We like to think that female heroines only became feminists around the same time Katniss slotted an arrow into her bow. Your memories of your favorite books in elementary and middle school may confirm this idea, especially if you grew up in the '80s or '90s, especially if you read books obviously written for girls. Didn't they mostly entail endless classroom mortification, intense conversations with animals, and descriptions of how to make butter?
If you reread those books, though, either on your own or with your children, you may begin to notice something: Underneath the tips and telepathy, there was always a deeper conversation about the challenge women face; how to gain and maintain independence; how to get paid for work; how to live in your body; how to create a life outside of what women are asked to be.
From these books, I learned about crabbing and crushes, periods and pig farming, best friend betrayals. But I also learned about how women live in the world. And through that, I learned how girls get out of being kept down.
By Louise Fitzhugh
Not enough attention is given to the sequel to Harriet the Spy, or, as I like to call it, The Other Book About a Girl Who Gets Her Period. The Long Secret stars the long-suffering Mouse, Harriet’s spindly friend, who has managed to precede Harriet in starting her menses. (In typical fashion, when Harriet finds out, she shouts at Mouse, “How come you’re doing that and I’m not?”) It’s summer in Water Mill, New York, where both the families summer, and the town is being rocked by a series of anonymous notes left by a nasty correspondent. But that delightful mystery is only half the story; the other is Mouse finally accessing her anger. If, in Harriet the Spy, Harriet has to learn how to lie, in this book, Mouse finally learns how to roar.
By Virginia Hamilton
The Other Book About an Imaginative Girl and a Pig? Look no further than Virginia Hamilton’s Zeely. Hamilton was the first Black author to win a Newbery Award, and Zeely is that rare work of magical realism, written before regular old magic took over children's literature. Elizabeth and her brother are off to spend the summer at their Uncle Ross’ farm. The first thing Elizabeth does is change both their names, and that is only the beginning of her flights of fancy. There, amid the tedium of farm chores, Elizabeth spies a tall, ghostly figure marching in the night. This turns out to be her neighbor, Zeely, a regal hog farmer she decides is actually an African Queen. Through the mystery of the “Nightwalker,” Elizabeth learns about the true history of labor in her community. Zeely’s turns out not to be the face Elizabeth found in a National Geographic magazine. But her neighbor is part of a line that stretches from Africa to this plot of land, and that strength is its own kind of royalty.
By Katherine Paterson
Lots of young adult books touch on jealousy, but few get into the purest, ugliest kind — the one that stifles ambitions, warps relationships, and can last decades. Louise feels eclipsed by her twin sister, Caroline, a blond sylph with a piercing soprano. It doesn’t help that the entire island community, which survives on crabbing, seems to agree Caroline is a remarkable talent. Louise keeps herself on an emotional own island, isolating in her glowering, square-peg way. She thinks the story of their birth, in which infant Caroline takes all the attention while she lies forgotten, will be the story of their entire lives. It’s only as the girls become women that Louise is finally able to emerge from her sister’s shadow and become a midwife — but only once she realizes who put her in that shadow in the first place. (Hint: It was only partly Caroline. And her grandmother. And the administrator who refused to let Louise into medical school.)
By Madeleine L’Engle
How many intergalactic adventures feature a pregnant lady just hanging out on her bed with a dog? Those who loved tweenager Meg Murry in her bespectacled youth might have a hard time recognizing their former ugly duckling. Yes, now Meg’s hot, and she's married to Calvin. But, honestly, she still has a chip on her shoulder, and her supernatural skills are kind of erratic. In this threequel to A Wrinkle in Time, Meg “kythes” (communicates telepathically) with Charles Wallace while he fights ye olde Echthroi on a haughty unicorn named Gaudior. Never really focusing on Charles, this adventure is set squarely in the lives of women, who go through everything from witch hunts to abusive marriages to molestation. It also has, for my money, the best reveal in all of L’Engle’s books, one that shows how such hardships can warp a life but not entirely defeat it. (And remember, this is the writer who revealed dolphins are psychic.)
By Brenda Wilkinson
The story of a budding writer growing up in Waycross, Georgia, Ludell is an indelible portrait of girlhood in a tight-knit Black community in the 1950s South — one that takes us, in vivid detail, from the indignities of segregation to the lust for bluejeans to how it pricks your fingers to pick cotton. Through Ludell, we see the warmth of the fierce, funny community that surrounds her. We see the injustice outside of it. But most of all, we see how Ludell grows and thrives within both. Like many children’s book heroines, she struggles under the weight of a poetic soul. At the same time, she’s also excited for a crush on a neighbor boy, chafing under the iron rule of her grandmother, annoyed and glued to her best friend. Like Jo March before her, she finds her freedom in her pen. And her penny loafers.
By Louise Erdrich
I would not usually consider a plague setting and a plot line about exposure conferring immunity as bonuses in a children’s book. But in the The Birchbox House, Omakayas, an Ojibwa girl, not only speaks to animals (note: magical realism really is better than magic), she holds the secret to survival. After Omakayas nurses her entire family through the pathogen introduced by the “chimookoman,” the white settlers continually pushing into their region, no one knows why she didn’t get sick. She learns the secret to her immunity from her crabby neighbor Old Tallow, who belongs to a long tradition of aunt figures in children's books who show what a woman alone in the world can look like. (In Old Tallow’s case, she hunts bears, keeps dogs, and rescues babies, which for my money is better than Aunt March taking Amy to Europe in Little Women.) The Birchbark House series serves as a play on and response to Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series, with its caterwauling Osages, murderous "savages," and dime-store Indian chiefs. Edrich’s Omakayas is another spunky little brown-haired girl who lives in a small community on the edge of nowhere, bound by her landscape and her people — but in Omakayas' story, it’s not the tribes who are the problem.
By Karen Cushman
Fleas, beatings, persecuted Jews, baited bears, failed kings, tormented saints… it’s all part of the delightful comic romp (yes, comic romp!) Catherine, Called Birdy. A medieval girl growing up under the thumb of a tyrannical father, Catherine is given to playing in the mud, spitting, revolting against suitors, embroidering poorly, and generally failing at all the tasks expected of a pubescent girl in the reign of King John. (Picture Harriet, with brutal headgear.) But alongside her obstinacy runs a deep well of empathy and curiosity. As she fights her betrothal to the dreaded Shaggy Beard, she learns about the complications of love and marriage; wealth and poverty; power and subjugation. She frees a bear. And she also, finally, frees herself (to the extent that you can in 1290).
This article was originally published on