I am a firm believer that there is no such thing as “books for girls” or “books for boys.” Such categorizations limit our children and prevent them from hearing and reading books about a variety of experiences and characters. I assure you, both my boys have loved every picture book on this list picture books featuring spunky, spirited girl protagonists.
It’s true — occasionally I’ve used the gender of the protagonists to categorize my own lists (hey, it’s easy and convenient) but I am careful to assure parents such books are for both genders. How sad if girls only read about girls and boys only read about boys. One day my son saw a “Books 4 Boys” list in a catalog from a well-known publisher and proclaimed “Why are these books for boys? Won’t girls like them too?” I could not have been prouder!
These books are about girls who active, noisy and dangerous (in the best sense of the world). Some of the girls like to stir things up, some struggle with behavior boundaries or emotions, some test the boundaries of adults. All of the girls are charming. Both boys and girls benefit from seeing girls portrayed as strong, independent, feisty characters! (Note: book covers and titles are affiliate links.)
Oh No!: Or How My Science Project Destroyed the World by Mac Barnett. If your child is a budding scientist or loves inventing things, he or she will enjoy the mayhem that ensues when a science fair project turns out a bit too good. The illustrations depicting the epic battle for control evoke Japanese B movies and superhero comics. Funny, clever and engaging this is sci-fi at its best and it’s only the girl’s scientific genius which can save the day. Be sure to read what happens next in Oh No! Not Again!: (Or How I Built a Time Machine to save History) (Or at Least My History Grade).
Phoebe and Digger by Tricia Springstubb, illustrated by Jeff Newman. I had meant to put this on my list of 21 books featuring diverse characters, but forgot. I am glad to have a place for it on this list because it’s not just boys who love diggers and knocking things down. Phoebe struggles a bit with having a new baby sister and plays enthusiastically with her toy digger around the house until it’s time to go to the park. At the park a bully takes her digger and Phoebe’s mom gets the chance to demonstrate she loves her just as much as her new brother.
Journey by Aaron Becker. This trilogy of wordless books is amazingly gorgeous. Using a red crayon, a girl draws a red door on the wall of her room and enters into a parallel world where adventures with flying carpets, evil rulers, airships, and daring escapes await.
Beautiful Warrior: The Legend of the Nun’s Kung Fu by Emily Arnold Mccully. Jingyong’s father rejects the notion that his daughter must be raised to be a lady-in-waiting. Instead, he educates her and trains her in the martial arts. Later, she (now renamed Wu Mei) mentors another girl, the impoverished Mingyi, who wants to escape marriage to a bandit. This is a great book about discovering one’s inner strength.
Bella’s Rules. Bella makes up her own rules. She washes her hair with mud, she rejects bedtime, she sleds down the stairs and terrorizes her babysitter. Her parents are at their wits’ end and call upon her grandmother for help. Bella’s grandmother comes to visit with a special gift: a puppy. Puppy also likes to follow his own rules – but together he and Bella learn from each other. This is a really fun read and I love that Bella’s sitter is a teenage boy – not something you often see in a picture book.
The Snurtch by Sean Ferrell, illustrated by Charles Santoso. My youngest son loved this book. I think he found it easy to relate to the main character, a girl who continues to get in trouble but knows that the truth is that the Snurtch did it! The Snurtch is an imaginary and troublesome creature who plagues Ruthie while she is at school. Because of the Snurtch, Ruthie can’t sit still, do her homework, control her emotions or impulses (sound familiar?). After she draws a picture of her Snurtch, her friends become more understanding as they reveal they all have snurtches of their own. A fun book and good for building empathy.
Marisol McDonald Doesn’t Match / Marisol McDonald no combina by Monica Brown, illustrated by Sara Palacios. Red-headed half-Scottish half-Peruvian Marisol bounces off the page with great enthusiasm and loves her mismatched life. When her friend, Ollie, challenges her to “match”, Marisol finds she is unhappy with life as a conformist. This is a great story that emphasizes the importance of embracing and accepting one’s uniqueness. Bilingual.
Thunder Rose. My son was a little obsessed with the idea that Rose could speak sentences at birth. “Babies can’t talk!” Well, not only could little Rose speak just after she was born, but she could create balls of lightening and lift a cow and “drink it dry”. As she grows up, she invents barbed wire and lassos a storm to relieve a drought. Kadir Nelson’s fantastic illustrations are a treat.
Not All Princesses Dress in Pink. The rhyming text and colorful illustrations depict a variety of girls in engaged in all sorts of activities, from farming to ball-playing, from fighting evil sorcerers to skipping in the mud. The one thing they all have in common is that they don’t wear pink, but they do wear a sparkly crown. It’s a great message: that there is nothing incongruous about girls engaging in rough-and-tumble activities while still loving a bit of sparkle. I also appreciated the diverse ethnicities portrayed in the book.
