Strong Girls and Wild Women, Part 3: Chapter Books

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

Once your child has reached age seven or eight, it's time to introduce her to some of my favorite girl protagonists via chapter books. (If you like to read aloud, you could even read some of these together a bit earlier.) While there are hundreds of chapter books that feature engaging female leads, here I hope to introduce you to a few with which you may not be familiar.

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Roxie and the Hooligans by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor

Newbery Award-winning author Naylor introduces Roxie Warbler, a nine year old who wishes she was brave. Roxie's memorized all the survival tips in Lord Thistlebottom's Book of Pitfalls and How to Survive Them. If only knowing how to escape an avalanche could prepare one for dealing with playground bullies. Said bullies fall into a dumpster they've chased Roxie into, and the entire group ends up via barge on an island inhabited by robbers. Despite her fears, Roxie uses the skills she's learned by heart to lead the bullies to safety. Over-the-top characterizations and Roxie's earnest self-admonitions ("Do not panic!") combine to make this book part adventure, part comedy, and all heartwarming.

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Igraine the Brave by Cornelia Funke

Fantasies are immensely popular, and those that feature female main characters are often princess tales. While I love a story of a strong princess, it's nice to encounter one in which the leading lady is a twelve-year-old aspiring knight. When Igraine's magician parents accidentally turn themselves into pigs, their daughter sets out on a quest to find a giant willing to give up his hair in order to break the spell. I love that Igraine's parents support their spunky daughter's quest for knighthood, even though they don't understand it. The author's pen and ink drawings are nearly as enjoyable as her writing.

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May B. by Caroline Starr Rose

In the late 1870s, eleven-year-old May is sent fifteen interminable miles from home to work on a farm in order to help support her family. When the owner leaves to find his runaway bride, May finds herself abandoned, facing a prairie winter alone. This tale of survival, written in free verse, is the next step for Little House fans. May's memories of her troubles in school (she's dyslexic) in the midst of her current struggle to survive nearly sap her will, yet May's determination ultimately outweighs her doubts. Her indomitable strength in the face of intense danger is nothing less than riveting.

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Tatterhood and Other Tales edited by Ethel Johnston Phelps

A battered copy of this 1978 gem sits on my shelf, and I was thrilled to catch my nine year old consuming it not too long ago. The editor set out to find folktales in which the female leads rescue themselves (and sometimes others) rather than wait for Prince Charming to show up. Fortunately, Tatterhood is still in print. The short stories inside come from all over the world, and each features a brave, smart, and witty female lead. Fun to read aloud and a perfect step up from the Grimm Brothers.

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Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai

Ten-year-old Hà is used to being a smart, successful student in Vietnam. When war breaks out, she and her family escape Saigon by boat, land in two refugee camps, and finally settle in Alabama. Hà's entire cultural landscape shifts rapidly, as she struggles to learn the language, dress, and customs of America in the 1970s. Racism and bullying result in deep sorrow, yet Hà's resilience, sense of humor, and complexity of character overcome. A relationship with a teacher who lost her soldier son in Vietnam helps Hà turn the corner. Lai has created an immensely likable protagonist through whom American-born readers can learn empathy and respect. A profound debut.

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Her Stories: African-American Folktales, Fairy Tales, and True Tales by Virginia Hamilton and Leo and Diane Dillon

Some of the most dynamic and best-loved folklore comes from the African-American tradition. Multiple award-winner Hamilton presents tales that feature black women of courage, ingenuity, and strength. The collection includes not only folklore and legend, but also tales of three real-life African-American women. Each story is presented with historical notes that help place it in context. Leo and Diane Dillon's vibrant artwork augments the narrative. Every bit as enticing as European folklore, Hamilton's collection is one to be treasured again and again. The perfect blend of the ordinary and magical that is the hallmark of first-rate storytelling.

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Our Only May Amelia by Jennifer Holm

May Amelia Jackson is the only girl in a family of seven brothers growing up in Washington at the turn of the twentieth century. She fully resents being admonished to act like a "Proper Young Lady," preferring the freedom to adventure in the American frontier enjoyed by her brothers. Holm's novel, in which she deftly balances hilarity with the harsh realities of pioneer life, garnered a Newbery Honor.  Upon reading it, I quickly fell in love with May Amelia's spunk, enthusiasm, and determination. A fast-paced, fun, and deeply touching debut that is simply not to be missed.

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Ruby Lu, Brave and True by Lenore Look

You've worked your way through Junie B. and Ramona, and what comes next? For early elementary kids who enjoy spirited, funny protagonists, check out Ruby Lu. A plucky eight year old, Ruby is never far from her sidekick baby brother Oscar. Her amusing antics are balanced with a bit of on-mark introspection. While this engaging heroine's experiences are firmly universal, young readers will also benefit from an introduction to Chinese-American culture. Author Lenore Look follows up with two more tales starring Ruby, a welcome addition to early chapter book series characters.

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Catherine, Called Birdy by Karen Cushman

Karen Cushman is a writer of undoubted talent; the authenticity of voice she lends to her teen and tween characters is pitch perfect. I hesitate to write about this, my favorite of her novels, because it is so difficult to do it justice, but here goes: Birdy, the fourteen-year-old daughter of an inconsequential nobleman, keeps a diary recounting her life in England in 1290. In it she details the ways in which she drives off suitors, (including feigning insanity and lighting the privy one is using afire), makes up her own curse words, and recounts the number of flea bites from which she suffers. Never has medieval life been so nimbly portrayed through a voice so hilariously captivating. Laugh-out-loud witty Birdy is not simply amusing, however. She serves as an engaging set of eyes through which to view the limitations of life for women in the Middle Ages. Catherine, Called Birdy is at once intensely funny and thoroughly thought provoking. Highly recommended for ages elevenish and up.