Gutsy Girls: Female Role Models in Kids' Books

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March is Women's History Month and I am all about celebrating it with books! I truly believe children's books are a powerful tool for presenting role models to kids. With that in mind, check out these picture books that feature fictional girls who are shining examples of a bunch of outstanding personal qualities. These include girls who are true to self, demonstrate gutsiness, courage, and independence, and are kind to not just others, but also to themselves. And lest you think these books are just for girls, my experience has been that the elementary boys I've worked with have enjoyed them just as much. After all, who doesn't love a book with a hero whose personal qualities make you want to be the best you can be?

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. Grace's vivacity and her lovingly-rendered family make this very important book one that won't soon leave your heart.

Frances Dean Who Loved to Dance and Dance by Birgitta Sif

Frances Dean is a little girl who's inspired to dance and dance with the wind on her skin and birdsong in her ears. But, like many kids, Frances is a bit reluctant when it comes to letting anyone else see her in her favorite form of self-expression. The birds and another young girl who likes to sing (in private, of course), inspire Frances to step out of her comfort zone and risk dancing in front of others. The end spread shows what Frances' talent does for the world when it is shared, rather than hidden. A hit-home message about the importance of taking risks, both for ourselves, and in order to inspire others. Sif's digitally-colored pencil illustrations deftly portray Frances' movement and emotions, from joy to anxiety to triumph. 

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 fictional life worth remembering.

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 super important!

Sally Jean, the Bicycle Queen by Cari Best and Christine Davenier

Sally Jean loves nothing more than riding her bike, which she names "Flash." Flash is an integral part of Sally Jean's fun-loving, song-singing, happy life. Then one day Sally Jean finds she's grown too big to comfortably ride her bike, and her family can't afford a new one. Sally Jean comes up with several inventive ideas that lead her to create a bike of her own (named "Lightning"), one she puts together from recycled bike parts. Sally Jean's ingenuity and attitude make her a wonderful role model for kids. In the end she passes Flash on to a young boy, so a lesson in paying it forward also pops up in this wonderful picture book. 

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. 

Read about more gutsy girls in picture books, like those shown above, here!

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