Searching for empowering books for little girls

One mom’s hunt for strong female characters for her daughter leads to some amazing finds.
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Lucine reenacts her favourite moments from Zita the Spacegirl. Photo: Nadine Silverthorne

Having an older brother who loves all things trucks and trains means my now-seven-year-old daughter, Lucine, has grown up reading a lot of books with prominent male characters. Now that Nate is nine and reading on his own, the trail of books he’s left behind include superheroes (Batman) and unlikely heroes (Captain Underpants), but very few incredible girls.

From toddlerhood, Lucine craved the disaster and ruin that featured heavily in her brother’s library. If there was a page in Thomas the Tank Engine that depicted a crash, she would turn back to it over and over. “Uh-oh!” she would squeal with delight. She wanted to be Batman, the car that won the race or the boy who used clever ideas to get his way.

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The change came when she started preschool, and suddenly our world was full of pink, princess-y books. Where were the strong girls who didn’t need princes or rescuing? Wouldn’t it benefit both my kids to be exposed to fierce female heroines who can take matters into their own hands and be responsible for their own destinies? Sure, Katniss from the Hunger Games series looks great with her bow and arrow, but the whole “battle to the death” thing isn’t so appropriate for wee kids.

So I did what any parent these days would do: I googled it. My search lead me to desperate parents who were changing pronouns in the classics. (Bilbo Baggins from The Hobbit became a she.) But then I found school-age gems like the Ivy + Bean series about a pair of second-graders who make unlikely friends and lots of trouble. But the bulk of my best finds are in graphic novels. Zita the Spacegirl sees our heroine trapped in space, using her kind heart and smart brain to save her best friend, Joseph, from some pretty freaky dudes. The Misadventures of Salem Hyde series is about a school-aged witch who needs help honing her powers and has a knack for trouble. Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword follows an Orthodox Jewish girl who likes to fight dragons. (We like our girls with a whole lot of chutzpah.)

I know the book hits the mark when Nate loves it as much as Lucine. Because epic heroines, the ones who face adversity with courage and humour, aren’t just good for girls and their self-image. Reading stories with cool, clever female leads who don’t need saving matters equally, if not more, to our sons. Learning that our battles, be they in the schoolyard or outer space, can be fought alongside each other, as equals… well, that’s the greatest story of all.

A version of this article appeared in our August 2014 issue with the headline “Girl power?” in The Ultimate Guide to Reading section, p. 59.

Nadine Silverthorne lives in Toronto with her husband, two hilarious kids and one self-entitled cat. She spends her work-week as Content and Products Director for Today’s Parent, dreaming up all the ways she can get our great content to as many parents as possible. You can follow her on Twitter @scarbiedoll.

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