In America we give girls a lot of credit for being strong and smart. In other parts of the world, they may as well not exist except to do the hard work in the family and, when they grow up, to give birth to more sons. The International Day of the Girl Child strives to bring attention to the plight of girls in so many developing countries or in that country’s diaspora in the wealthier nations.
I’m celebrating this day by sharing a few of my favorite books with strong girls as the main characters. Why these and not, say, Anne of Green Gables? I love Anne, but I chose these! That’s all. Same with the March sisters of Little Women and the other Meg–of Wrinkle in Time–I love them, but I chose these. Same for a lot of other “classics.”
I found Mary Call when I was just becoming a reader. Her family lives a subsistence life in the Smokey Mountains collecting medicinal plants to sell. When her father (a single parent) dies, Mary Call keeps the family together doing the same work and avoiding the government and strangers who’d want to separate them. This book opened my eyes to a different way of life, as well as to the other uses of plants beyond beauty and food.
Where the Lillies Bloom by Vera and Bill Cleaver
Calpurnia Tate is a girl I’d love to have met when I was in about the 4th or 5th grade. She’s part of loving family who allow her to enjoy her love of the natural world instead of forcing her to sit quietly and do needlework. Surrounded by a whole bunch of brothers, Callie Vee, doctors stray animals, invetigates the mysteries of plants and animals and does her best to avoid growing up to be a young lady of the type the Texans of 1899 expect her to be. There is also a spin-off series of this charcter that is written at a much easier level.
One reason I did not use Wrinkle in Time in this list is that I wanted to include the newer, fabulous book, When You Reach Me. Miranda stays strong when she starts receiving odd messages, messages about her–all things no one should know about. Miranda has lost her best bud Sal, too. But, she’s reading Wrinkle in Time while going through all of this! Oh, and her mom got to be on the old $20,000 Pyramid game show. Miranda keeps going–stays strong through all of this.
When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead
The Newest Books
These two are the newest books on my list because I just cannot stop talking about them and recommending them! Xiomara Batista and Emoni Santiago are the girls of today. They are frustrated by many things, dealing with odds stacked against them, taking on adult responsibilites while still in school, but they stay strong. The lead! I love these two. You can read my full review of The Poet X here and With the Fire On High here.
The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo
With the Fire on High by Elizabeth Acevedo
Two Classics That Are No Longer Well Known
Hoosier Gene Stratton Porter was once as well known as Stephen King or Janet Evanovich. Some, but not all of her books, unfortunately, reflect the prejudices of their day and so have fallen out of favor. This book, if I remember correctly (I read it as an adult, only a few years ago) does not contain any slurs or inappropriate descriptions or dialogue. (Forgive me if I am not remembering correctly).
Elnora wants to go to school. She spends much of her life, like the author, in the Limberlost swamplands of Northern Indiana studying the natural world. She has a chance to attend a high school (then not a given at all, especially for girls in a rural area). Like Mary Call in the first book on this list, Elnora finds the money for her education thru the natural world–helping another strong woman known as the Bird Woman. This is an amazing book. It helps to read the author’s earlier book, Freckles, but it could be read as a stand-alone and still enjoyed.
Girl of the Limberlost by Gene Stratton Porter
My final book is one that every parent today should read. Understood Betsy shows just how much a young child can do. No, not score soccer goals (though that, too, is a fine accomplishment) but to take on real tasks. In 1910 at age 6, my grandmother had to knit her own long stockings–and those for her little sister! And, this work had to be done before she left for school! She could also bake biscuits without a recipe or help and could make change at her father’s store.
Understood Besty shows this type of accomplishment and the very real self-confidence Betsy develops from doing them. Now, no one is advocating that a child go to work today or that they have to earn their way home–that’s not the point. The point is showing how strong Besty became from being trusted to do real tasks–not just sports like today. (I read this book more than 10 years ago–I do not recall anything unacceptable to today’s readers, but it has been quite a while. Please forgive me if I am wrong).
Understood Betsy by Dorothy Canfield Fisher
There are many, many more books that show girls being strong, doing things they should not be able to do, that I could go on and on.