This is my top 10 list of children’s books with strong female characters. My list includes books I remember well from my own childhood. Most of these would be considered well-known “classics”.
#1-The Little Maid Series
There were several books in this series situated around places in New England during the Revolutionary War. My favorite was “Little Maid of New Hampshire” because that’s where I grew up. But in addition, the young girl in the story helped the American soldiers during the Revolution by carrying word to them about British encampments. She and her brother even faced down a bear to get word through! What struck me most was her courage and determination to do what she could no matter what. The main author of this series was Alice T. Curtis. Originally published in 1954, some of the series was republished in the 1990’s. I think the historic setting lends these stories to popular re-reading today.
#2-The Nancy Drew Series
Widely known, Nancy Drew was a heroine for many young girls. Although she still had to wear skirts and hats and even gloves sometimes, she was allowed to go on adventures and used her intelligence to solve mysteries. I still own some of the blue hardcover books that showed Nancy as an independent young woman. She relied on her friends and advisors, and although she liked boys, she didn’t rely on them to help her. The older stories are somewhat dated and certainly tame, but a good read for a young girl’s early library. The ones I read were all by Carolyn Keene. I’m sure she was not paid nearly what today’s authors make, but she was admired as a great author by her fans.
#3-Little Red Riding Hood
While this is a folk tale and has a colorful history of its origins and variations, I first heard the story of Little Red Riding Hood at an early age. I was intrigued by her red hooded cape, thinking she was stylish. Also, how thoughtful of her to make the trip through the woods to her grandmother who had not been well. I took the story at face value and was not caught up in the imagery or deeper meaning. I was used to the Brothers Grimm versions of stories. Since the story ended well (the hunter killed the wolf and released the grandmother), I was happy with it. I felt Little Red Riding Hood was courageous for setting out on her own without a guardian.
Since I grew up in a nuclear family in the suburbs, this tale of the mountain girl who lived with her grandfather quite intrigued me. Again, here was a girl alone, not afraid, and happy with the different kind of family that she lived with. I loved imagining what those mountains looked like and the freedom Heidi felt running up and down them. Even though there was tragedy, Heidi managed to deal with it and still stay positive. A happy ending made it all okay for me. Johanna Spyri was the original author.
#5-Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm
Originally written in 1903 by Kate Douglas Wiggin, this story has been republished many times. For children’s literature it was quite inventive to give the spirited lead to a girl and not a boy. I think the author, Wiggin, must have been for women’s rights and wrote this story to show the battle of the spirited against convention. Rebecca is sent to relatives in the hopes that a different environment might “calm her down”. Luckily her aunts find a way to show their love as well as their guidance and Rebecca grows into a wonderful young woman.
#6-Alice in Wonderland
While there has always been much discussion about the political and social implications of the Lewis Carroll stories, I simply enjoyed the creative imagery and wild imagination of the author. I especially liked having this story read to me. I reread it to myself when I was older. Lewis Carroll wrote other stories of Alice but I liked the Wonderland the best. Again, although I found Alice to be quite gullible, she did whatever the item told her to (“drink me”, “eat me”). She did find ways to rely on her own resources and education to get through the crazy landscape and safely back home.
James M. Barrie was a creative and prolific writer, however, only his beloved “Peter Pan”, about the boy who wouldn’t grow up, rose to be recognized as a world-wide favorite. Barrie suffered a sad personal life and used his stories to escape. Although the primary character in “Peter Pan” is a boy, there are two strong female characters within the story. It was Tinker Bell, the spirited and stubborn fairy and Tiger Lilly, the brave daughter of the Indian Chief that caught my imagination. Tinker Bell became my alter-ego, my savior during tough times. It impressed me that someone so small could possess such a large personality.
I read the Little Golden Book version of this oft retold story. In my growing up years the old west was “king”. And the fact that Annie Oakley was a real-life horse-riding, gun-toting, cowgirl was too fascinating to overlook. I imagined myself riding along beside her, falling back, of course, when the shooting began. It was a great lesson for a young girl in a still male-dominated world. If you’ve got the skills, you can do anything.
Yes, this was in a comic book, better known today as a graphic novel, but Wonder Woman’s power and status was undeniable. Featured in DC Comics, she was created by William Marston. She is a princess as well as a warrior. Beautiful, strong, loyal with unique superpowers. Is this suitable in a list of children’s literature? I consider myself well-read and I did not hesitate to let my children read comic books, as long as I knew which ones, and not before the age of ten. So yes, I believe the graphic novel has a place in children’s literature.
Written by Ludwig Bemelmans, this charming, simple yet entertaining children’s book owed at least some of its success to the illustrations, which Bemelemans himself did. He was an artist as well as a writer. There were five sequels to the original Madeline, but I liked the original the best. I loved the way Madeline, the smallest of nearly identical little girls, managed to set herself apart from the rest in a gentle yet insistent way.