House) and Susan and Lucy (The Chronicles of Narnia), among many beloved others. While these characters and stories are fantastic, necessary, and helpful, we were looking specifically for books where the girl is the sole protagonist.
Our findings were shocking. First, we learned that the kids have 799 books! (Maybe there is something to my husband’s argument that we have “enough” books…maybe.) Of those 799 books, there were only 26!!!!, yes 26, that fit our criteria. I expected the number to be low, but nowhere near that low. Even more troubling is that of those 26, only 7 of those books have a female protagonist of color. These are devastating numbers.
Here are the 26 we found:
- My Name is not Isabella (Jennifer Fosberry)
- 11Experiments That Failed (Jenny Offill)
- Strega Nona (Tomie dePaolo)
- With the Might of Angels (Andrea Davis Pinkney)
- One Eye Laughing, the Other Eye Weeping (Barry Denenberg)
- Sondok (Sherri Holman)
- A Picture of Freedom (Patricia C McKissack)
- The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle (Avi)
- Dealing with Dragons (Patricia Wrede)
- Searching for Dragons (Patricia Wrede)
- Talking to Dragons (Patricia Wrede)
- Harriet the Spy (Louise Fitzhugh)
- Caddie Woodlawn (Carol Ryrie Brink)
- A Little Princess (Francis Hodgson Burnett)
- Mouseford Academy: Lights, Camera, Action (Thea Stilton) We made one exception to the “human female” rule because my eight-year-old daughter wanted to add one of her favorites, and so a mouse is included.
- Ella Enchanted (Gail Carson Levine)
- Julie of the Wolves (Jean Craighead George)
- Because of Winn-Dixie (Kate DiCamillo)
- Hidden Figures (Margot Lee Shetterly)
- Women in Space (Carole S Briggs)
- Boo’s Dinosaur (Betsy Byars)
- Walk Two Moons (Sharon Creech)
- Pippi Longstocking (Astrid Lindgren)
- Spy-in-Training (Bridget Wilder)
- Island of the Blue Dolphins (Scott O’Dell)
- *Not Pictured* – The Paperbag Princess (Robert Munsch) This book was “unfindable” while we were counting and I am too lazy to retake the picture now that it has been found.
While these 26 books are excellent, they are not enough. Thus, the upcoming Part 2.
I am on a mission to find more books of this nature. If you have books to add to the list, please let me know.