Dangerously Ever After. This was favorite of my then 4 year old son who was a little obsessed with Amanita’s journey through the woods, and he still returns to the book, even 5 years later. Amanita loves gardening. The catch is that she only grows dangerous plants: poisonous, sticky, poke-y plants. There is a lot of humor in the book, too. When she gets a nose plant instead of a rose plant (they have thorns, don’t you know), Amanita discovers that she can love beauty and danger.
No Fits, Nilson! Nilson and Amelia are the best of friends and do everything together, but Amelia often has to remind Nilson to be on his best behavior. Amelia teaches Nilson techniques to remain calm in the face of frustration and distracts him with a froggy coin purse when standing in a long line. However when the lack of a promised banana ice cream threatens to send Amelia over the edge, it is Nilson who saves her from a total meltdown. Parents will easily recognize all the methods Amelia uses to regulate Nilson’s moods and saavvy readers will anticipate the twist at the end of the book when we discover Nilson’s true identity.
Grace for President. Grace may not be bouncing off the walls in true rowdy-style, but when she finds out there has never been a female president, here spirited self is determined to change that. While the boy she is up against makes popular promises and counts electoral votes, Grace works hard and steadily to earn her votes and show with her actions that she’s the right girl for the job. The explanation of how electoral votes are cast is skillfully woven into the narrative, making this a great choice for discussions around election time.
Harriet, You’ll Drive Me Wild! Harriet engages in your typical toddler behaviors. You know, the ones that are normal but gradually start to send you over the edge. Things like spilling food on the floor, breaking objects… Harriet’s mother tries very hard to keep her cool. She doesn’t yell or lose her temper. Eventually, however, she breaks and yells and yells and yells. Mem Fox expertly handles the normal push and pull that happens during the course of the day with a spirited (aka normal) child, and the resolution is utterly satisfying for both parties. Books like this that deal with the emotions of both child and parent are important to include in your arsenal of read alouds.
The Rain Stomper. I love the joyful spirit of this book, the illustrations are alive with movement. Jazmin is excited to twirl her baton in a parade, but the rain threatens to spoil everything. At first she takes out her anger by stomping in the puddles, but that energy quickly turns into something else as she spins and jumps, twirls and splashes. The rest of the neighborhood can’t help but be drawn in. This is an engaging book showing how the physical release of emotion can lead to positive action and release.
What To Do About Alice?: How Alice Roosevelt Broke the Rules, Charmed the World, and Drove Her Father Teddy Crazy!. Alice Roosevelt was well-known in her day for being an unconventional and free spirit, but it’s not a name many of our children are familiar with. I put this book on my list of picture books for Women’s History Month, but it’s a fun book to pull out anytime of year. Alice’s exploits like sliding down banisters and whizzing off to parties in the middle of the night may not seem so unusual today!
My Name Is Not Isabella: Just How Big Can a Little Girl Dream? There are three books about purple-haired Isabella, who spends her days imagining herself to be a different women from history. She hops from Sally Ride to Annie Oakley to Elizabeth Blackwell and more: all fiercely determined women who changed the world. In the second book she imagines trotting around the world, having adventures like observing the stars from a Mayan temple or building the Great Wall of China. In the third, she becomes characters in all her favorite fairy tales.
Clever Beatrice. Beatrice’s family is poor and the spirited Beatrice needs to earn money. Since she is too slight to cut down trees with the lumberjacks she takes her chances with the rich giant. The giant’s egotistical faith in his superior strength and Beatrice’s cleverness turn out to be his downfall. This is a adaptation of folktales from the upper peninsula of Michigan.
Carolinda Clatter! Carolinda’s family and neighbors live in fear of waking the legendary sleeping giant near their village and have lived for generations never speaking above a whisper. Spunky Carolinda, however, can not keep quiet. As she grows up she cries at the top of her lungs bangs pots, sings songs and generally makes as much noise as possible. True to the legend, the giant awakes and Carolinda sets off on a journey to get him back to sleep. In the end it is her voice and music that soothes him.
Marigold and the Dragon. Even though this book is long out of print I like to mention it as it was my favorite childhood book. Marigold was an intrepid princess, defiant of the boredom that often fills the day of a highborn lady’s life. Instead, she goes in search of adventure, attempts to rescue a dragon and makes a new best friend. If you are very, very lucky you will be able to find a copy at your library. I waited for years to find an affordable copy and finally plunked down $40 for a used version. It was worth every penny.
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