Strong Girls and Wild Women, Part 1: Picture Books

This is the first in a three-part series of book recommendations in honor of Women's History Month.

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My favorite library book displays have often been the ones I got to put together in March to commemorate Women's History Month. Here I offer a virtual floor spinner of my most highly-recommended picture books that feature noteworthy female leads. 

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Kate and the Beanstalk by Mary Pope Osborne and Giselle Potter

I don't have to tell you that women got dealt the short hand when it comes to mainstream fairy tale characterization. I love Perault and the Grimms, but girls need the opportunity to read about women who take care of business without the help of Prince Charming. Fortunately, fractured fairy tales, which are those told with a twist, are one of the first places to look for strong female characters. In this particular tale, a resourceful and brave Kate takes the place of lazy, dimwitted Jack, avenging her family and outwitting the giant. The folk-art illustrations enhance the tone of this fun, spunky and wholly original retelling.

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Amazing Grace by Mary Hoffman and Caroline Binch

Possessed with a great sense of imagination, Grace enjoys dressing up and acting out her favorite stories. When her teacher announces the class will perform "Peter Pan," Grace decides she's ready to try out for the lead. Then one classmate tells her she can't because she's a girl. And another tells her Peter Pan isn't black. A heartbroken Grace relays her day to her mother and grandmother who take her on an adventure to see a Trinidadian ballet star, and restore Grace's hopes in the process. The self-affirming message of this book is delivered deftly enough to avoid heavy-handedness. Grace's unassailable vivacity and her lovingly-rendered family make this very important book one that won't soon leave your heart.

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Brave Irene by William Steig

Steig was a master storyteller of original fairy tales (think Shrek) and Brave Irene is one of his best. Irene, a dressmaker's daughter, is determined to deliver a ball gown to the duchess despite a raging snowstorm. Irene's tenacity in overwhelmingly negative odds is both endearing and thrilling.

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I Will Never Not Ever Eat a Tomato by Lauren Child

I could write another blog post on Brit Lauren Child's artwork, which is remarkable enough in and of itself to recommend her books. Child presents her unique cartoon-like artwork alongside photos of fabrics, wallpaper, and other objects. The interplay of drawing and photographs compliments Child's quirky lead character, Lola. In this book, one of three originals about Lola and her brother Charlie (not to be mistaken with the later television show spin-off books), Lola declares her distaste for peas, fish sticks, and mashed potatoes, among other foods. Charlie tells of his success renaming foods in order to trick Lola into trying them. (Carrots become "orange twiglets from Jupiter.") But, as always, the beguiling Lola has the last word, and her cleverness usurps all. 

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Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney

As a little girl living early in the twentieth century, Alice Rumphius has three goals: to travel to faraway locales, live by the sea in her old age, and do something to make the world more beautiful. Her namesake great niece relays exactly how Miss Rumphius did just that, from visiting exotic places to spreading lupine seeds all over her village in Maine. This inspiring picture book is a moving tale of a life worth remembering. The late Barbara Cooney left the world a more beautiful place for having written it.

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I Like Me! by Nancy Carlson

You can start on self-esteem early with this simple, engaging picture book, which can be shared with kids as young as 18 months old. In short, expressive sentences, the lovely pig on the cover tells why she likes herself, from her cute curly tail to her tiny little feet. She describes what she does to take care of herself, and how when she encounters failure she simply picks herself up and tries again. The bright illustrations lend to this book's happy air, but don't let its simplicity fool you -- the message within is of utmost import.

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The Paper Bag Princess by Robert Munsch and Michael Martchenko

Oh how I love this book. It goes like this: Princess Elizabeth is supposed to marry Prince Ronald. A mean old dragon comes and sets fire to everything and steals Ronald away. Elizabeth puts on the only item that survives the fire -- a paper bag -- and sets out to rescue her beloved. After outwitting the dragon, Elizabeth finds Ronald, who balks at the fact that Elizabeth doesn't look like a "real princess" anymore. Elizabeth's response is pretty damn funny, as is the book's deadpan ending: "They didn't get married after all."

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Swamp Angel by Anne Isaacs and Paul Zelinsky

I'm a huge fan of American folklore and remember loving Paul Bunyan and John Henry as a kid. But how about a tall tale with a female hero? Angelica Longrider, aka Swamp Angel, built her first Tennessee log cabin before the age of two, snores like a locomotive, and can lasso a tornado. She sets her sights on saving the local settlers from a black bear named Thundering Tarnation, and manages to out-think a long line of male competitors. Isaacs' exaggeration and cadence, typical to traditional tall tales, make this a top-notch read-aloud. Zelinsky was awarded a Caldecott Honor for his primitive oil paintings set in wood veneer frames from which an oversized Swamp Angel peeks out. A rip-roaring, magnified tale of dauntless adventure.